The Melbourne Age reports…
“Brian Coogan spent much of his life searching for answers.
He knew from an early age he was attracted to men, but as a devout Christian, he’d been led to believe homosexuality was wrong; an illness that could be cured by “conversion therapy” or “praying away the gay.”
Coogan estimates he spent $50,000 over 15 years on religious counselling sessions attempting to do just that. He attended conferences by Exodus International – a now defunct organisation that turned to Jesus to curb same-sex attraction – took part in seminars and sermons, and remained convinced, for more than two decades, “that there was something wrong with me and that I needed to be fixed.”
“You’ve probably heard the saying: love the sinner, hate the sin. The problem is, when the sin is your sexuality, and it’s something you can’t switch off, you end up disliking yourself more and more, which is why a lot of people become quite suicidal,” he says.
“It wasn’t until I realised that the case for inclusion in the Bible is about 10 times stronger than the case for exclusion that my life started knocking into place.”
While Coogan, 55, is now openly gay, he knows all too well that conversion therapy and the “ex-gay” movement – which essentially views homosexuality as a disorder – remains an insidious part of Evangelical church culture in Australia, keeping many vulnerable people trapped in a world of denial and shame.
It’s a problem that the Andrews government and others are also trying to address. Alarmed by the mental health impacts, Equality Minister Martin Foley has ordered his department to investigate “the extent of any underground activity of this kind in Victoria and see what can be done to minimise the damage caused by these abhorrent practices”.
Tighter regulations are also on the way, with the Health Services Commissioner set to be granted broader powers to probe or sanction people conducting unregulated and unproven therapies such as gay conversion.
And new research is also being conducted by the Human Rights Law Centre and Latrobe University into the prevalence of ex-gay practices, and what kind of reforms may be required.
“So called gay conversion or ‘ex-gay’ therapy is alive and well in Australia,” says Anna Brown, the Human Rights Law Centre’s director of advocacy.
“Recently other countries have introduced laws banning these types of therapies, but ex-gay counselling and so-called treatments remain largely unregulated in Australia. So there is an urgent need to better understand the nature and prevalence of these sorts of practices in Australia and develop an adequate response to ensure young, same-sex attracted people, who are often already having quite a hard time finding their place in the world, aren’t subjected to misguided and damaging practices.”
Part of the problem is that the size and scope of the ex-gay movement is unclear. About three years ago, when The Sunday Age reported on the death of Damien Christie, a former member of the Pentecostal church who took his life after years of struggling with his sexuality and faith, it was estimated that there were fewer than 15 conversion programs operating around the country at that time.
Nathan Despott, who runs an advocacy network for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people of faith, says there are fewer groups now, but the ex-gay ideology remains deeply entrenched through the “messaging” conveyed by some churches and synagogues, through Christian radio programs, or via online courses attached to religious ministries.
The Living Hope Ministries, for instance, offer people support groups, pastoral counselling and online forums centred around a “Biblical world view of sexual expression rooted in one man and one woman in a committed, monogamous, heterosexual marriage for life”.
“Anything less than this ideal falls short of God’s best for humanity,” its website claims.
But therein lies the heart of the problem. Boiled down, the ex-gay movement doesn’t just try to make gay people straight. It attempts to link their homosexuality to issues or trauma from their past and convince them they are fundamentally damaged, needing be “healed” in order to be accepted by their community and God.
Some survivors have told The Sunday Age of group meetings that sought to shame participants by forcing them to confess to others how many times they had watched gay pornography or fantasised about the same sex.
Rowena Allen, the government’s handpicked Gender and Sexuality Commissioner, recalls being 17 when a minister at an Evangelical church in Melbourne attempted an exorcism designed to rid her of homosexual “demons”.
And Joe Cotteril, the openly gay son of Pentecostal ministers, remembers his own personal struggle: the homophobic schools, the lack of acceptance among his fellow Christians, the fog of depression that he fought for years.
“I was often encouraged, when I came out, to be a part of one of the men’s courses that they would do at church,” says the 34-year-old. “They would do a section on sexuality for a few weeks and you knew that the gay thing would come up as part of a discussion on sexual addiction. It would be lumped in the same thing as alcoholism or pornography – something that you need to get over by a practice of ‘right’ thinking and the ‘right’ behaviour.”
The good news, though, is that the tide is turning. In the US, several states have banned ex-gay therapy to minors, while President Barack Obama recently went one step further, calling for an end to conversion practices across America.
The world’s largest ex-gay organisation – Exodus international – has also shut down, and in 2014, Living Waters, one of Australia’s longest running conversion programs, followed suit.
Back in Melbourne, Coogan says he’s encouraged by the shift, as well as the growing number of support groups that are available to LGBTI people of faith. But he says that there’s a lot more to do, because much of the ex-gay movement “seems to be pushed underground”.
“It would be great to see the government showing some leadership on this. People are generally more accepting but there’s still heartbreaking damage being done.”
* For help or information call Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251 or Lifeline on 131 114, or visit: insideexgay.org/contact/