explainer

"'Praying the gay away' nearly killed me. I'm not the only one."

This article was originally published in September 2019 and has been updated to include recent developments.

Queensland has become the first Australian state to outlaw gay conversion therapy.

The state's parliament passed a bill on Thursday that will see doctors, counsellors and psychologists who attempt to change or suppress a person's sexual orientation or gender identity face up to 12 months' imprisonment. That penalty rises to 18 months if the victim is a minor. 

Addressing parliament, Queensland Health Minister Steven Miles described conversion therapy as a "highly destructive and unethical" practice.

"Being LGBTIQ is not an affliction or disease that requires medical treatment," he said.

"No treatment or practice can change a person's sexual attraction or experience of gender."

Sadly, there are plenty in Australia who believe otherwise. Chris Csabs was once among them.

"I became so frightened that anything could feed this demon inside me."

Chris thought gay conversion therapy would be his saving grace. 

He’d realised he was same-sex attracted at the age of 13, but it was another three years before he opened up to his pastor. By then, the self-loathing was already deeply ingrained courtesy of his church and his desire to be ‘healed’ was overpowering.

When Chris finished high school, he signed up to the now-defunct Living Waters program in Canberra, willingly, desperately.

“That’s one of the misconceptions people have about this, that it’s people being forced into these ‘pray the gay away’ camps,” he told Mamamia's daily podcast The Quicky. “But particularly in Australia, it’s generally not like that. It’s people who have basically been taught—well brainwashed—into thinking that they are broken and need healing or fixing somehow.”

To hear about Chris’ time inside the program, listen to The Quicky.

The awful irony of that ideology was painfully clear to Chris when he finished the course six months later. After working his way through the Living Waters manual, the sermons and the confessions, and after having his feelings of being less-than confirmed, he emerged unchanged. And as a result, feeling even more broken than before.

He spent the next several years trying “anything and everything” to “fix” himself. Prayer. Exorcisms. Celibacy.

“I didn’t even look at guys. I would avoid men even when I was going to church. Guys would come up and say, ‘Hi. How’s it going?’ I would avoid them and I’d say, ‘Oh, sorry, I’ve got to go. I’ve got to the toilet,’ or something. Just in case, by even talking to someone, it would awaken something in me that was not of God,” he said.

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“I became unable to function properly in society because I was so frightened that anything could, kind of, feed this demon of homosexuality that was inside me, that I kind of shut myself off to a lot of people.”

Gay conversion therapy in Australia.

A 2018 report by the Human Rights Law Centre, Gay and Lesbian Health Victoria, and La Trobe University, found evidence that gay conversion therapy is being offered by religious groups in every state and territory in Australia, despite overwhelming academic consensus that it is not only ineffective, but damaging and unethical.

While Queensland's laws have been celebrated as a step in the right direction, several LGBTQI groups and conversion therapy survivor advocates have expressed concern that the legislation only applies to conversion practices carried out by health professionals.

Chris is among them. He founded advocacy group SOGICE Survivor (Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity Change Efforts Survivor).

"The concern is that a vast majority of survivors have gone through conversion practices in a religious or informal setting," Chris told Star Observer. "This bill is not going to be protective enough, and it is not actually enough to stop the harm that is occurring."

Several states are also looking to outlaw the practice.

Legislation to that effect was introduced to ACT's lower house this week. Under the proposed bill, people would face fines of up to $24,000 and 12 months' behind bars for performing a "sexuality or gender identity conversion therapy" on a child or individual with impaired decision-making ability. That's regardless of whether that individual or their guardian consented to the 'therapy'.

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The Victorian Government last year also announced its intention to outlaw such 'therapies', which Premier Daniel Andrews described as "bigoted quackery masquerading as healthcare".

However, as Dr Timothy Jones, one of the authors of the 2018 report, previously explained to Mamamia, it may not be as simple as making gay conversion against the law. 

Their recommendations were similar to those legislated in Queensland this week, in that the practice ought to be outlawed for medical professionals. They went another step to recommend it be illegal when performed on minors and those who can't consent. 

"We didn’t recommend that it become totally illegal, because most people are adults in cultures which do not accept sexual and gender diversity, [and] are inculturated into seeking out these practices. So the law is a pretty blunt instrument," he said. "What is really needed is cultural change."

“I prayed some terrible things.”

That cultural change happened within Chris’ own household. His parents watched on as their son became a tortured shell of his former self.

"By the time I was 24, I was actually broken, and I was really, deeply depressed—just without hope," he said. "It was just so impossible to keep that intensity of trying so hard to change something that seemed so innate.

"I prayed to God every day. 'God, I cannot see a light at the end of this. I’ve asked you to heal me, I’ve done everything right. I’ve been so strict with myself, so please just heal me or kill me.' I prayed to be in car accidents. I prayed some terrible things, you know, and I meant those prayers because living as a gay man was not an option for me."

The turning point that set him on a long path to self-acceptance was a conversation with his mother, a woman of faith, who sat him down and said words that changed his life.

"Maybe the reason God hasn’t healed you," she said, "is because you actually aren’t sick."

To sign Chris’ petition to have gay conversion therapy outlawed in Australia, please visit his Change.org page.

If you’re looking to connect with someone to talk about sexuality, identity, gender, bodies, feelings or relationships, QLife provides anonymous and free LGBTI peer support and referral for people in Australia. Call 1800 184 527 or visit the website.

Feature image: Supplied.

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