A bill has been introduced to Parliament to make conversion practices illegal in New Zealand.
Conversion practices, commonly known as conversion therapy, are those aiming to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
Today, Minister of Justice Kris Faafoi introduced the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill.
Minister Faafoi says conversion practices don’t work, are widely discredited and cause harm to rainbow communities and the wider community.
“Conversion practices have no place in modern New Zealand. They are based on the false belief that any person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression is broken and in need of fixing.”
The Bill would create two new criminal offences:
- For people under the age of 18: it would be a crime to perform conversion practices on anyone under the age of 18 or with impaired decision-making capacity, regardless of whether those practices caused harm, with a penalty of up to three years in prison.
- For people over 18: it would be a crime to perform conversion practices on anyone, regardless of age, if it can be demonstrated they suffered “serious harm”, with a penalty of up to five years in prison.
The two criminal offences are intended for “particularly serious cases and to send a clear message that conversion practices are unacceptable and should not be occurring in New Zealand,” Minister Faafoi says.
For cases that don’t meet the threshold for a criminal offence, people will also have the option of civil redress, where they can complain to the Human Rights Commission.
Complaints can be escalated to the Human Rights Review Tribunal, which would be able to give various rulings like declaring that a wrong has occurred, giving a fine, or restricting the person or organisation from continuing to perform conversion practices.
The Human Rights Commission will also give education about conversion therapy and how to get help.
Under the law, for something to be considered a conversion practice, it must be:
- Directed towards someone because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression
- Be performed with the intention of changing or suppressing their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.
The Justice Minister says the Bill has been designed so that it will not include:
- health practitioners performing health services
- assisting a person who is undergoing a gender transition, or facilitating a person’s coping skills, development, or identity exploration.
- people “providing legitimate counselling, support and advice”
- general expressions of religious beliefs or principles about sexuality and gender
The Minister says it will bring New Zealand in line with other countries like the US, Canada, Germany, the UK, and the Australian states of Queensland, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory.
The Bill is not yet a law - it needs to go through the usual parliamentary process. It will have its first reading in August and then will have a period where the public can have their say. The government expects it will be passed by early next year.
Conversion therapy survivors welcome the Bill
“There are so many people that will have their lives changed because of this,” says conversion therapy survivor and co-founder of Conversion Therapy Action Group Shaneel Lal.
“My practitioner was a religious extremist, three of my friends went through conversion therapy in religious groups and all of us at one point in our lives questioned if it was still worth living.”
“It is important to recognise that conversion therapy is not about ‘praying the gay away’ or ‘fixing the trans’, it is about psycholoigically and physically torturing the most vulnerable people.”
If laws like this had existed when they were growing up, Shaneel says, “it would have sent the message that it was okay to be who I am”.
Survivor of conversion therapy Trinity Thompson-Browne was a member of the pentecostal Christian church from age 12, until they left the church in 2018, age 21.
As Trinity writes in this first-person essay for Re: about surviving conversion therapy as a young, Māori, takatāpui, autistic person, it was common for their pastor to pray demons out of the outwardly gay kids in their congregation.
“I remember looking on as this was happening one time — this boy was bent over and crying as the pastor screamed for the demons to come out of him. I felt so sorry for him. I knew if I acknowledged I was takatāpui, that would be me, so I stayed right in the closet.”
Trinity was subject to conversion practices including a 12-week course where they specifically had to focus on their same-sex attraction. Below is a photo from one of the prayers given to them.
After nearly a decade in the church, Trinity became suicidal. “I was at the end of myself trying to become straight; I had nothing left,” they say.
They are relieved and “really happy” action is happening on the issue.
They say there’s “no words” for the degree of psychological damage that can come from conversion practices. “I’m still recovering from it and I've been in therapy for two years.”
The law should go further, advocates say
Shaneel would like the requirement for survivors to demonstrate they experienced “serious” harm removed from the law.
“Victims and survivors may not be able to meet the requirement for ‘serious harm’, and it is also problematic because it sends a message that it is okay to cause queer people harm through conversion therapy as long as it is not serious.”
The Bill currently proposes two different offences, one for people under the age of 18 and one for those over 18.
For people under 18, any form of conversion therapy would be illegal.
But for people over 18, it would need to be demonstrated that the person suffered “serious harm” as a result of conversion practices.
The Bill defines serious harm as “any physical, psychological, or emotional harm that seriously and detrimentally affects the health, safety, or welfare of the individual.”
“There’s evidence that conversion therapy increases the risk of suicide and depression,” says Shaneel. “However will these be captured by the use of the words ‘serious harm’ because they do not meet the threshold?”
“Any erasure of queer identity is unacceptable, not only when it is causing an individual serious harm.”
Minister Faafoi says the serious harm provision is important because “we only want the serious cases to go down the criminal route.”
“If serious harm isn't proven you are able to go to the Human Rights Commission.”
Trinity says they would like to see a provision for ACC-funded therapy for survivors of conversion practices.
“For those who have already been subjected to conversion therapy and who have been left to deal with the mind-numbing, debilitating effects alone, there are no mechanisms of support outlined in this announcement.”
They say the Bill is a top-of-the-cliff approach that will help stop future instances of conversion therapy, but there is no bottom-of-the-cliff support for those who have already survived it.
“If you experience sexual harm you have access to ACC-funded therapy, conversion therapy is just as debilitating.”
How have other groups responded?
Green spokesperson for Rainbow Communities Dr Elizabeth Kerekere has welcomed today’s announcement from the Government.
In February this year the Green Party started a petition to ban conversion therapy that got over 150,000 signatures.
Christian charity organisation The Salvation Army supports the move, and in a statement says conversion practices are “unethical” and the antithesis of the “love in action” that Christians are called to do.
Conservative Christian lobby group Family First says the Bill is “yet another attack on parents’ rights” and that “Islamic and Christian schools could be breaking the law for teaching their students that Allah/God made us male and female”.
What about religious freedom?
The law expressly does not make it illegal for general expressions of religious beliefs or principles about sexuality and gender.
“In every democratic society, the rights and freedoms of people are balanced,” says Shaneel. “Religious rights are not absolute, especially those that seek to hurt vulnerable people.”
“Do religious people truly believe that torturing queer people is their right? Is that really a right they are proud to have?”
Where to from here?
Shaneel says it’s “naive” to hope the Bill alone will fix a deep-rooted issue of anti-queerness.
“We must educate people so that conversion therapy just doesn’t happen, instead of waiting for people to do conversion therapy and then hope we capture them by the criminal law.”
They say when the opportunity for public submission comes up later this year, likely in August or September, New Zealanders should “get ready to show up for queer people, to amplify the voices of queer people so the Bill is what we need”.
For those who may wish to submit against the Bill, Shaneel asks that “before you debate conversion therapy, consider the trauma that the victims and survivors continue to live with”.
“What you think is a hypothetical debate is a life-threatening terrifying lived experience for queer people,” Shaneel says.