5 Aug 2021

Banning conversion therapy

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 5 August 2021
Chlöe Swarbrick holds up a placard showing the number of signatures in support of a ban on conversion therapy.

Chlöe Swarbrick holds up a placard showing the number of signatures in support of a ban on conversion therapy. Photo: Meriana Johnsen

Late last month the government unveiled long-awaited legislation which would ban conversion practices - so-called 'gay conversion therapy' - in New Zealand. Today is the first reading of that bill. 

Since then fears have been raised about how far the legislation goes, and whether parents could be in trouble for simply having conversations with their children about their sexuality or gender identity.

On today's episode of The Detail, Emile Donovan speaks with public law specialist Dr Eddie Clark and Dr Paul Skirrow, media spokesperson for the NZ College of Clinical Psychologists, about what conversion practices actually are; what the legislation says; and what sorts of behaviour would be criminalised.

Conversion therapy, or conversion practices, are when someone actively tries to repress or change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity.

It largely occurs as a result of religious beliefs; several religions maintain that acting on homosexual urges is a sin.

In the past it has used brutal and inhumane techniques, such as electroconvulsive shocks, but Dr Paul Skirrow says anecdotal evidence suggests contemporary conversion practices tend more towards a sort of talking therapy - 'praying the gay away'.

The evidence is anecdotal because very little data exists on the prevalence of conversion practices - they're generally performed in the shadows, as they violate psychologists' professional ethics.

However in a 2019 survey of 1178 trans and non-binary people, 17 percent of respondents said a health professional had tried to change their gender identity.

Most health professionals agree conversion practices are not only ineffective, but actively harmful.

While conversion practices have been carried out for decades, contemporary calls to ban them in New Zealand picked up momentum in 2018, following a segment by the current affairs programme Sunday.

The government pledged to ban the practice in the leadup to the 2020 election, but after failing to commit to a timeline, the Green Party in February launched a petition for legislation to be fast-tracked.

It gained more than 100,000 signatures in just two days, and the government agreed to speed the process along by introducing legislation by the middle of the year, with a mind to having a law in place in early 2022.

In late July, Justice Minister Kris Faafoi unveiled the draft legislation.

Under the legislation, a conversion practice directed at someone because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, and performed with the intent of either changing or suppressing any of those things, would fall foul of the law.

In the case of children, any practice would be illegal; but when directed at adults, it would have to be established that the practice caused serious harm.

These offences would be punishable by up to three years' imprisonment in the case of children; and five years in the case of adults.

Dr Eddie Clark says despite this, there are carve-outs: expressing a general belief would not count as a conversion practice, so a preacher could still say the Bible teaches the view that acting on homosexual urges is a sin, without falling foul of the law.

Additionally, medical professionals such as psychologists who are helping someone to deal with gender dysphoria, for example, would not be caught by the legislation.

However, parents could, if they were deemed to be actively trying to change their children's sexual orientation or gender identity.

In a recent interview on NewstalkZB, Kris Faafoi struggled to explain whether a parent who forbade their 12 year-old child from taking puberty blockers might be prosecuted, but said the intent of the legislation was not to criminalise parents.

With little knowledge of the scope of the problem, and limited evidence of the effectiveness of legislation banning conversion practices, some commentators have questioned the wisdom of passing laws in this area.

Indeed, advice to the ministry of health in 2018 advised against introducing a ban, saying educational approaches were a better way of going about stamping out conversion practices.

But Eddie Clark says there is a place for legislation to lay down a marker on behalf of society and deem a certain practice unacceptable.

"It's the law saying, 'this is a thing society denounces and sees as harmful'. And there's value in that, but it's limited value.

"The dealing with truly egregious situations has real value, but this isn't going to solve the harm done to people not being accepted by their communities."