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Opinion: Conversion practices must be banned in all forms in the ACT

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It’s a no-brainer. Conversion practices that seek to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity should be banned in the ACT (and everywhere else, for that matter).

Conversion practices are bad for mental health, bad for physical health, and bad for our community.

I support the government’s intention to make it clear to practitioners, service providers, and the community that these harmful practices are not to be offered in the ACT. But what does such a ban mean in practice?

The scope of the proposed definition is comprehensive. The ACT government has committed to ban practices that ‘seek to change or suppress an individual’s gender identity or sexual orientation’ and are grounded in ‘beliefs that all people are born with the potential to develop into heterosexual people, and that gender identity must accord with biological sex.’ However, there are some things about the ban that could be improved.

I hope you agree with me here: rather being based on a description of any particular practice, conversion practices should be prohibited based on their effect, intent, and outcome.

By taking this approach, any new practices that emerge in the future are likely to be covered by the existing legislation.

To adequately ‘prevent harm caused by conversion practices that attempt to change or suppress a person’s sexuality or gender identity’, more needs to be done.

For example, online conversion practices should be prohibited. If organisations that promote conversion practices decide to offer these services to ACT residents online, it would defeat the purpose of the ban.

We need to prohibit people and organisations from coercing or inducing a person to undergo conversion practices.

We are aware of organisations, families, and employers who, in the past, have made ongoing membership, enrolment, employment, or financial support conditional on undergoing conversion practices, despite arguing that the practices were undergone willingly.

But these practices shouldn’t just be banned in the ACT; inducing or coercing an individual to undertake them in another jurisdiction should also be an offence.

Additionally, it should be an offence to promote, support, or encourage conversion practices, to provide training in conducting them, and to facilitate their provision.

Finally, it should be an offence to threaten or undertake adverse action if an individual refuses or declines to undergo conversion practices or to even be advised of them.

By taking these steps, individuals can make evidence-based decisions about what’s best for them without being financially or emotionally pressured or fearing they will lose their job.

There must be a range of penalties and mechanisms to support the enforcement of the ban. The first of these must be accessible, cheap, and enforceable civil remedies for those who have experienced pressure to undergo conversion practices.

However, the responsibility of remediation should not lie solely with the individual who has been subjected to these practices. Those responsible for carrying them out should apologise and offer financial compensation, restoration, and mediation.

There should also be a range of penalties available for enforcement, from warnings to fines. Repeated conduct should carry higher penalties, and there should be a significant financial penalty for inducing, coercing, or harassing a person to undergo conversion practices.

People with diverse sexualities and gender identities who are confronted with conversion practices are always vulnerable to some degree, and power imbalances, especially when seeking professional advice, are significant. Children, young people, and adults with additional vulnerabilities are especially at risk of coercion and inducement, and they deserve additional protections.

As such, we strongly support a proposal to make it a criminal offence to require these people to undergo conversion practices. Being taken outside of the ACT to have such practices performed should also be outlawed. Any attempts to force someone to undergo conversion practices should be considered an assault on the individual.

As well as the basic protections, there should be additional penalties if health and other professionals promote or engage in conversion practices. A range of penalties should be in place, including warnings and periods of supervised practice, as well as suspension and de-registration from professional practice for repeated conduct.

We also need to be ready for the likelihood that employers, civil society organisations, educational and other institutions, and communities of faith will need significant training in order to understand what the ban means.

Over time, the ban will reduce levels of distress experienced by LGBTIQ+ community members. In the short term, however, it’s likely to increase demand for counselling and support services as some people realise, possibly for the first time that the counselling and medical practices they were exposed to were wrong.

I would also expect that some LGBTIQ+ people will face additional challenges in navigating the public discussion around the passage of the legislation, which is likely to cause significant distress and upset.

Whatever the pathway to legislating this ban, I will continue to stand with and support my community to ensure that every individual is affirmed, supported, and empowered.

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