It’s easy to pretend anyone arguing in favor of conversion therapy simply does not think that people like me exist. That, even if they believe in queerness, they are merely ignorant of the possibility someone is a migrant, a sex worker, a transgender person (with a pre-existing hormone difference!), a lesbian, an autistic person, and a survivor of immense childhood sexual abuse.
I have experienced conversion therapy, and believe me: they are aware. If anything, in at least a couple of the many cases where I ran into it, the people trying to convert me were determined to turn the many perceived tragedies of my existence into the most beautiful testimony to God.
It makes writing this submission particularly difficult. Even having this bill be discussed widely in my social circles over the last couple of months has been profoundly upsetting. I write this at the eleventh hour, the evening of the eighth, knowing that I may regret it if I don’t; I write it with an awareness that writing it is almost too close to writing the testimony they so desperately wanted from me that they were willing to, in various cases, detain me, exorcise me, spend months or even years counselling me, and finally, finally, expel me from service at church.
In a way, I’ve won. I’m a married lesbian, settled so squarely into my adult life that I only periodically remember that my mother still proudly interacts with social media pages which promise I can be cured. But in another way, writing this, sitting with my grief and my immense sense of hopelessness about it all, and feeling compelled to share my story, they’ve won anyway.
I don’t want to go into too much more detail. What I will say is this: I was raised in the deeply conspiratorial clutches of fundamentalist Christianity, such that even in my first year of primary school in South-East Asia I was telling my classmates they were all going to hell. I was terrified; I was struggling with many other things, including undiagnosed autism and being routinely sexually assaulted at school, and my parents’ particular system of faith involved intense denial that anything at all could be wrong with me.
Aged nine, we moved sight unseen to New Zealand. In this new country I had nobody but my family: we grew closer in the miserable cold of an Auckland winter in inadequate housing with few non-tropical clothes.
There are things no child should know. By ten, I was sure God hated me. By fifteen, I knew exactly how cruel the church could be, and exactly what I had become: an abomination. At that age, I was visibly withdrawn, later diagnosed with what I didn’t know yet was post-traumatic stress disorder, newly sure I was queer. I was sent to therapy and sat through months of sessions with an ACC counselor who was possibly the first person I came out to, and who spent most of those sessions telling me I was going to hell.
I kept a bag packed and ready to run, but I stayed until I was sure my siblings would be able to defend themselves. Went to law school until I was sure my parents knew that I knew spare the rod and spoil the child was no justification for a criminal offense.
Then my parents found out about my girlfriend, and everything tumbled down.
In a way, I’m grateful they forced me out. I don’t know how many more years I would have swallowed my fear and my pain and let a church which harbored known predators pray for me. I would have been thoroughly unable to start the arduous work of healing. In a way, years on from that period of homelessness, I’ll never be able to finish that work while they still believe they can fix me.
I’ve grown into a person I’d like to think the terrified child I was would be proud of. Part of that growth has been becoming a prison abolitionist: simply put, I believe that everything we work toward must minimize the amount of harm in the world, and that carceral solutions by and large do not do that.
In particular, as a child, I experienced child-on-child sexual abuse; as a teenager, I was once tricked into an exorcism by other people my age, compelled by their youth pastors to bring glory to God by rescuing me. In both these situations, I was not the only victim. We all were.
I tautoko the voices of everyone who has expressed concern about carceral, criminal approaches to enforcing this bill. These don’t help survivors; in particular, as a migrant, my family was all I had. I knew I could have gone to the police about some of the things that had happened to me in their care, but I wasn’t going to. As with sexual violence, the criminal justice system is a grotesque, retraumatizing process, even when it does not have the potential to end with losing everything and everyone we have.
That’s already the problem with conversion therapy, you see. If we didn’t love the people or the church that bullied us into it, we wouldn’t be doing it. If it were easy for us to walk away, or even to name it for what it is, we would have done that. But most of us are young and confused and hopeful that whatever it is that is driving the wedge between us and the only life we have ever known, it can be fixed. It doesn’t help to know that the outside world, the world our pastors tell us is fallen, the world that we are to be a light in the darkness to, thinks it’s criminal. It really doesn’t. Here, more than almost anywhere else, this approach will lead to children like I was turning further into the church for fear of losing even more.
Beyond this, I want to acknowledge the work of other autistic, neurodivergent and intersex people, and the ways many of us have suffered non-consensual medical intervention. I strongly believe that intersex people at least fall within the scope of this bill; even if you disagree, I urge you to consider the immense harm that intersex genital mutilation and ABA therapy have on us.
More generally, I strongly oppose any attempt to exclude healthcare professionals, whether acting within their scope or not, from this bill. This defangs it entirely, not just for intersex and autistic people who generally experience conversion practices in medical settings, but for the many more transgender and queer people who experience this behavior from their GPs, counselors, psychologists, and specialists, even where it involves entirely unrelated medical issues. This is a major quality of life issue for many of us, in particular those of us who are otherwise disabled.
The goal of this bill is creating less people who have survived what I have. That I understand and appreciate. But I don’t think its current form does that, and I fear that it may cause more harm by forcing the most vulnerable of our young people further into their conspiracist communities for fear of criminal penalties, and by implicitly condoning these practices when done by someone with the right degree and far too much power over our health outcomes.
When I read about this bill, I was filled with hopelessness. I didn’t believe it could make anything right, not for me, not for any of the many other queer people I went to fundamentalist school with, or for any other survivor who is, was, or is to come. Writing this now, I see ways that it might be able to change things, the way it was meant to.
That will require a significant change in how the bill looks and functions. I believe you are capable of making the correct choice, and can only hope that you will.