Losing my religion, and the conversion therapy report – by Anthony Hinds, 3 February 2019

The other day I threw out my Bible. Into the rubbish bin. It was a special edition published by Youth With A Mission, with sidenotes and biographies promoting YWAM teachings. Had it not been so, it might have escaped its fate. My current discomfort with our sacred text may pass, but not my opinion of the cultic organisation where I wasted fourteen years.

I’ve stopped identifying as Christian, and am experimenting with other labels like ‘post-Christian’. The causes are many, but there has been one major factor: the current attitude of conservative Christians towards the LGBTIQ community. This runs deep and wide: from the debate in the UCA about use of church property for gay and lesbian weddings; to the rancour and cheap political point-scoring of the SSM postal survey; to the government-sanctioned homophobia and transphobia of supposedly Christian societies in the Americas, Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere.

It includes the judgement of my Christian ex-friends and relatives when I separated from my wife and began living as a gay man. I tell myself that they would rather believe the questionable words of a man two thousand years ago, than the lived experience of their friend and cousin – the person they’ve known, and loved, and seen struggling to live up to those words.

Therein lies the key aspect of my problem with the text. The Bible has been the instrument of so much behavioural control exerted by others over my life, that now I can’t bear to engage with it. My partner, who identifies as ex-born again, maintains that Jesus was never a historical figure. I frankly don’t have the stomach to debate that, or defend my position, or even define my position. But I do keep coming to church to be with my community, and to be encouraged to subvert the structures in which we live, and yes for that encouragement to come through stories from the text. Thank goodness for skilled preachers like Ian who can point out the gold among the dross.

I just find it too painful to identify as Christian, when so many who do are judgemental and condemning of the LGBTIQ community, both here and internationally.

But why now? Why am I losing my religion now, when I endured so many years of homophobia in the church from the 1980s to the 2010s, and kept identifying as Christian then?

Part of the reason is my experience with conversion therapy, and in particular a report on the practice for which I was interviewed, and of which I have spoken at BUC. Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice is published by the Human Rights Law Centre, Latrobe Uni, and Gay & Lesbian Health Victoria. It provides a unique history of religious conversion therapy in Australia, a moving analysis of the effects of therapy on victim-survivors, a thorough review of international responses to conversion practices, a clear overview of relevant state and federal regulation, and a helpful set of recommendations to close the gaps in legal and health protections. I commend it to you as a sound, reliable and important work.

Conversion therapy is premised on a particular reading of scripture: God only sanctions the lives and the bedrooms of the heterosexual and the cisgendered. All other orientations and identifications are sexual brokenness. ‘Therapeutic’ efforts to heal this brokenness in religious settings include prayer, ministry, study, self-discipline, and in extreme cases shock therapies. Interestingly, the church only dreamt up this pseudo-psychological approach in the 1970s, when mainstream psychology and psychiatry accepted homosexuality, and stopped calling it a mental illness. These change efforts have all been thoroughly discredited by scientific studies, which show that nothing is effective in changing orientation or gender identity. Instead the so-called therapies cause great harm. The Human Rights Law Centre report contains much detail about the psychological and spiritual damage that these change efforts inflict on victim-survivors. My story is one of its fifteen stories of self-loathing, recrimination, shame, blame, depression, and in many cases self-harm.

What shocked me most about and around the report was the fact that Christian churches today, in Australia, are still practising conversion therapy. And they are reluctant to stop. (The authors and publishers sought to respond not just with calls for more regulation, but also education and awareness raising, as they didn’t want to push the practice underground.) I could excuse the church for its ignorance in the 1980s, but now? 2019? When the report came out, I sent messages to my relatives and ex-friends encouraging them to engage with it and discuss it in their churches. I received no response, but I guess I should not be surprised.

As if I needed further proof of my current assessment of conservative Christianity, I had dinner on Friday with friends from one of my previous churches, a huge mainline evangelical church. They were dismayed that the church is still and constantly stuck on denouncing queerness. The last straw for them was a whole church retreat day on LGBTIQ issues. It included a speaker – a gay man who has chosen to be celibate. (Don’t get me started on that old chestnut of “it’s ok to be gay but not to act on it”!). My friends and I agreed: can’t everyone just move on?

In closing, may I say thanks, and thanks again, to my friends at BUC. Among this Christian community, LBGTIQ issues are so yesterday. Apart from engaging positively in the SSM debate, everyone moved on years ago, to discussing things that are so much more relevant and important. Like justice, climate, and the plight of people seeking asylum. That’s the kind of religion I don’t want to lose.