I experienced gay conversion therapy. Here’s why it should be banned

conversion therapy

When the priests told me that my sexuality must be changed, it never occurred to me to challenge what they were saying.

I grew up in the Exclusive Brethren – a reclusive sect that tightly controls members’ lives and forbids social contact with non-members.

The Brethren were firmly anti-gay, and my first awareness of the rainbow community was in the context of the Brethren campaigning against the Civil Union Bill in 2004.

When I came out as gay to Brethren leaders in Invercargill as a teenager, they embarked on an attempt to change my sexuality. I was told to “pray away the gay”, and to fight against my sexual identity.

At the recommendation of the sect’s world leader, Sydney businessman Bruce Hales, I was referred to a Brethren doctor with a view to changing my sexuality.

This doctor prescribed a year’s supply of cyprostat – a hormonal suppressant that shuts down the body’s natural production of testosterone, more commonly prescribed for sex offenders or cancer patients.

His logic was that if my sexuality couldn’t be immediately changed, then it could be suppressed altogether as a temporary fix.

It took some time for me to question what I was being told.

It’s incredibly difficult to stand up against religious leaders who represent the power structure you’ve been born and raised within.

We were explicitly forbidden from questioning the instructions of Brethren leaders, so as a teenager it was unthinkable that I would do anything other than follow their orders.

At the age of 19, I finally stood up to the Exclusive Brethren and told them I wanted to live my life as an openly gay man.

They told me I was mentally unwell. I sought a second opinion from a local GP, who reassured me I was not mentally unwell and that my emotions were a normal and rational response to an extreme situation.

The neutral and professional guidance I received from this GP stood in stark contrast to the treatment I received at the hands of the Brethren doctor.

When, as a teenager, I came out as gay to Exclusive Brethren leaders they embarked on an attempt to change my sexuality.

I was subsequently excommunicated by the Exclusive Brethren in 2009.

My parents threw me out of their home, and I was abruptly cut off by every person I knew. I lost my job, my home, my friends, and my family. This was a direct result of refusing to try and change or hide my sexuality.

Fortunately, I found broad support in Aotearoa’s wider society.

Many people stepped forward to replace those I’d lost, and I’ve built a rich and rewarding new life.

I’ve gained a degree, travelled the world, and now work as a journalist – all things that would have been forbidden had I remained in the Exclusive Brethren.

I was told to “pray away the gay”, and to fight against my sexual identity.

Many others have made contact with me since I was excommunicated to share similar experiences.

Rainbow Kiwis continue to suffer within conservative groups like the Exclusive Brethren (since rebranded as the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church).

The Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill currently before Parliament would send a strong message that these people need to be supported rather than judged or condemned. Anyone questioning their sexuality or gender identity should be able to explore those aspects of themselves in safety. It’s cruel for anyone to be put in a position where expression of identity can lead to isolation or punishment.

Many of those responsible for such harmful practices do not believe they are doing anything wrong. They believe they are fulfilling the wishes of a higher divine power, and would deny that they are engaging in conversion therapy. Instead, they couch their language in terms of “helping” members of their community.

But there is a big difference between such religious “help”, and the professional guidance offered by doctors and counsellors. Continue reading

  • Craig Hoyle is a news director for the Sunday Star-Times.
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