Here are responses to some common myths about conversion practices

Myth 1: Conversion practices work

What the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute said:

“Studies of SOGI conversion practices concluded that there was no evidence that these practices fulfilled their aims. These studies found little evidence that SOGI conversion practices can change a person’s SOGI status, with most subjects reporting they were ineffective and/or harmful. Consequently, there is no base of clinical evidence that would support SOGI conversion practices being recognised as legitimate medical practices or treatments.” 

The world’s largest conversion practice organisation, Exodus International, folded in 2013 when its leaders and founders denounced conversion practices as ineffective and harmful. Psychiatrist like Dr Robert Spitzer, who once offered a flawed study to boost conversion practices, has since denounced the study and has apologised for endorsing the practice.

Tasmanian conversion survivors testify to the futility of conversion practices. They say these practices have not had the intended effect, either for them or for others, including those people conducting conversion practices who were themselves struggling with same-sex attraction or transgender identity.

Special focus: “Free to Change”

In June Tasmanian MPs received a copy of the “Free to Change” survey from the Coalition Against Unsafe Sexual Education. The research purports to show that conversion practices work. In fact it shows exactly the opposite. 

The study is of 78 “ex-LGBT people”. These were recruited using advertisements specifically seeking people who believe they had changed. The ads said “Are you a former LGBT person?, We need your help” (screen shot attached). This suggests that only those who support conversion practices would have participated. Those LGBTIQA+ people who undertook conversion practices and believe it was futile and harmful were deliberately excluded from the study by the way it was promoted.

Recruitment was across Australia, the US, Canada, France, Israel, Malta, the rest of Europe, Brazil and the whole of Asia. Despite this pool of tens of millions of LGBT people only 78 responded. This is a dismall and highly unrepresentative sample size. On top of this only 50% of the 68 LGB participants said they had become heterosexual and only 40% of the 10 transgender participants said they no longer had gender dysphoria. 

What this study tells us is that barely anyone considers themselves “ex LGBT”, even those who fervently want to be, despite decades of conversion practices in those countries from which participants were drawn.

To explain the flawed methodology of this study consider a concert where 999 of the 1000 audience members walk out in disgust at the poor quality performance. At the end, the one remaining audience member tells a reported she enjoyed it immensely, and the show is headlined as a great success.  

Myth 2: Conversion practices are motivated by care for LGBTIQA+ people and do not cause harm

What the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute said:

“Studies suggest that SOGI conversion practices cause harm to those subject to them. Harms include higher rates of low self-esteem, depression, alienation, loneliness, social isolation, internalised homophobia, sexual dysfunction, relationship problems, drug abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts. Recent studies suggest the long-term effects of SOGI conversion practices can be serious. While there is limited research on the effects of SOGI conversion practices on children, one recent study showed an association between exposure to SOGI conversion practices and negative health outcomes in young adults.” 

Recent Tasmanian Government research commissioned by the Tasmanian Government and conducted by the University of Tasmania found 1 in 20 LGBTIQA+ Tasmanians have been through formal conversion practices. 

National research by La Trobe University found the same prevalence of conversion practices, both nationally and in Tasmania. It also found young LGBTIQA+ people who have been through conversion practices are three to four times more likely to have PTSD and attempt suicide than other young LGBTIQA+ people.

Every official and peak Australian health and medical body that made submissions to the Tasmania Law Reform Institute’s inquiry agreed that conversion practices have no place in modern society and should be prohibited.

Myth 3: Conversion practices no longer occur

What the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute said:

“Conversion practices continue, albeit on the fringes of the health profession as a form of medical malpractice, or now, more commonly, as a form of pseudoscientific or pseudo medical practice outside the clinical space.”

When people assert conversion practices no longer occur they are often referring to aversion practices including electro-shock therapy and drug therapy. These practices were based on flawed behaviour modification theory and were inflicted in the 1950s, 60 and 70s. 

Conversion practices have the same general aim, but are more likely to involve a combination of workshops, camps, study, prayer and exorcism.

Tasmanian church leaders, including Reverend Wes Bredenhof

of the Free Reformed Church in Launceston, have publicly admitted they engage in conversion practices. 

Rev Bredenhof called himself “a therapist”, which he is not. This is precisely the problem the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute identified and seeks to solve.

The Tasmanian Law Reform Institute report says there is no reliable data about the prevalence of conversion practices in Tasmania and the harms it inflicts

The Tasmanian Law Reform Institute’s statement was taken out of context. Health statisticians working with the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute agreed that national and international studies were generalisable to Tasmania and indicated the practices are occurring in this state.

The inquiry received and accepted evidence from both Tasmanian survivors of conversion practices and bodies who stated or implied they continue to conduct conversion practices. The Institute therefore clearly states that conversion practices are occurring in Tasmania.

Since the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute produced its report, data from La Trobe University and the Tasmanian Government provided further proof of conversion practices occurring in the state (see “Conversion practices are motivated by care” above).

Myth 4: There is evidence that conversion practices do not cause harm

Opponents of conversion practices legislation cite “researchers” such as Catholic priest, Paul Sullins. Sullins recently published an article claiming there is no evidence conversion survivors experience higher levels of mental health distress than other LGBTIQA+ people.

Sullins has previously published articles claiming children raised by same-sex couples are less well-adjusted than other children. The widely-acknowledged flaw with this research is that it compares children raised from birth by married heterosexual couples with children whose parents are unmarried or who grow up in disrupted or “broken” homes. 

The same flaw exists in Sullins’ conversion “research”. He relies on responses to a single, ambiguous question: “Did you ever receive treatment from someone who tried to change your sexual orientation?” “Treatment” could mean any inter-personal interaction, not the targeted ongoing efforts conversion practices legislation is aimed at. Respondents who replied “yes” were taken to have been involved in a course of “therapy” when they might simply have had a single interaction with a relative who told them to stop being gay. 

There is clear evidence in the Sullins’ study that the question was unclear and confusing. Half the responds who sad “yes” to the above question said “no” to the statement “I have tried to stop being attracted to people who are the same sex as me”.

The Tasmanian Law Reform Institute report says sexuality and gender identity can change

This is taken out of context. The Tasmanian Law Reform Institute said these attributes are intrinsic to the individual and cannot be changed by others and from the outside.

The Tasmanian Law Reform Institute did not properly consult and there should be another inquiry.

The Tasmanian Law Reform Institute contacted 120 organisations, bodies and leaders including all peak Tasmanian health, mental health, education, faith, social services, government, law enforcement, NGO, and community groups operating in Tasmania.

It received 256 public submissions. 

After a very high level of public interest in the inquiry and a number of requests for extensions community consultation was extended to three months.

Myth 5: Conversion practices are not clearly defined

What the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute said:

“Conversion practices involve a course of conduct that aims to change, suppress or eradicate the sexual orientation or gender identity (which, under Tasmanian law, includes ‘gender expression’) of another person.

“It is important to limit the scope of conversion so as only to target acts which genuinely aim to bring about change in another person’s state of sexual orientation or gender identity. The intent to exclude, stigmatise or otherwise treat such a person in a prejudicial way may be highly damaging, and described as discrimination, but that is not, alone and of itself, evidence of ‘conversion’.”

Conversion practices have a very clear definition that has been instituted in a number of places around the world including Victoria, Queensland, the ACT and New Zealand. 

The definition involves convincing an individual that their same-sex attraction or transgender identity is a “dysfunction” and providing them with a “treatment”. 

Myth 6: Adults can consent to conversion practices 

Adults who undertake conversion practices clearly consent and that is their right.

What the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute said:

“Peak medical bodies and statutory medical officers stated that consent to conversion practices was not possible. The Chief Civil Psychiatrist stated that conversion practices could not be consented to by any person, regardless of decision-making capacity, because they are ‘unethical, not based on medical evidence, and can cause significant long-term harm’.”

It is not possible to give informed consent to conversion practices because they are based on false, misleading and fraudulent claims.

You can’t consent to a course of mental health “treatment” if you’re diagnosed by someone who isn’t qualified to do that.

You also cannot consent to treatment for a condition that does not exist. 

It is already the case that people cannot consent to unsanctioned and dangerous treatments that would amount to medical malpractice if conducted in a clinical context.

This is not about consent or coercion. There is more than enough evidence to show that conversion practices always cause harm. This is about public health, patient safety and personal wellbeing.

Participants in religious based conversion practices internalise conversion ideology over many years, slowly eroding their identity and reinforcing the idea that there is something wrong with them. 

Inducements and referrals to practices often come from those who are close to, loved by and in authority over the person concerned.

Conversion practices often occur after a period of ideological grooming and they are often inflicted by those in positions of power and authority and are an abuse of that power.

Myth 7: Health practitioners are divided on conversion practice legislation

What the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute said:

“All peak health bodies and public health officers who responded to this Inquiry called for the regulation and prohibition of conversion practices, including the Australian Medical Association Tasmania, Australian Professional Association for Trans Health, Australian Psychological Society, Tasmania’s Chief Civil Psychiatrist, the Tasmanian Gender Service, the Mental Health Council of Tasmania, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, and Women’s Health Tasmania.”

Every health peak body and public health officers that submitted to the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute inquiry support a prohibition on conversion practices. 

The Tasmanian Law Reform Institute’s model has subsequently been endorsed by forty Tasmanian doctors in an open letter sent to all MPs, and by the Tasmanian branch of the Australian Medical Association, as the best-fit approach to Tasmania’s health and legal system. 

This legislation is good for health professions because it means fewer people will be devaluing professional standards with harmful quackery.

Myth 8: Health professionals will be forced to affirm young patients who identify as transgender 

What the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute said:

“Professionals who do not intend to apply those standards should register a conscientious objection to them and refer a patient to a professional who will.”

The medical professions do not regard transgender identity or same-sex attraction, in and of themselves, as dysfunctions or mental health issues.

Affirmative care for trans and gender diverse people is written into the existing ethical and clinical standards of health professionals. Such affirming care will not be affected by a conversion practices law.

In a clinical setting a conversion practice occurs if a health professional makes false and misleading claims that sexual orientation or gender identity are faults or pathologies that can be, and need to be, fixed or healed. This would also violate existing clinical standards.

A conversion practices does not occur if a doctor discusses the pros and cons of a particular treatment like, say, puberty blockers. That would also be within clinical standards. 

In circumstances where health professionals are unable to follow professional guidelines the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute has recommended a conscientious objection process that would see transgender patients referred to professionals who are able to provide ethical treatment. This is not a conscientious objection to affirmative care of LGBTQIA+ people generally but only to assessment and treatment of mental health conditions in which gender identity is an existing diagnostic criteria.  

Mental healthcare is a sensitive and highly specialised area. Decisions should be made by trained professionals applying contemporary, evidence-based standards in their patient’s best interests, not people who are unqualified or motivated by a blanket opposition to transgender identity. These are basic human and patient rights.

Special focus: The Catholic Standard 

On 12 June 2022, the Catholic Standard published an article claiming the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute “seeks to ban treatment of gender dysphoria”.

The Tasmanian Law Reform Institute issues a statement making it clear that this is not true. The Tasmanian Law Reform Institute Report did not recommend a ban on the treatment of gender dysphoria. Its response stated:

“People experiencing any mental health symptoms have the right to be provided safe treatment conducted by a person with suitable qualifications, applying contemporary standards of care and acting in the patient’s best interest.”

“The Report highlights the risk of ‘unqualified, untrained and unlicensed people making pseudoscientific representations and undertaking pseudo-medical conduct on highly vulnerable people in a particularly sensitive area of health practice.”

“Consequently, the Institute recommends that treatment (and assessment) of gender dysphoria is only carried out by qualified health professionals, according to contemporary clinical health care standards.”

That article also claimed that the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute proposed “medical professionals and psychologists would be forced to affirm gender dysphoria as normal and healthy, increasing the likelihood that a patient would pursue irreversible procedures to “transition” to the opposite sex’.”

This statement was also incorrect. The Tasmanian Law Reform Institute responded by saying it “does not specify the clinical guidelines or standards that health professionals should apply, nor recommend forcing health professionals to apply them.”

“The Institute recommends that a statutory public health officer (the Chief Civil Psychiatrist) specify the appropriate contemporary standards of care for treating any mental health condition relating to gender identity at any one time.”

“The current Australian standard of care for trans and gender diverse people is ‘gender affirming’. The Institute agrees with but did not set this standard. The standard is set by peak specialist health bodies and has been confirmed by the Federal Court of Australia.”

“Under the Institute’s recommendations, health professionals who disagree with the prescribed standard of care set by the Chief Civil Psychiatrist would be able to conscientiously object and would not be ‘forced’ to apply the regulated standard of care.”

“The Institute does not make recommendations about gender transitioning, which is a matter of bodily autonomy and the decision a competent person should be permitted to drive with appropriate support, counselling and ethical care.”

Myth 9: There will be a chilling effect because doctors will have to interpret the law themselves, especially in regard to trans and gender diverse patients, and will refuse to treat any trans patients

What the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute said:

“Assessing and treating gender-related disorders should be regulated by clinical guidelines set by the Chief Civil Psychiatrist under the Mental Health Act in consultation with appropriate professional bodies. Accredited and authorised specialist health professionals who apply standards declared by the Chief Civil Psychiatrist in good faith should be exempt from liability other than under existing professional standards regulations. This form of adaptive health service model will ensure the law is reflexive and responsive to advances in scientific understanding and clinical best practice.”

The “chilling effect” has been a criticism of the Victorian conversion law, albeit an unfair one, but this criticism does not apply in Tasmania. 

In Tasmania, clinical guidelines for the mental health assessment and treatment of transgender patients will be set by the Chief Psychiatrist in consultation with professional medical bodies. This process, which can adapt to changing treatment regimes, will ensure guidelines under any conversion practice law will be clear and that health professionals have easy to access guidance on what the standard is.  

This means it will be experts in the health profession itself who set the standards of mental health care, not the government, religious bodies, interest groups or other people lacking specialist qualifications in this area of heath science and clinical practice. 

The Tasmanian Law Reform Institute has proposed that any concerns about the implementation of these guidelines can be made to the Chief Psychiatrist directly.

Children who say they are transgender will be forced into life-changing surgeries with no option to “wait and see”

In Australia no child is ever forced in to affirming gender surgeries. 

Under rare circumstances, with the consent of both parents and in consultation with multiple healthcare providers, some young people age 16 and over will have top surgery. 

This is done in circumstances where the young person’s gender dysphoria is so significant that top surgery is required for their overall health. 

Currently, the recommendation is to wait until adulthood before considering any other surgery.

Young people can receive puberty blockers, but under the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute model doctors will be free to discuss the medical pros and cons of such treatments.

Evidence clearly shows that young people who identify as trans or gender diverse fare better psychologically and socially if they receiving affirming care.

This is why all existing clinical, professional ethical guidelines uphold this model of care.

This is not a debate about trans people or gender dysphoria. It’s about ensuring LGBTQIA+ people are protected from unethical treatment in healthcare and from ‘treatment” by those falsely representing themselves as authorised and legitimate healthcare providers.

Special focus: the Tavistock clinic and detransitioning

The London Tavistock clinic was not closed because it took an affirming approach to gender identity, but because its particular affirming approach was seen as one-size-fits all and insufficiently adapted to individual cases. 

This, in turn, was because of an unsustainable work load. This is why the UK National Health Service is planning to open more gender clinics across the UK.

Hilary Cass, former president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, who conducted the Taverstock review, was very clear that gender reassignment services for children and young people should not be reduced or stopped. Indeed, she said, “the reverse is true … more services are needed for you, closer to where you live”.

Only 1% of people who undertake gender transition then seek detransition. While we should find ways to reduce distransitioning, the fact it happens shouldn’t be used as a weapon against gender affirming treatment. The overwhelming majority of transgender people who transition have markedly better mental health as a result of the affirming care they have received. 

Again, this is not a debate about trans people or affirming care. It’s about ensuring LGBTQIA+ people are protected from unethical healthcare treatment that pathologises who they are and says there is treatment for that pathology.

Myth 10: Conversion legislation will infringe religious freedom and silence religious leaders who speak out about Biblical truth

What the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute said:

“These reforms…do not prevent individuals, community leaders, educators or organisations, whether religious or secular, from forming or promoting their views on homosexuality, gender identity, transgender people or any other matter related to sexual morality and society. They may express those views directly to people who they perceive to be sinful, impure or immoral, and urge them to change their lives to whatever standards their religious or social values require. That conduct remains within the bounds of freedom of expression and association.

“Freedom of expression (including freedom of religious expression) does not authorise dangerous medical or pseudo-medical conduct, whether in the guise of counselling, pastoral care, scriptural study or anything else. To the extent that any person seeks to convince another that they can and should change or suppress their personal attributes, the conduct stops being religious expression and becomes harmful conduct. That is because it amounts to a false claim about the ability of a person to change their mental and/or physical state. That is the province of evidence-based medicine, not religion, politics or philosophy, regardless of which person is saying it or the platform they use to promote those beliefs.” 

Priests, pastors, rabbis and imams will still be able to preach what they believe the Bible says about sexuality and gender.

What they will not be able to do is make false and misleading claims towards particular individuals that same-sex attraction or transgender identity are mental illnesses and pretend to be counsellors or therapists who can and should “heal” these “illnesses”. 

Nor will they be able to actively pressure or induce LGBTIQA+ people to undergo “therapy” to change, suppress or eradicate their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Conversion legislation will address the problem of religious leaders, who are not appropriately trained to work as therapists, adopting a faux-therapeutic role through, for example, using language about ‘sickness’, ‘disorder’ and “healing” in regard to LGBTIQA+ people.

Conversion legislation addresses the problem of priests and pastors pretending to be medical professionals by taking off their religious robes and putting on medical robes.

Legislation will also protect the integrity of pastoral care and help ensure the majority of people of faith are not tarred with the brush of conversion practices. 

Myth 11: Conversion practices legislation will be a direct attack on conservative Christian sexual ethics and will treat these ethics as “hate speech”

What the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute said:

“It is the position of the Institute that whilst it is entirely appropriate for a law to be designed around and justified in response to conduct which is driven by certain beliefs, it is not appropriate for the law to target that belief system itself. In practice that means that references to belief or ideology should, wherever necessary, be avoided in law.

“The United Nations Independent Expert on Protection Against Violence and Discrimination reported that conversion practices are ‘by their very nature degrading, inhuman and cruel and create a significant risk of torture’.”

Conversion beliefs are not based on theological claims. They are based on false, misleading and fraudulent pseudo-psychological claims that same-sex attraction and transgender identity in particular individuals are inherently dysfunctional and treatable, claims which have been disproven by mainstream, evidence-based science. 

Advocacy in regard to traditional religious sexual ethics, including for chastity or against same-sex relationships, will not be affected.

There are many Christians and other people of faith who do not believe being same-sex attracted or transgender is a violation of sexual ethics. 

The Tasmanian Law Reform Institute recommended Tasmania’s provision against incitement to hatred by amended to explicitly prohibit “indirect conversion practices”, that is, promotion of conversion practices. 

This was because a conversion belief system can be seen as promoting serious contempt or hatred for LGBTIQA+ people. 

It was also because this is the most appropriate existing provision to cover hateful or contemptuous public acts, not least because it has balancing provisions to protect freedom of speech. 

This provision will not prohibit public speech about Christian sexual ethics.

Special focus: Christian sexual ethics

Tasmanian MPs have received a detailed letter from a Mr Sean Devenish of Acton Park expressing concern about the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute report and conversion practices legislation. Many of the issues raised by Mr Devenish are dealt with in this notes, but there is one in particular we want to focus on. He asserts that the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute specifically targets traditional conservative Christian teaching and beliefs: 

“The definition of conversion practices refers to conduct based on certain beliefs. The beliefs targeted, while ‘obscured’ by medical language, directly describe the Christian sexual ethos (refer Appendix B).”

The mistake Mr Devenish makes is this:

The Tasmanian Law Reform Institute is not using medical language to obscure an attack on Christian sexual ethics. It is showing how medical language is used by a tiny minority of faith leaders and health practitioners to justify practices that do not work, cause great harm and have been repudiated by medical experts. It is exposing medical quackery and proposing a remedy for that quackery. 

As illustrated above, the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute goes to great lengths to show that the advocacy of traditional conservative Christian sexual ethics is not the issue. 

Myth 12: Parents will break the law simply by talking to their child about their traditional views on sexuality and gender

What the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute said:

“Parents and guardians have the right to express views on sexuality or gender identity issues to their children and family and to guide their moral and spiritual development. The Institute reiterates that expressing views about sexuality and gender identity, or disapproving of certain sexualities or gender identities, is not, of itself, a conversion practices.

“The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child emphasised: Cultural identity cannot excuse or justify the perpetuation by decision-makers and authorities of traditions and cultural values that deny the child or children the rights guaranteed by the Convention.”

Under conversion legislation, parents will still be able to talk to their children, pass on their values, and discipline them. What they should not be able to do is inflict mental trauma on their child by persistently trying to convince that child they have a treatable fault or dysfunction because of how they feel about themselves or others. 

The Tasmanian Law Reform Institute acknowledges “the essential role of parents and guardians as carers and mentors of children” and emphasises that “the state must respect the right of parents”. 

But the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute explained the law already requires that a parent’s personal beliefs do not override their duty to the best interests of the child. Parents cannot use their beliefs to justify dangerous and unethical behaviour towards children. That includes conversion practices, which cause mental trauma and long-term harm. This position is based in Australian law and is supported by Tasmanian Child and the Tasmanian Children’s Commissioner.

In short, a parent’s rights do not trump the best interests of their child. Neither do religious or cultural beliefs.

Myth 13: Pastors, parents and health practitioners will lose their rights

The Tasmanian Law Reform Institute recommendations do not undermine prayer, pastoral care, parental care or patient care. They seek to address conversion practices masquerading as those things.

Legislation is about stopping people in authority, whoever they are, trying to convince people in their care that they have a mental illness or a disorder simply because they are gay or transgender and then funneling them into treatment. That is quackery and abuse that causes immense harm. 

Pastors who deal with spirituality rather than conversion pseudo-science, parents who have the best interests of their children in mind and health practitioners who work within existing professional guidelines have nothing to worry about.

Myth 14: This is a social experiment Tasmania is rushing into 

When Australians voted for marriage equality in 2017 we voted for a society in which there would be no more mistreatment of LGBTIQA+ people because of who we are. That includes no more misguided attempts to label us as “broken” and “treatable”.

We also voted against a fear campaign based on loss of religious freedom, freedom of speech and parental rights. Predictions of such loss have not come true.

When Australia voted Yes we rejected fear campaigns about the sky falling in. People who rejected the fearmongering then should reject it again.

The sky hasn’t fallen in in the ACT, Victoria or New Zealand, and it won’t fall in here.

Tasmania cannot afford to drag its feet. If it is the last state to act it could become a haven for conversion practices with vulnerable LGBTIQA+ people being sent here for conversion practices that are illegal elsewhere.

Myth 15: There should be special protections for the rights of pastors, parents and health practitioners

As noted above, the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute recommended a conscientious objection for health professionals in regard to assessment and treatment of mental health conditions in which gender identity is an existing diagnostic criteria.  

The Tasmanian Law Reform Institute also assuages concerns about freedom of expression, religious freedom and parental rights. 

However, it makes the point that no special exemptions to protect these rights and freedoms are necessary:

“Beyond the conscientious objection provisions above, the Institute does not consider that exceptions for freedom of expression, religious expression, or parental or guardian rights are necessary or appropriate for direct conversion practices. Actual or purported assessment or treatment of mental health is a subject that falls outside of reasonable expression of opinion or faith. The above recommendations allow for:

  • The voicing and publication of personal or doctrinal views on sexual orientation and gender identity attributes, provided that they are honestly and clearly distinguished from assertions and claims about aetiology (causes), pathology and mental health symptoms of such attributes; and,
  • Parents, guardians, religious and other leaders to provide supportive care and counselling for another person, provided that the care or counselling does not seek to convince the subject they have a fault or dysfunction that requires correction.