Conversion therapy: resisting change

Almost a year after former Premier Mark McGowan pledged to end gay conversion therapy in Western Australia, we are yet to see a complete ban put in place.

Despite plans revealed in December 2022 to introduce bans on conversion therapy in healthcare settings, young Western Australians remain unprotected from these so-called treatments, described by experts as inefficient and abusive.

The new bans were introduced after a parliamentary inquiry revealed that a rehabilitation centre east of Perth in Kalamunda, called the Esther Foundation, had forced many young women in their care to undergo conversion therapy, which included practices such as anti-gay ‘exorcisms.’

This resulted in the amendment of the Health and Disability Services Complaint Bill, which allowed patients to lodge formal complaints about the conduct of unregistered health workers to health and disability services regarding ‘conversion’ practices.

While the amendment made it criminal to forcibly apply conversion therapy in some circumstances, the amendment was heavily criticised by LGBTQIA+ rights activists for failing to ban conversion therapy in religious and education settings, leaving many young West Australians vulnerable.

Director of Research and Innovation at the Macquarie University School of Education Professor Tiffany Jones said that the majority of LGBTQIA+ Australians aged 14-25 had been told to change or suppress their identity by someone at school, often teachers at religious schools.

LGBTQIA+ activist and community member Kole Hart said, “as long as conversion therapy remains legal in any form and any place, LGBT children are at risk of serious psychological harm and lifelong trauma.”

Rainbow pride pins. Photo: Shannon Brown

This is not the first time LGBTQIA+ West Australians and their allies have been promised a ban for so-called conversion therapy. Prior to his election as state premier in 2021, Mr McGowan pledged to completely ban the practices, however little action was taken.

With new WA Premier Roger Cook having taken over from Mr McGowan as of June this year, those concerned with LGBTQIA+ rights have raised questions over whether Mr Cook will take actions to ban conversion therapy.

WA Labor member for the Mining and Pastoral Region, Peter Foster, said the Cook government considers conversion therapy an important issue, and it will be banned as soon as possible.

Mr Foster said “As an LGBT+ member of parliament myself, I understand the importance of this legislation to our community… We need to stamp this practice [conversion therapy] out.”

Director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, Anna Brown, said in La Trobe University’s Report on LGBT conversion therapy harms, “The conversion movement’s activities are proven to be ineffective and harmful. Telling someone they are broken or sick because of who they are is profoundly psychologically damaging. We need to look to a world where lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and trans people of faith can be embraced as whole and human by the faith communities they love.”

Ms Brown urged Australian governments to put stronger laws in place to protect LGBTQIA+ individuals from so-called conversion therapy, increase support for survivors, and provide more education about why conversion therapy practices are so harmful.