It’s been one year since the law banning conversion therapy in Aotearoa came into force - but advocates say a law change does not equal an attitude change.

And tackling the society-wide attitudes that fuel conversion practices is a task that will likely take years, according to Te Kāhui Tika Tangata Human Rights Commission.

It says public education is important for further progress in ending conversion therapy, given the significant and complex barriers people can face before coming forward for help.

Advocate Shaneel Lal, a survivor of conversion therapy, agrees.

“I think the significant focus [now] needs to be on the Government's actions and funding when it comes to educating people,” they say.

“We still have young people coming through schools who do not understand that being gay or being trans is completely normal.

“And I think once we start educating people that being gay and being trans is completely normal, that's when we start shifting the attitudes of people,” they say.

“We're not going to change the attitudes of people by criminalising them; we are going to change their attitudes by educating them. I think the fundamental missing piece here is that we've got the [conversion therapy] ban, but we don't have the education.”

Conversion therapy still a threat

Lal says young people have been in touch with them to say they still feel that if they come out to their parents, they will be put in conversion therapy.

Shaneel Lal. Photo by Gyllian Taei.

“Whether that's been actioned is a different story, but I think that even after conversion therapy has been banned, there are a lot of young queer people that are growing up in this country feeling as though their parents, their teachers, their church leaders could still do that to them.”

Lal says the aim of conversion therapy is to convince people that if they don’t change, then their community and family will disown them and “they will burn in hell for the rest of their life”.

“For young people that have only ever known and loved their community and their family, that is a big deal,” they say.

“A lot of young people would rather go into conversion therapy than lose their community and family.”

Finding help

A year ago, the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Act gave the Human Rights Commission six months to set up a conversion practices response service. 

That service began in August 2022, and now offers a complaints process, education, and support.

The Commission is also having conversations with church leaders, as churches have been a common setting for conversion practices, says Human Rights Commission conversion practices manager Matt Langworthy.

“If religious leaders become more informed about these harmful practices and challenge some of the fear-based beliefs, that will then filter down to parents,” he says.

“We hope it will help create an environment for acceptance, and ultimately help end conversion practices in Aotearoa.”

Langworthy says the Commission is also working to support the needs of transgender and non-binary people whose conversion therapy experiences include medical and psychological elements.

“We’re working to develop resources that will help clinicians, counsellors, and psychologists understand what the law means for them,” he says.

The work isn’t over - but hope remains

Lal says the work to create a more inclusive society will likely never end, but they remember the power of Aotearoa officially banning conversion practices a year ago.

The bill to ban conversion therapy had nearly 107,000 public submissions, the highest number of public submissions ever received on any legislation in New Zealand. 

Lal says it was amazing being “a small part of something so phenomenal”.

“In 2017, I was sitting at Middlemore [Hospital], being offered conversion therapy by a church leader. In 2018, I became a Youth MP and then in 2019, I went to Youth Parliament and did a speech that went viral on the internet,” Lal remembers.

A Messenger group chat at that time led to the founding of the Conversion Therapy Action Group, which then spent the next few years consistently advocating to ban conversion therapy.

Lal says when that ban was finally passed into law, it was surreal. 

“It gave us hope that no queer child, or no child at all, will be born in an Aotearoa that accepts or tolerates the erasure of their identity.”

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