Conversion therapy victim reveals his own experience in undercover investigation

Former conversion therapy victim from Melbourne talks about how the practice carried out by several Australian churches is more insidious than ever. 

Close-up of Robert Williams looking at the camera. Williams went undercover to investigate conversion therapy

Former conversion therapy victim Robert Williams has undergone an undercover investigation into the cruel practices of conversion therapy still practised by many Australian churches and religious groups. The investigation, run by TV channel 60 Minutes, saw Williams and reporter Sarah Abo work together to expose the current forms of LGBT+ Conversion Therapy among religious organisations in Australia.

Conversion therapy is a usually religious-based practice which involves a pseudoscientific method of ‘curing’ any form of homosexuality. In the past, these methods included exorcisms, electric shock therapy, and lobotomy, and medical procedures performed by those with no medical training. Nowadays, the most common form of conversion therapy is intensive religious counselling. 

However, the relative harm caused by this practice has not majorly decreased. Robert Williams revealed to 60 Minutes that ten years ago, he asked a minister from Melbourne’s City Life Church for guidance on his “homosexual thoughts”. The minister immediately referred him to conversion therapy, telling Williams that at the end of the counselling session he would walk out straight and without sin.

“They got me to do an elastic band on my wrist,” he continued. “Every time I had a sexual thought I had to ping it. And if I had sexual thoughts at night I had to take a cold shower.”

Eventually, Williams came out to his church and family as gay, but “there were big consequences to pay…I lost everything. I lost my children, I lost my wife, I lost my security, I lost my identity – I had to rebuild the whole lot.”

During the undercover 60 Minute investigation, which lasted for three months, Williams again attended group therapy sessions and one-on-one sessions with counsellors and church ministers. At every session, celibacy was emphasised over homosexuality, which he explained was a change from his experience ten years previously, but is just as harmful: “In their terms you cannot be a Christian and be gay.”

The former head of a US conversion institute, John Smid, who is now openly homosexual, confirmed this new trend in therapy techniques in an interview with 60 Minutes: “The over-arching message is sexual brokenness.” He also revealed that the ‘counsellors’ have no training at all. 

Close-up of John Smid, former head of a conversion therapy group

Conversion therapy as a practice has gained wider mainstream attention in recent years, featuring in the Young Adult novel The Miseducation of Cameron Post which was turned into a 2018 film, and movie Boy Erased receiving major critical acclaim last year. However, despite multiple accounts of the horrors of the practice, it remains legal in most Western countries, including Ireland and the majority of states in the US, although earlier this year Washington became the first state to outlaw the practice.

Research from Melbourne’s La Trobe University has discovered that at least ten church-run organisations in Australia still offer this kind of underground counselling. It has recently become such an issue that the State of Victoria has flagged its intention to pass legislation making the counselling illegal, following a report which found that the therapy causes severe mental trauma. 

Indeed conversion therapy has been linked to suicidal ideation on multiple occasions. Dr Timothy Jones, who was involved with the research at LaTrobe University in Melbourne, told 60 Minutes: “Every single person that we interviewed had contemplated suicide, and many of them knew people who had taken their lives because of the intensity of the distress that these practices caused.” Similarly, a UK survey earlier in the year reported that one-fifth of their interviewees had previously attempted suicide.

Robert Williams ended his involvement with the investigation by expressing a positive hope that it will bring about awareness and change.

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