Conversion therapy: Groundswell grows to finish the job started in the seventies

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Persecution of LGBTIQ+ people under the cover of medical treatment is a practice with a long and ugly history dating back to the late 19th century. A range of practices, collectively referred to as conversion therapy, were common in the 20th century. From lobotomies to abusive aversion practices, the goal was the enforcement of compulsory heterosexuality and a strict gender binary. Treating same-sex attraction as an illness requiring a cure, conversion therapy conveniently ignored anthropological evidence that in pre-private property society no such rigidity existed! 

The times are a-changing. Challenging a medicalised view of homosexuality and bisexuality was near the top of the to-do list when the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) burst on to the scene in the late ‘60s. The movement flipped the psychiatric view on its head. Rather than queers needing curing, the sicknesses ailing society were homophobia and transphobia. 

The movement was on a mission. The GLF Counter Psychiatric Group was formed in London in 1971 by two lesbians who led demonstrations at posh Harley Street clinics. In Australia, the GLF in Melbourne also formed a Counter Psychiatry Group. In Sydney, Sue Wills, who was also part of women’s liberation, helped form Campaign Against Moral Persecution and led the charge to challenge psychiatric views about homosexuality. It’s unsurprising that women played such a prominent role in the early resistance against abuse in the name of medicine. Psychiatry and other medical practices have a shameful record as a form of social control. Women who quite reasonably challenged patriarchal norms risked being branded mad

Activists grabbed every opportunity to educate, from debating the issue on TV to writing in-depth critiques of medicalisation. There were many protests. Having developed a new mindset based on pride, the movement was not taking “No” for an answer. An Australian Gay Liberation leaflet from 1973 declared, “We’re sick of being reasonable any more when the oppressive horrors of aversion therapy, psychosurgery and neo-Freudian bullshit psychotherapy continue to fuck us over.” 

Feeling the heat from a host of social movements, the medical and psychiatric professions began changing. By 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed the classification of homosexuality as a mental illness. In 1990, the World Health Organisation finally took the same step!

Legislation worth backing. While conversion therapy is no longer respectable, it did not disappear. Religion-based counselling aimed at repairing “sexual brokenness” or achieving heterosexuality or gender conformity through prayer is the most common form today. Increasingly, people who have been traumatised by the self-hate and internalised homophobia promoted by these practices are speaking out. Studies show that shame and confusion about sexuality and gender identity caused by conversion therapy can increase suicide risks and produce high levels of depression. 

There’s a new global groundswell to demand an end to conversion therapy. The practice has already been outlawed in a number of countries, including Brazil, Germany, Malta and parts of Canada, Spain and the U.S. In Australia, it’s been outlawed in the ACT and Queensland, although the Queensland legislation is limited to healthcare settings but not activities in religious settings. The Victorian government is on the cusp of passing a strong bill: The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020. It’s brought predictable howls about “religious freedom.” The “right” to engage in what the Premier calls the “worst form of bigoted quackery imaginable” is not freedom — it’s torture. Pass this bill! 

There’s much for which to thank pioneers like Sue Wills. Needed now is a radical treatment to permanently cure the ills of homophobia and transphobia! 

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