‘Ex-Gay’ Counselling: It’s Happening In Australian Schools
By Luke WilliamsAugust 2, 2013
Update: On August 19, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie outlawed ex-gay therapy for minors. No such restrictions apply in Australia.
Densely populated and slightly old-fashioned, the suburb of Toongabbie sits right in the middle of Sydney’s western suburban mass.
At Toongabbie Christian School, faith is taken very seriously. When the school surveyed parents, most (61 per cent) cited “The Christian values and teachings” as “the ultimate deciding factor” in sending their child to study there, followed by “I want my child to learn about God” (47 per cent) and “to develop a relationship with God” (40 per cent).
On its website, the school notes that it meets the New South Wales curriculum requirements, but adds: “Our curriculum is prepared and presented from a Biblical foundation and the students are encouraged to view all that they learn from a Christian perspective.”
This school’s particular Christian perspective is clear in its statement of faith: “That the Scriptures, consisting of the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments, are the infallible Word of God. They were written by holy people of God inspired by the Holy Spirit and have supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.”
In recent years, the school has also shared a spiritual kinship with a young pastor named Haydn Sennitt. He declined an interview for this story, but in other media appearances and on his website he seems a friendly, articulate man in his late 20s, with bright orange hair and even brighter blue eyes. Sennitt tells his remarkable life story on the website of an international group for formerly gay men, called Exodus Global Alliance, where he serves as vice chairman of the Asia-Pacific chapter. As a teen with an attraction to men, he was shunned by his father and bullied at the Christian high school he attended; other students called him “seedy faggot”. He became depressed and suicidal. At 18, as he tells it, he joined Sydney’s inner-city gay party scene.
He has since renounced his homosexuality; he now describes his desire for other males as a temptation sent by Satan.
Sennitt writes that a friend re-introduced him to the Bible, and that he “trained [himself] to take an interest in things that other men were interested in, like sport, and surprisingly became passionate about them!” He is frank about his faltering along the way, but Sennitt says he came to believe that society had taken the wrong path by accepting homosexuality and that every gay man had the capacity to change.
He writes: “No one can be a gay Christian because God has made us for heterosexual sexual unity. Jesus, His Father, and the Holy Spirit can heal and change people and it's not just me. There's no excuse for failing to trust God because He does transform.”
Sennitt is now married, studying at Bible college and, until recently, was working part-time for Liberty Christian Ministries Inc, one of a half-dozen or so Christian ministries in Australia which attempt to assist people who experience unwanted same-sex attraction. Others such ministries include Living Waters, Beyond Egypt and Homosexuals Anonymous.
These organisations, often referred to as ‘ex-gay’ ministries, offer support groups, individual counselling, and prayer meetings – either to overcome a person’s unwanted same-sex attraction, increase their attraction to the opposite sex, or help them abstain from acting on their feelings.
In June, the most prominent global organisation claiming to offer a “cure” for homosexuality, Exodus International, announced plans to shut down after four decades in operation; its leader, Alan Chambers, likewise married and frank about his attraction to men, apologised for the hurt, shame, anxiety and trauma his group and its judgments had caused.
Sennitt called Chambers’ apology “ridiculous”, saying that much good had come from Exodus’ work, in that it helped many people to live beyond their unwanted proclivities or desires.
Sennitt has been a fervent promoter of his views – speaking at other churches and at Christian schools.
He visited Toongabbie Christian School on three separate occasions and met with parents as well as teachers, according to Stephen Doherty, chief executive officer of Christian Schools Australia.
The school invited him first to speak to its teaching staff about Liberty’s work generally. He then returned as part of the school staff’s professional development week, to discuss issues of sexuality.
In 2012, Sennitt was back at Toongabbie as part of a panel at a parent education evening.
The school also provided information about Liberty to the parents of a gay student at Toongabbie, though the family chose not to go ahead with the counselling.
When contacted by The Global Mail, Toongabbie Christian School principal David Badger declined to comment, both as a matter of school policy and under advice from Doherty.
Doherty said on the occasions Sennitt spoke at Toongabbie, “as far as I understand, he did not specifically promote ‘ex gay programs’ … but rather spoke about his own journey”.
Doherty also said he did not believe the promotion of ex-gay counselling was widespread in Christian schools and that, “If students are referred to specialist services of any kind, it is very important that their parents are involved in such decisions.”
He noted that while Toongabbie presented Liberty “as one source of possible assistance for issues that the boy and his family were working through … [the choice] was entirely a matter for the student and his parents. Schools provide information about a number of avenues of assistance as part of their day to day role in assisting students and their families.”
Of Sennitt’s visits to the school, Doherty said, “I understand [Toongabbie] school and its associated church provided opportunities within their community last year to explore the complex issues relating to sexuality and faith, in view of the widespread community discussion of the gay marriage issue. This is entirely appropriate.”
In July 2012, Liberty outlined some of its plans, including its intention of “developing school curriculum for youth in conjunction with schools and, God willing, other relevant organisations”.
Doherty said Toongabbie “does not have a specific ‘curriculum’ on alternative sexualities”. Where the Personal Development and Health curriculum discusses sexuality, he said, “as a Christian school, Toongabbie reflects Biblical teachings about human relationships, not just in relation to sexuality, but in all areas of relationship”.
In 2012, the Toongabbie Christian High’s population numbered 858 students, and its annual report showed an income of more than $10 million; nearly $5 million of this came from the federal government, and $1.88 million from the state of New South Wales.
RESEARCH SUGGESTS THAT SCHOOLS other than Toongabbie Christian School are going further than hearing speakers, and may be preaching the message that it is possible, even necessary, to ‘heal’ one’s sexuality, to become an ex-gay — or at the very least to abstain from acting on gay or bisexual impulses.
In 2010, Dr Tiffany Jones, a lecturer and researcher at the University of New England’s School of Education and former high school teacher, was among seven academics who surveyed 3,134 self-identified same-sex-attracted people aged between 14 and 21 in The third national report on sexuality, health and wellbeing of same-sex attracted and gender questioning young people in Australia.
“Most astonishingly,” Jones told The Global Mail, “33 per cent of students [surveyed] from Christian schools in Western Sydney had been exposed to the ex-gay or gay-conversion message.”
She says seven per cent of those surveyed nationwide had been told by teachers at their high school that they could, and ought to, change their sexual orientation.
As mentioned, Liberty Ministries is one of several ministries offering counselling to gays in Australia.
“Some of those [same-sex-attracted young people] surveyed told us they had been referred to external ‘ex-gay’ ministries without their parent knowing,” Jones says.
“One student was referred by his school counsellor to an ex-gay counsellor, who attempted to get him to change his mannerisms and told him to stop acting so feminine and start playing sport because this would help him overcome his homosexuality.
“In another case, a student was referred to a church where they had to endure a humiliating group prayer, where he sat there in front of all the entire congregation while they prayed for his homosexuality to go away,” she says.
The results of the survey, published under the auspices of La Trobe University, have been shared at international and national conferences and at Australia’s National Safe Schools Symposium. The respondents came from every state and territory in Australia.
“The worst issues for Western Sydney, and for alternative Christian schools in New South Wales generally, is due to the specific types of alternative ministries which are more popular there,” Jones says of the conservative evangelistic congregations. “These ways of thinking are tied to very particular religious discourses that people are being exposed to in those areas.”
Self-described ex-gay Ron Brookman heads up Australia’s Living Waters Ministry, which has chapters in both Sydney and Melbourne. He told The Global Mail he felt it was the ex-gay movement’s responsibility to promote its message within schools – but that this should only be done in an environment where “both sides of the debate” are discussed within the classroom.
Brookman also said that if any minors approached his ministry, he would not allow them to join without first consulting their parents.
NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli declined to be interviewed for this article. However, the Opposition education spokeswoman, Carmel Tebbutt, said in a written statement, “Any form of so-called gay conversion therapy is inappropriate.”
The Australian Medical Association president Dr Steve Hambleton called it “dangerous” for gay, lesbian or bisexual youth to be told their sexuality is a condition which can be changed.
The promotion of an ex-gay message in schools is “appalling”, said Kate Carnell, the chief executive of Beyond Blue, an Australian organisation providing the public with information about depression. She added that any staff who were involved in disseminating such a message were acting in an “inappropriate” and “unethical manner”.
“Part of the reason we have schools is to make students more resilient and accept themselves more,” Carnell told The Global Mail. “These ex-gay programs are damaging… exposing students to this in a high school and hearing it from an authority figure is very harmful. It really would expose GLBIT [Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Intersex and Transgender] students in those schools to a much greater risk of depression, anxiety and even, in some circumstances, suicide.”
The first openly gay member of the Australian parliament, Dr Bob Brown, is not only former leader of the Australian Greens party, but also the former school captain of Blacktown Boys High School in western Sydney.
“I would be in favour of criminal charges being considered against such advocacy being aimed at any gay students in our Australian school system,” Brown told The Global Mail.
Brown has said that as a teenager he felt terribly conflicted over his sexuality and his Christian faith. He told The Australian that later when he was a medical student at the University of Sydney, he had cried himself to sleep every night and even saw a psychiatrist who tried electric-shock aversion therapy to cure Brown's attraction to men. “I wasn’t going to tell anyone I was gay, I was talking a lot with Jesus about it, but he didn’t come good.”
Told of the reports of ex-gay counselling happening in Australian schools now, Brown told The Global Mail: “People’s sexuality is a reason for celebration not electric shock therapy. Attempts to change homosexuality are nothing short of homophobia and should be dealt with under the law.”
Academic Tiffany Jones told The Global Mail that she believes the infiltration of the ex-gay message into high schools is keeping alive what appears to be a dying movement.
“If the average person knew what was going inside these schools, they would be absolutely shocked,” she says.
THE SLIM 26-YEAR-OLD with dark brown hair who meets me a Melbourne café appears shy and is obviously uncomfortable. The Global Mail has agreed not to name him, out of respect for his privacy and that of his parents. He tells me that as a 16-year-old student at a school in Melbourne’s semi-rural outer suburbs, he came out as being gay, and that a teacher subsequently rang him at home to tell him homosexuality was sinful and something he could change.
“So I said to [the teacher], ‘There is nothing wrong with being gay’, and he laughed at me. He said the Bible was clear about homosexuality and that was the end of the discussion.”
The CEO of the school would not comment on the specifics of the alleged events of a decade ago, nor discuss current policy. He responded that “all students at [the school] are treated with respect and sensitivity about their personal circumstances. I am unwilling to make any response further to this.”
The young man recalls his school days, saying, “I wasn’t so much angry as just confused; I was getting all these mixed messages from different people about being gay.”
He says his parents are both in their late 60s, conservative and very religious. His mother, in particular, he says, is a deeply fearful Christian who doesn’t even like anybody to walk around with their legs exposed in her house.
After his mother discovered gay pornography in his internet history, he says life at home became fraught. But when he told his mum about the phone call from his teacher, she was hopeful – if not necessarily of change, at least of redemption of some sort. She made further inquiries and learned through their local church of Exodus International, the ex-gay ministry, then operating in Melbourne. She began pressuring him to attend and, despite his reluctance, he says that because he loved his parents he eventually obliged.
The young man says Exodus International held group meetings (“kind of like group therapy”) which were attended by about a dozen or so men and facilitated by an ex-gay leader who would talk about what an awful, lonely, immoral life gay culture presented.
“I remember one of them told me, ‘You’ll soon get sick of casual sex and bleaching your hair.’”
Like Sennitt, this young man had a tough time at high school. He was called a faggot and a poofter, and was ostracised. He often sat by himself in the school library at lunchtime and recess, drawing pictures of imaginary worlds inhabited by dragons, wizards and women in elegant 19th-century dresses. He says people sometimes drove past his house at night and threw bottles through his windows.
“The message I got from the ex-gay group was simple – the reason I am what I am and feel the way I feel is because of the devil. So the reason people didn’t like me and why I had no friends and why I liked men was because a demon had taken over,” he says. “I started to imagine what hell would be like for me.”
But on the internet he found alternative messages about his sexuality and he began to question the church, his school and his parents. He starting believing being gay was not a choice and that the gay subculture potentially offered more freedom and acceptance than he had ever experienced.
When he told his mother he did not want to go to the ex-gay ministry again she began frantically arguing with him and repeating the line that she didn’t want her son to go to hell.
“I could not stand the feeling that my own mother thought I was evil. I started asking myself ‘How could this have happened? What’s wrong with me? Why won’t she shut-up? Why was I even born?’” He locked himself in the bathroom while his mother cried and banged on the door.
His hands tremble as he recalls, “I cut my arms with a kitchen knife.”
“I didn’t want to commit suicide, I was just so upset, I just wanted to punish myself, I suppose,” he says.
Ron Brookman of Living Waters, when asked whether ex-gay programs are damaging to young people, has a different perspective. In an email to The Global Mail, Brookman said: “One of our leaders (now 29) nearly committed suicide after a psychologist told him to go act on his [same-sex attraction]. He lost his virginity in doing so, became absolutely depressed, ended up in a mental hospital. It was only when he came to see that he could be forgiven through the grace of Jesus and start again that he regained hope, spent the next four years working through his [same-sex attraction], and has emerged with strength, certainty and a regained life!
“Making young people feel guilty [about same-sex attraction] and forcing them to change is indeed dangerous and not in Jesus’ way at all – responding to their cries for help is. In an educational setting exploring the dangers of sexuality outside biblical guidelines is a responsibility that we take up, usually in a setting where both the secular and Christian viewpoints are compared. We believe in free speech for both sides of the discussion!”
THERE ARE NO LAWS, state or federal, that address the promotion of gay-conversion counselling generally, or within Australian schools.
The Federal Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013 , which passed in June 2013, removed religious exemptions to the prohibition of discrimination by providers of aged-care services, but the exemptions for religious schools and organisations remained intact. This effectively means that there is no restriction on the promotion of ‘ex-gay’ counselling.
However, the Member for Sydney in the NSW Parliament, Independent MP Alex Greenwich, has announced plans to introduce a bill to the NSW Parliament that would remove the exemptions in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act, which currently allow private schools to refuse entry and even expel students based on their sexuality.
Although Australia places no legal restriction on attempting to change a minor’s sexual orientation, California has passed a law that at least prevents licensed psychologists and therapists from seeking to change the sexual orientation of people under the age of 18. New Jersey looks as though it too will soon pass similar laws. However, even in these jurisdictions, such laws do not apply to clergy and other people who are offering sexual-orientation change counselling to minors.
Kate Carnell of Beyond Blue told The Global Mail she thinks Australia should seriously consider enacting laws to protect minors from attempts to change their sexual orientation.
A federal Attorney-General’s Department spokesperson would not comment on the government’s views about restrictions such as those operating in California, but did email a statement to The Global Mail saying, “If these reports [of ex-gay ministry in Australian high schools] are accurate, this is very concerning. People, particularly children and young people, are entitled to be free from arbitrary ... interference.”
When Exodus leader Alan Chambers unreservedly apologised for participating in a “system of ignorance” it made news headlines worldwide. His new position comes after years of blows to the ‘ex gay’ movement, which has been in decline since homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973.
The Australian Psychological Society, the Australian Medical Association, the British Psychological Society and the World Health Organisation, as well as the major American professional associations of psychologists, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts and counsellors, all agree that attempting to change a person’s sexual orientation is useless and potentially harmful.
Any residual doubts about the efficacy of attempting to change a person’s sexual orientation were clarified when in 2009 the American Psychological Association released the largest ever review of ex-gay research, the Report of the American Psychological Association Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation. The 183-page report examined all peer-reviewed journal articles written in English from 1960 to 2007 on the efficacy of sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE).
Its conclusion? "Enduring change to an individual's sexual orientation as a result of SOCE is unlikely" and "some participants were harmed" by such efforts. For adolescents specifically, the report said, "We are concerned that such interventions may increase the self-stigma, minority stress, and ultimately the distress of children and adolescents."
However, the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), an American-based organisation which assists people to modify their homosexual desire, disagrees.
NARTH acknowledges that for most people “biological, psychological and social factors” shape sexual identity at an early age. The difference is one of emphasis, NARTH says: NARTH is more concerned with family, peer and social influences while American Psychological Association is focussed on biology.
NARTH claims that, “Numerous examples exist of people who have successfully modified their sexual behaviour, identity, and arousal or fantasies” and holds that “the right to seek therapy to change one’s sexual adaptation should be considered self-evident and inalienable”.
“The American Psychological Association currently recommends that schools censor all ‘ex-gay’ materials, and prohibit discussion about those who have chosen to change their orientation,” NARTH’s position statement says. “Respect for diversity, however, requires teaching about all principled positions.
“Ultimately, sexual lifestyle decisions hinge on matters of deeply held values. Schools should respect the right of families to convey their own social values to their children.”
It must be said that within Australian Christian communities, the belief in “gay conversion” is only accepted by a small minority.
For instance, last year Brian Houston, the head of Hillsong Church – a Pentecostal church in Sydney’s outer north-western suburbs, which claims 20,000 congregants a week, and is often regarded as very conservative on moral issues – specifically said Hillsong the church would no longer be supporting ex-gay ministries.
Considering her research results, the UNE academic Tiffany Jones believes however that the broader social acceptance of homosexuality has prompted an aggressive backlash from some conservative Christian churches.
Jones’ research suggests homophobic abuse continues to rise – and 80 per cent of those reporting abuse say it happened at school.
“We were surprised by the increase in homophobic abuse. Of the 3,134 GLBIT [gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersex and transgender] students we interviewed, 61 per cent had experienced verbal homophobic abuse in 2010 – compared to 44 per cent when we ran the survey back in 1998, and 46 per cent when we ran the survey back in 2004. This is a statistically significant result.
“In addition, 18 per cent experienced physical homophobic abuse in 2010 – compared to 14 per cent in 1998; 16 per cent in 2004.
“This was overall in Australia, but it is important to note that bullying was significantly decreased in schools that offered specific school-level policy protections for their GLBIT students,” she says.
“Really GLBIT youth are suffering an incredibly nasty counter-reaction to the advancement of gay rights more generally.”
PAUL MARTIN GREW UP in a Baptist home in Melbourne’s Bible-belt, in the state’s leafy south-eastern suburbs. In the mid-1980s, during the height of the AIDS scare he was horrified to be confronted by his own homosexual feelings. He was in his early 20s and determined to fight his urges and transform himself in Christ’s image; Martin became a member of Exodus International where he quickly rose to the position of Co-Leader of one itss chapters in a major Australian city. His role included speaking at conferences, running group meetings and counselling people who were experiencing unwanted same-sex attraction.
But after two years Martin felt disillusioned; his homosexual desires had not subsided – if anything they were getting stronger and harder to fight. He decided to take a break from the program and went travelling through Asia. It was in Thailand that he had the epiphany which caused him to break from his faith.
“I looked around at all these lovely Thai people who were all Buddhists and I thought, ‘According my church all these people are going to hell for not being Christian.’ That just didn’t make sense to me, it seemed so bigoted and narrow-minded,” Martin says.
“Later, I would have conversations with all the people who had gone through the ex-gay movement, and none of them had stopped feeling attracted to the same sex at all.”
Martin left the movement, having concluded that Exodus International was causing unnecessary suffering. He went back to university, trained to be a psychologist, and now runs his own clinic. He is one of Australia’s most vocal critics of ex-gay ministries.
Martin says he thinks the closure of Exodus International shows that the ex-gay movement “is rapidly losing the culture war”.
“Young people are vulnerable, and if you’re gay and come out of a religious family you may believe that God doesn’t love you. Young people are fertile ground for the ex-gay movement to convert, because they often haven’t settled on their identity and if they come from a religious background they haven’t sometimes been exposed to a wider range of information and science,” Martin says.
Martin adds he has encountered many clients who went to Christian schools; some were told by teachers that they could overcome their sexuality through God’s will, others were referred to Christian counsellors who discouraged them from accepting their homosexual feelings as natural.
IN RECENT YEARS, a number of smaller ex-gay ministries in Australia have closed down – including the youth-orientated Roundabout Ministries which once toured the nation and released music albums and DVDs. At Living Waters, Ron Brookman says his ministry is now increasingly focussing on heterosexuals who seek help with problems such as pornography addiction.
According to research by Ambassadors & Bridge Builders International, a group run by former preacher Anthony Venn-Brown, two-thirds of organisations offering help to people with “unwanted same sex attraction” in Australia and New Zealand have disbanded and ceased to operate over the past 10 years. Venn-Brown has even boldly predicted there may be no such ministries left in Australia within the next five to 10 years.
Sennitt’s recent resignation from Liberty Ministries came at a time when the organisation was questioning its own future. A statement from Liberty’s Committee Secretary Bob Cameron, on its website, says it is now considering the “future direction of the ministry” because “the context in which we minister has changed, as has the character of the enquiries we continue to receive. We need to work out the most effective way to meet the challenges that present themselves in both the public arena as well as in the lives of individuals.”
Exodus Global Alliance (no connection to Exodus International), Sennitt’s new platform, now appears to be the largest ex-gay ministry in the world; according to its website, the alliance believes “a transformed life is possible for the homosexual through the transforming power of Jesus Christ”.
The Global Mail asked Exodus Global Alliance whether Sennitt would be continuing his work in schools but received no reply.
Stephen Doherty of Christian Schools Australia said that in the context of their overall responsibility for the pastoral care, Christian schools do assist students with issues about personal relationships, including sexuality. “The developmental years can be complex and sometimes confusing. It is not at all unusual for students to openly question and seek advice about issues such as sexuality. Christian schools aim to provide a safe and supportive environment in which the student is respected, providing pastoral and other forms of care, working in conjunction with the child’s parents as appropriate.”
Some 10 years after first attending Exodus International meetings, the former Melbourne suburban school student says he feels as if he’s put a lot of distance between himself and ex-gay ministries.
He tells me that shortly after the day he cut himself, his parents decided to stop pressuring him to attend. He then eventually joined a gay-youth group and a gay drama group; he’s had two long-term relationships and lives with his best friend, who is also gay.
“I even began performing in drag,” he says rolling his eyes and chuckling. “I was terrible at it though, I just couldn’t dance.”
He is still close to his parents, although they still regard his homosexuality as a sin.
He looks perplexed when I ask whether he thinks the experience of attempted conversion is still affecting him now.
“I don’t know. I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m happy,” he says. “I’ve never finished Year 12, I’ve only ever worked odd jobs. I stopped talking to my parents for many years. I mean, I don’t want to make an excuse, but I really think this whole experience has really held me back.”