Exposing Australia's History of Bizarre "Ex-Gay" Conversion Therapy

“I’d heard frightening stories about people screaming, contorting and frothing at the mouth when devils were cast out of them but whatever it took to get rid of these terrible thoughts I wanted to do it,” he said.  

For Anthony Venn-Brown, his experiences with "conversion therapy" to rid himself of his homosexual urges began in 1971.   The 20-year-old Venn-Brown's desire to "be normal" led him to the Assemblies of God church in Auckland, Australia and the anti-gay crusade of the two pastors there.   The pastors assured him that he was "harbouring the devil" and that they could drive out "unclean spirits" through prayer.  

As Venn-Brown reported in an interview with news.com.au, the exorcism he underwent basically involved the pastors standing over him for two hours and compelling the gay spirits to leave his body.  “They shouted ‘name yourself’ and ‘come out, you devil’. As they grew louder my breathing became heavier which encouraged them further,"  he said.  "They shouted: “Come out, come out, you unclean, foul spirit from the pit of hell! You have to obey us, we have the authority of Jesus Christ, the Son of God! Name yourself!”  The exorcism caused Venn-Brown to become so worked up that he “coughed up phlegm” and “fell off the seat onto the floor”.    

And that wasn't the only anti-gay therapy he received.   Not long afterward, Venn-Brown joined the the Moombara/Bundeena Christian Fellowship, billed as being the first ex-gay therapy centre in the world.   As he described what happened to him in his 2014 book, A Life of Unlearning: a preacher's struggle with his homosexuality, church and faith,  his "treatment" involved having "manly chores" assigned to him to prevent him from masturbating, studying the Bible, practicing abstinence, and even having counselors watch him shower to ensure that no masturbation occurred.   

After years of treatment, Venn-Brown married and raised two daughters though he was well aware that his "cure" hadn't worked.   Despite this, he became a popular preacher at one of Australia's biggest mega-churches and a prominent figure in the ex-gay movement.    After twenty-two years of ex-gay crusading, he finally came out to his family and his congregation, a "fall from grace" that would rock his church.   

Now living as an out gay man, Anthony Venn-Brown has dedicated his life to helping other survivors of the war on sexual minorities that had been conducted by many of Australia's churches.    While times have changed and most churches have abandoned the ex-gay movement, there are still some churches pushing conversion therapy though they are forced to be more discreet in offering their services. 

One of the longest-lasting conversion therapy programs, Living Waters Australia, finally closed its doors in 2014 after more than three decades.  Located in Sydney, the church's leader, Ron Brookman, adamantly insisted that his program was effective.   "For over 30 years I was homosexual,"  Brookman testified at a 2012 government inquiry into same-sex marriage.  "In the last six months I have celebrated the weddings of two ex-gay men who have married beautiful wives and two couples who have given birth to babies who would never have been born had they not transitioned from homosexuality”.

Other people involved with Living Waters Australia were more repentant though.  In an interview with news.com.au, former Living Waters leader Alan LeMay stated that he regrets the harm he has done even though he was convinced at the time that converting gay men and lesbians was consistent with his religious beliefs.  

“I confess there was a significant amount of ignorance on my part about homosexuality and their struggle," he said.  “I was part of a fundamentalist church group that steered us towards a particular framework. We felt (being gay) was a sin and it was wrong. We wanted to engage people in a spiritual process that would reorientate their sexuality to the opposite sex. Those people were struggling and we genuinely felt that their struggle was based on their sexual orientation.”

Still, while seventy-five percent of all the ex-gay ministries operating in Australia even ten years ago, there continue to be holdouts offering treatment for "unwanted same-sex attraction."    All of these programs continue to be legal under Australian law given the lack of any formal regulating body to police them.   While independent MP Alex Greenwich introduced a motion in 2013 to ban conversion programs that might damage the mental health of sexual minorities,  little real progress has been made.

In the meantime, activists such as Anthony Venn-Brown warn young people considering ex-gay therapy about the harmful effects of these programs, not to mention the hate-filled rhetoric that makes up much of the "treatment" involved.    As Venn-Brown and others have warned, this kind of  damage can last a lifetime.

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