Exorcisms To Rid Men And Women Of 'Demons Who Want Them To Be Gay'

For some Australians gay conversion therapy is not the stuff of nightmares, but a brutal reality.

Gay conversion therapy is alive and well in Australia, with exorcisms just one of several practices used in religious communities to force LGBTIQ Australians to "pray the gay away", a new report has found.

The La Trobe University report -- by the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) and Gay & Lesbian Health Victoria -- has shone a light on the pervasiveness of gay conversion therapy in Australia, which remains "a real problem in religious communities," according to researcher Dr Tim Jones.

Gay conversion therapy -- or sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) -- is a deeply harmful practice that's been described as "torture" by the UN, but has existed in Australia in some form since the 1970s.

Anthony Hinds, 56, is a survivor of gay conversion therapy. Now a proud gay man, he was in his early twenties when he first went through the deeply harmful 'therapy', which he said caused a "huge amount of psychological damage".

He said from the outside, the exorcism would look like "a Pentecostal prayer meeting" .

"The theory is that you're not actually possessed by the demon, that rather than being possessed, you're oppressed," he told ten daily.

"You still have free will and agency, but your behaviours are influenced by and your life is influenced by this demonic oppression."

The demon Baal, as depicted by Louis Le Breton in the 1818 book on demonology, Dictionnaire Infernal.

Benson Andrew, a 29-year-old gay man, went through the full gamut of the experiences in the mid-2000s: hypnosis, manipulation, and exorcism.

"It wasn't sold to me as an exorcism, but looking back, it definitely was," he told ten daily.

"I'd even say it was a Hollywood version of an exorcism, but without the bells and whistles and the screaming and the taunting."

He sat down with two other pastors, and repeated after them as they read through a printed out script, renouncing everything from the spirit of homosexuality to the spirit of Baal, one of the seven princes of Hell.

"It was very Old Testament," Andrew said. "They say: there's obviously some demonic holes in your life, there's obviously demons that want you to be gay and they're controlling your behavior and we want to get rid of them."

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Survivors of conversion therapy spoke about the "slow-burning trauma" of the therapy, with Max [no last name] telling researches that while exorcisms make headlines, it's the "subtle, twisted, painful, long-term" trauma of wanting to belong to a church community but being unable to do so.

Another survivor, Mary [no last name], spoke of the torture of being confined to a mental hospital in the 1980s at age 17, where she was subject to treatment such as freezing baths, sleep deprivation, and electroshock therapy to her labia.

The more extreme forms of conversion practices performed by medical professionals prior to the 1990s are now illegal, but shockingly, gay conversion therapy itself is not.

Australian children and adults are protected, to some extent, by various pieces of legislation around child abuse or health regulation, but those come on a state-by-state basis and do not go far enough, said Anna Brown, director of legal advocacy at the HRLC.

There's nothing, for example, to say that a religious organisation can't coach you into believing that your sexuality or gender is wrong.

"We recommend a specific law that clearly prohibits conversion therapy on children and adults when health or other practitioners are involved," Brown said.

She is hoping this report will not only shine a light on a deeply harmful practice, but pave the way for a multi-faceted approach of legislation and education.

But for some survivors of gay conversion therapy the changes are coming too late and is matched by a profound sense of loss at the lives they had taken away from them.

Anthony Hinds spent more than three decades married to a woman, raising a family and hoping his faith and commitment could make him straight.

"I have a big family, they're wonderful children, and I don't regret any of that," he said.

"But I was bringing damage and hurt to [my wife's] life as well. I can see that I was deeply, deeply unhappy, and that unhappiness comes out in all different ways in how you act in a relationship.

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If you would like to access support, you can find a number of LGBTI mental health resources here. If you are in distress, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.