How Love and Good-heartedness Make LGBT+ Conversion Therapy so Terrifying

What if I told you that the people that perform conversion therapy on LGBT people are kind, genuine, generous and believe, whole-heartedly, that they’re doing the right thing?

Would it make you reconsider an issue that is emotionally charged, that the Select Committee, only a few months ago, wouldn’t ban under the guise of Religious Freedom?

Gay conversion or “praying the gay away” started to become popular in the mid-late 90s with the writings of Leanne Payne and her 70 page manifesto Healing Homosexuality. While a lot has changed in the decades since the mid 90s, the subversive nature of conversion therapy hasn’t and, in a lot of cases, it’s been pushed deeper underground and out to the fringes.

Praying the Gay Away

A quick Google for conversion therapy in New Zealand brings up scant opportunities to get involved or to participate. But that, says Jim Marjoram, founder of Silent Gays, former OUTLine counsellor and someone that has experienced and lead conversion therapy sessions (at Living Waters in the 70s) says that is by design.

“It’s always been under the radar,” Marjoram says, on the phone. “I only heard of it through a church leader or pastor I was involved with back in the 90s and he said, these guys are great, go and talk to them. It’s never been common knowledge up until recent years when it hit the media. It’s always been a real insidious thing…If you were brought up in a secular household, you probably wouldn’t have any idea about it.”

Is conversion therapy a personal choice issue, a social issue or a religious issue? Does it deserve to hide behind religious freedoms, making it essentially untouchable?

Vicar Helen Jacobi, of St Matthew’s Church in Auckland Central, has a few choice words for the Select Committee and some answers to those questions. St Matthew’s, she says, proudly is very liberal when it comes to social and LGBT issues (she was, in fact, the only church member approached for this article that agreed to an interview).

“I find that opinion really puzzling,” Vicar Jacobi says of the Select Committee decision. “I haven’t read in depth what they’ve said but, from what I understand, they said it’s to do with religious freedom but I would call [conversion therapy] religious oppression. You can’t hide behind religious beliefs when it’s something that’s hurting other people. That is totally illogical. We always try and separate out terrorism from religion. We don’t say, you can be a terrorist because it’s your religious belief, because that is clearly illogical and this is the same, it’s completely illogical. How can you have something that’s a religious belief that is hurting other people?”

Vicar Jacobi categorically says that conversion therapy does not take place in the Anglican Church in New Zealand and is unclear about how much of an issue conversion therapy is here. Though she does say, agreeing with Marjoram, that it seems to be most prolific in the more conservative churches.

“There are obviously still pockets of it going on but it’s only going to be in the very extreme churches…. I’d be extremely surprised if there was anything happening in the Anglican Church…I think it’s going to be pockets in the very conservative — what we would consider extreme — but certainly not in the mainstream.”

What makes conversion therapy so insidious is that the people that are doing it, believe they’re doing the right thing. It’s easy to think of it in the cult and exorcism sense (and Marjoram says this does happen) but often, it’s members of a community that care about the people at their church, doing what they believe is the best thing to help them.

“When I was part of it, I was a group leader and worship leader for many years and I was convinced I was doing the right thing,” says Marjoram. “It comes from a really good motive. These organisations have the best intentions and the people I worked with at Living Waters were really loving, really caring people and totally sincere. There is no hidden agenda or power play or anything like that. It was genuinely heartfelt sort of stuff and that probably makes it all the worse.”

He explains that there’s a bind, an Orwellian double-think, where people are locked into this system that is based on love and the love of God and they feel like they can’t question it, because if they do, it feels like questioning the love of their church and of God.

You Know What They Say About the Best of Intentions

Nevertheless, while these kinds of things might be formed with the best intentions, the damage they’re doing to people that experience them is catastrophic — often ending in mental illness and sometimes suicide.

CHROMA is an LGBT+ organisation based out of the South Island and is working towards inclusion, visibility and advocacy for LGBT+ human rights.

In a statement, CHROMA said that, “many psychiatric and health associations, including the American Psychiatric Association, World Health Organisation and the Human Rights Commission are strongly opposed to conversion therapy, which subjects individuals to forms of treatment that have not been scientifically validated.”

CHROMA further says that, “mental health, self-confidence and self-esteem can be dramatically impaired by use of such ‘treatments’ [inverted commas its own] which are often carried out by untrained personnel with no psychiatric or medical training.”

This is mirrored by what Marjoram says when he talks about the sense of isolation people can feel when they take part in conversion therapy or come out to their church.

“You either live with this illusion, which I did, and I had to admit to myself that on one hand, it wasn’t working but [on the other] I didn’t say anything to anyone so I masked it all with this idea that it was fantastic and I was walking forward in Christ, I would be healed and would take all of my sins and temptations to the cross…But because you’re not [being healed], the deeper shame and guilt just eats and eats and eats away at you. That’s why the suicide and mental illness rates are highest demographic in these groups.”

The pressure to change, and then not changing, builds for people who are the experiencing conversion therapy and, usually being deeply religious people, they feel that they’re letting God and the people that love them down.

“It becomes absolutely unbearable,” says Marjoram, “There are people who are in the process and who are fighting the stigma that can’t handle being gay and can’t change and eventually the cognitive dissonance in their brain explodes and they take their own life or some sort of mental illness kicks in.”

With conversion therapy being legal in New Zealand, it was important to find out what kind of healthcare and funding is provided to help people in these situations,. Marjoram says that OUTLine, a charity, is the best equipped to deal with it. We asked the Ministry of Health how LGBT+ people were supported after they’d experienced conversion therapy and were returned this statement:

“The Government has set clear expectations about improving the health outcomes for rainbow people, especially for people and groups that experience disproportionately poorer outcomes than other parts of the population.

“The Ministry is working to better meet the mental health, addiction, and wellbeing needs of communities, including rainbow communities through a range of initiatives. Budget 2019 allocated $455 million over four years to roll out primary mental health and addiction responses nationally.

“This will help provide free and timely support for mental health and addiction needs that meets people’s needs. These services will be available to rainbow communities.”

Forward: Towards the Cross, Towards Facebook, Towards support

In her small circular office at the back of St Matthew’s Church, in Auckland Central, Vicar Helen Jacobi and I sit on two chairs around a small coffee table. The office is dimly lit with only small windows and orange ceiling lights. Her desk faces towards a wall. As a golden rule, Vicar Jacobi accepts all media requests but this one seems particularly important as she acknowledges that St Matthew’s has been too silent for too long on LGBT issues following marriage equality in 2013.

She says that St Matthew’s the prides itself on being welcoming and open to everybody.

“We have people who come in to worship and say that it feels good to feel like it’s safe. A group we support very much is the evening church on a Sunday night, the Auckland Rainbow Community Church, and that is an ecumenical group and they run their own life but we support and them and the clergy help lead their services. It’s more of a place where people are retreating from churches that are still conservative.”

She says that St Matthew’s feels a strong duty of care for everyone that walks through their doors and works to make sure that everyone that attends is safe and comfortable. If there were inklings of conversion therapy, Vicar Jacobi says the clergy would know about it.

“If we knew that was going on, we would certainly be calling it out and be talking with Bishops, who have the power, and saying, ‘we can’t do this’… I know a couple of other Auckland diocese had a motion where they said, we’re not going to do this thing and everyone had been in agreement.”

For people that have experienced conversion therapy (or know people that have) there are also secular places to go to receive support. Marjoram runs Silent Gays, which includes in person support groups and large (closed) Facebook groups, that people can join.

While CHROMA hasn’t yet had anyone approach the organisation looking for help in this area, its doors are also open.

“Should this occur,” the statement says, “we have links with lawyers and health providers who understand the needs of our community. We would ensure that any individual in this situation was supported socially, legally and with any aspects of health care required.”

If you need help or support with mental illness you can contact:

The best place to get help with mental health is your GP or local mental health provider. Please speak to them. If you your someone is in danger or might be a danger to others, call 111 immediately.

NZ Helplines:

  • OUTLine
  • Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
  • Youthline: 0800 376 633
  • Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
  • Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)

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