Conversion 'Therapy' Survivors Speak Of Cruel Tactics Used Against Them
Chris Csabs once prayed for cancer or to be in a car crash because he thought it was better to be dead than gay after his church taught him that homosexuals went to hell.
"I was praying to God every day, 'heal me or kill me'," the Sydney man told 10 daily.
As the Victorian state government opened a consultation on laws to outlaw 'conversion therapy' -- a term that survivors resist in favour of 'LGBTQ conversion practises' -- Csabs recounted his own experiences of growing up gay in a Sydney Baptist community.
At 16, Csabs told his pastor he was gay. At 19, he claimed he spent six months undergoing LGBTQ conversion practises.
He likened his time with a Canberra-based evangelist church to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, where he claims he and other young gay men were encouraged to simply 'become' heterosexual through group sessions.
"I was just as gay as I was before, of course," Csabs said.
In desperation, he said he turned to more extreme avenues to 'rid the gay away', including exorcism.
He claimed his church told him that homosexuality can be caused by demons -- but said it was the conversion practises that left a mark more than anything else.
"It has nothing to do with being locked in a room or strapped to a chair and having electrodes on you. It’s the ideology that the real harm comes from," he claimed.
"The damage was already done when I was a kid ... I remember being a scared little boy, waiting for this burning furnace at the end of my life, with nothing I could do to stop it."
"It was fear. Fear took over my whole life."
Such practises are widely -- and wrongly, according to LGBTQ advocates -- referred to as 'gay conversion therapy'.
Advocates say it should not be referred to as 'therapy', nor is it confined solely to those who identify as gay. Lesbian, trans, bisexual, intersex and other gender-diverse people are also affected.
Some survivors claim they were subjected to practises after being told they had something "broken" or "wrong" with them, which needed to be "fixed".
Conversion practises are banned in Brazil, Spain, Taiwan, parts of Canada, and in more than a dozen American states. Australia is yet to follow suit, and New Zealand's parliament is in the early stages of considering whether to act on it.
In Victoria's proposed ban, the government defined conversion as "any practice or treatment that seeks to change, suppress or eliminate an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity," which can lead to "long-term psychological harm".
Premier Daniel Andrews has called it "bigoted quackery".
A 2018 report from La Trobe University, the Human Rights Law Centre and Gay & Lesbian Health Victoria found while conversion practises are "pervasive" in Australian Protestant Christian communities, they have also been identified in Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist faiths.
The Australian Psychological Society said in February that there was "a mountain of evidence" to show the harmful psychological effects of stigma faced by homosexual people, including high rates of depression.
The La Trobe report found some survivors of conversion practises who said they experienced mental health issues including "self-hatred, shame, loneliness, thoughts of suicide, problems with being touched or loved, sexual dysfunction" and more.
Horror conversion stories in Australia and abroad include experiences of sexual assault, beatings and solitary confinement. Human Rights Watch identified the horrific practise of so-called 'corrective rape' in South Africa in the 2000s, while another woman spoke of her experiences in Jamaica in 2012.
In 2008 and 2011, women were found dead after having been raped, brutally assaulted and later killed due to their sexual orientation.
Techniques reported by other human rights organisations include 'aversion therapy' such as ice baths in Ecuador, and electric shocks in China.
Some have likened conversion practises to torture.
However, some Australian survivors told 10 daily the more common reality is more "insidious", and less graphic -- but no less damaging.
The Survivors of SOCE (Sexual Orientation Change Efforts) group calls the practices "amorphic", which can include counselling, pastoral care, prayer ministry, deliverances or exorcisms, conferences, mentoring programs and online material.
According to Teash Taylor, a lesbian woman from Melbourne, it's the "unwritten and unspoken but clearly understood rules" around sexuality and attraction that can hurt more than physical punishment and the more formalised conversion practises.
"I just thought instead I’d be celibate forever, and never marry," she said.
Taylor never underwent 'formal' conversion practises, but the simple knowledge that someone of her sexuality was unwelcome in church circles was enough to weigh heavily on her mental health.
"I didn't think Christian girls like me ended up gay. That's how it influences you," she said.
"I was terrified at the thought of anyone knowing. It was incredibly shameful. I tried to pray it away, and that was very unsuccessful, which was a horrible thing to realise. I got an anxiety disorder, and that ended up manifesting into physical pain."
Taylor said she has now found an "affirming theology" and a new church community which "fully embraces who I am".
Roe Johnson, a trans lesbian conversion survivor from Melbourne, said she was aware of 'aversion therapy' being prescribed by church leaders, where an unpleasant feeling is administered to a person, or they are told to imagine something unpleasant, when they think about someone of the same sex.
"Like when you think something, you have to go and take a cold shower, or think about your nan. It’s archaic," she told 10 daily.
But Johnson said the horror stories of physical abuse can obscure the longer-lasting -- and more common -- impacts of psychological harm from conversion.
"The wider community needs to understand conversion therapy isn't just physical damage. That's part of the history, but not what's happening now, which is more insidious," she told 10 daily.
"It's getting kids in offices and telling them their salvation is at stake, that they're going to hell because they're broken and wrong."
Taylor felt similar: "Nobody would ever go to formalised practises if they’d not been soaking in ideologies like this and felt shame their whole life," she said.
Survivors said Victoria's plan to outlaw the practices was to be commended, but some expressed concern the legal response may simply drive it further underground, and make it harder for LGBTQ people to seek help.
Csabs said that "most of the damage is happening in informal places like pastoral care meetings or prayer groups."
"It's already secretive, churches don't want people to know they're doing it," he alleged.
Asha Brodel, a trans woman who claimed to have experienced conversion practises through her teens, said they can be "almost invisible" -- and include issues around shunning and ostracism.
She alleged she was banned from leading church sessions and all ministry and was barred from being around children, as religious figures believed she would be a "morally corrupting" influence due to her sexuality.
"You become scared for your safety. People are praying for you to be healed, there's constant messaging that you're broken and that only through committed Christian discipleship can you become heterosexual and cisgender” she told 10 daily.
Csabs said he hoped the new laws would do more than simply slap a ban on the practises, saying addressing the ideology was also vital.
"I don't know how effective it will be if all you're going to do is ban it. That’s not going to solve the problem. It’s just putting on a Band-Aid," he said.
"We need to be educating communities, funding organisations supporting LGBTQ people who have gone through this. We need to focus on protecting queer people hearing this stuff day in and day out."
For LGBTQ peer support, referral and information, contact QLife on 1800 184 527If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
For further information about depression contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.