Gay conversion therapy ban: Survivor of ECT shock treatment welcomes legislation change

Joan Bellingham was drugged and received over 200 electroconvulsive shocks – all meant to “cure” her of being gay.

Many of her friends have been through similarly traumatic “therapies”, a handful of whom subsequently took their own lives.

“The guilt you are made to feel is horrific. It leaves you feeling lonely, empty, worthless.”

Bellingham, 68, is welcoming news this week the Government will ban so-called gay conversion therapy within a year, with legislation drafted mid this year.

Following years of advocacy, by groups such as Ending Conversion Therapy, Labour had campaigned on a ban ahead of the general election but then went silent.

Activist groups reignited the issue, and Green Party MP rainbow spokeswoman Elizabeth Kerekere launched a petition last week accumulating 157,764 signatures in a matter of days, presented to Parliament shortly after the ban timeline was announced.

“To see all forms of this banned would just mean the world to me,” Bellingham said.

“If there was one last thing I could do in my life it would be to make young ones today do not go through what I went through.”

What is conversion therapy?

Conversion therapy is a western practice based on a belief people with diverse sexual orientations or gender identities are abnormal and should be changed so they fit within hetero-normative standards.

It can take place in health clinics, but mainly involves faith-based groups providing counselling, prayer and group support activities.

Waikato University senior lecturer in psychology Dr Jaimie Veale said there was no conclusive data about how many people had been through so-called gay conversion therapy in New Zealand, although there was plenty of anecdotal evidence.

A survey of trans people “Counting Ourselves”, of which Veale was principal investigator, found 17 per cent of respondents, or one in six, experienced a health professional trying to stop them from being trans or non-binary.

In Australia, a 2018 study found 10 per cent of Australians who were attracted to people of the same sex or were gender diverse were vulnerable to conversion therapy practices.

“So we know these practices are occurring, but by their very secretive nature we don’t know how widespread it is, and there has been little resources put towards finding out,” Veale said.

“But we know it is all based on this idea that it is a mental disorder, a pathologising view, and that these are really very harmful practices.”

Up until 1973, “homosexuality” was listed as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), and was “treated” by health professionals.

Worldwide, like with Bellingham, ECT was used along with drugs, chemicals and a range of different therapies to seek to “correct” peoples’ sexualities.

But these “treatments” – or “tortures”, as many call the practices – did not work, of course, because there was no scientific or medical credence to them.

“I have been gay for as long as I can remember,” Bellingham said. “I never thought of it as something I needed to hide.”

The 1970s was a very different time though, and when Bellingham was a trainee nurse at Burwood Hospital in Christchurch in 1970, aged 18, she was picked on for her sexuality.

The torments led to concerns about her mental health and she was soon admitted to Princess Margaret Hospital’s psychiatric ward.

Over the next 12 years she was in and out of hospital and received ECT more than 200 times, along with intense questioning about her sexuality.

“They would give me muscle relaxant to paralyse me. It felt like razor blades going through my body.”

Despite her horrific treatment, Bellingham retained her identity, and went on to have “wonderful relationships”.

She has been with her partner, Marg, for 25 years now.

“Fortunately, it never took away my sense of identity, but it did take away my profession, my memory, and I had very low self-esteem for a long time.

“But I have been quite lucky with my relationships. Not everybody has been able to have that.”

Bellingham supported a ban, but also wanted to see a formal inquiry to truly realise the extent of conversion therapy in Aotearoa to recognise the harm done.

“There has been so much injustice and harm done and I think to move forward those responsible need to front up to the damage they have caused.”

The Canterbury District Health Board declined to comment on the practices at PMH or Bellingham’s treatment.

"Pray the gay away"

Jim Marjoram, who has both been subjected to gay conversion therapy and been a practitioner himself, said the history of the practice in New Zealand was not widely known.

But he imagined as in Australia, where he was born, after the mental health definition changed in 1973, and as social awareness and outrage grew, the practice shifted from health professions to predominantly religious groups.

Growing up in Sydney in the 1960s and 1970s when he hit puberty he knewhe was gay, but being part of a conservative Christian community he felt there was no way he could be his true self.

“I was constantly told things like it was the devil inside me, and that I could ‘pray the gay away’.”

In the 1990s with his second wife, who had come from lesbian relationships, he became involved with the Living Waters organisation, working to try to convert others.

They moved to New Zealand in 2001 and ran group sessions with people mostly from the LGBTQIA+ community.

“The whole premise is that you are broken, that you need to be realigned and if you trust God enough, then eventually you will change.

“But basically, it does not work, and just leaves people traumatised. Suicide is rampant.”

After his second wife died of cancer in 2011 Marjoram had a breakdown and left the church, starting the support group Silent Gays for religious abuse survivors.

Marjoram says as social awareness about the practices has grown, many have gone underground and he feared, despite a ban, they might continue to exist.

Josiah Pasikale, 30, said this kind of semi-secret counselling was what he went through in 2013. The service was not formally part of his church, but had been recommended to him.

“I was looking for something to try to fix me.”

The counselling consisted of resolving childhood trauma, and trying to rewire his brain, he said.

The reason why little was known about the practice and how many people experienced it, is that people who went through it wanted it to work, he said.

“I had dreams of having a wife, the only pressure was not feeling accepted as a gay person. I didn’t think being gay was an option.”

But instead of changing him, Pasikale said the therapy had the opposite effect.

“It made me realise I am definitely gay. I was doing it for six months and I was like, ‘I am so gay right now’.”

Recently, he was even a finalist in Mr Gay New Zealand.

Despite the experience Pasikale, who is based in Wellington, had retained his faith.

“I think faith is personal, and my relationship with God is my own.”

He supports the proposed ban, but says the true change needs to come from within church communities, and parents being more accepting.

“I think the power will also be with parents, allowing their children to grow up without thinking they need to be fixed.”

Few practices today publicly advertise gay conversion therapy, but Nelson-based David Riddell from the Living Wisdom School of Counselling has voiced his opposition to any ban on the practice.

He wrote to National Party justice spokesman Simon Bridges in support after he told media a ban could threaten freedom of speech. National leader Judith Collins has since clarified the party would support a ban.

Riddell recently told Nelson Weekly as a Christian he would rather go to prison than stop the practice, stating the ban is a “vital issue to every counsellor of integrity and every counsellor who claims Christianity”.

He told the Herald he’d counselled “hundreds of men and women over 30 years”, many dealing with “childhood emotional and sexual bruising” subsequently experiencing “emotional, sexual and spiritual dilemmas”.

This was in a “therapeutic climate of voluntary self-disclosure, mutual respect and
confidentiality”, without “bullying or coercion”.

He didn’t deny there were some “clumsy” practitioners, but disagreed in a blanket ban.

“There is simply no need for such a law against what may be called clumsy cases of people trying to help people; people who have, in all cases incidentally, initially asked for assistance of some kind.”

Support for ban, but education key

Recently retired clinical psychologist and sex therapist Robyn Salisbury said when she started her work in the early 1990s one of her superiors was a keen practitioner of so-called gay conversion therapy.

“Even though I was inexperienced, intuitively I knew it was wrong. There is no evidence behind it, and is just ignorant people thinking they know what is better, often with a religious motivation.”

The practice was more widespread then than now, but Salisbury had treated people who been through it.

“At the very least there is shaming, and, for many, severe trauma.”

From her expert opinion, Salisbury said the practice was “an outrage” with absolutely no scientific backing.

“People don’t choose their sexuality but become aware of it, discover it. It can be repressed, but it is not something you change.”

While churches were often where the practices occurred today, Salisbury said it was likely the parents of young people who were pressuring them to get therapy in the first place.

“I’ve often had parents ask if I can work with their son or daughter, saying they suspect they are gay. I say instead I can work with [the parents], to accept their son or daughter’s sexuality.”

She agreed with the ban, but said it needed to be accompanied by a strong education campaign.

What a ban could look like

In banning conversion therapy New Zealand joins a growing group around the world, including several Australian states.

Queensland was the first to bring in a ban in August, followed by the Australian Capital Territory. But the widest-reaching is that proposed in Victoria, currently going through Parliament.

Shaneel Lal, Youth MP for Manurewa and co-founder of End Conversion Therapy in New Zealand, said the “broad-ranging” Victoria bill was the blueprint to follow.

“It is the best so far. Conversion therapy there will be banned for all people of all ages and for religious practitioners.”

While Lal welcomed news of the imminent ban here,

they said in the meantime queer people were still being punished for their sexuality against their will.

“We have been advocating almost four years now and are happy to be at a point whereit will banned, but in that time we have lost people who went through conversion therapy, and know while we wait more harm is being done.

“This means there is an obligation to provide redress and an apology.”

While the bill in Victoria has been described by advocates as “world-leading”, critics have slammed it as an attack on religious freedom.

Health professionals there are also concerned the broad wording could prevent “ordinary conversations” around sexuality, and evidence-based therapies where people were struggling with their sexuality and were seeking advice.

The Catholic and Anglican churches told the Herald they had no current position on the Government’s announcement, and would wait until the bill was unveiled.

Dr John Kleinsman, director of the Nathaniel Centre for Bioethics, said the Catholic Church did not “support, provide or participate in gay conversion therapy”.

“What is of concern to us is that people who are struggling with their sexual identity should be able to access quality professional psychological and counselling support, and we know that such support is not always accessible in a timely manner.”

Both the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists and the New Zealand Psychologists Board welcomed the Government’s announcement to ban conversion therapy practices, also affirming their opposition to the practice.

“There is no evidence-base for conversion practices,” a RANZCP spokeswoman told the Herald.

“Indeed, we know conversion practices risk causing significant psychological harm to individuals as well as contributing to the misrepresentation of certain sexualities as mental disorders.”

Both said they wanted to work with the Government in developing the legislation.

A spokeswoman for the New Zealand Psychologists Board said they wanted to ensure it achieved the broad aim of banning conversion therapy “without shutting down opportunities for people to freely engage in discussions about sexuality, sexual and gender identity and related matters”.

A spokesman for Faafoi said officials were reviewing the approaches taken by other jurisdictions but the legislation would be tailored to the New Zealand context.

Whether the bill included religious practices was “still to be decided”, however he said it was “understood that conversion practices in New Zealand were now most likely to occur in unregulated settings such as faith communities”.

Faafoi’s spokesman said they were working to define “conversion practices” in legislation.

“This includes ensuring that legitimate, evidence-based support is protected,” he said.

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