Proposed legislation would make it an offence to perform conversion practices on anyone aged under 18
New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern opens the 2018 Pride Parade in Auckland. Wellington has announced plans to ban gay conversion therapy. Photograph: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images
The Guardian-Tess McClure in Christchurch
New Zealand has introduced legislation to ban conversion practices, saying the practice is harmful and has “no place in modern New Zealand”.
Conversion therapy refers to the practice, often by religious groups, of trying to “cure” people of their sexuality, gender expression, or LGBTQI identity.
“Those who have experienced conversion practices talk about ongoing mental health distress, depression, shame and stigma, and even suicidal thoughts,” the minister of justice, Kris Faafoi, said as he introduced the legislation on Friday. “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 legislation makes it an offence to perform conversion practices on anyone aged under 18, or with impaired decision-making capacity, with a sentence of up to three years’ imprisonment. It also makes it an offence to perform conversion practices that cause “serious harm,” irrespective of age. That carries a sentence of up to five years’ imprisonment.
Conversion therapy is legal is many parts of the world, including the UK and many states in the US. A report by the United Nations Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity found conversion practices caused “significant loss of self-esteem, anxiety, depressive syndrome, social isolation, intimacy difficulty, self-hatred, shame and guilt, sexual dysfunction, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.”
They found the practices violated UN conventions against torture, and recommended a global ban. Health bodies including the American Psychological Association have concluded there is no evidence that conversion practices are successful in changing sexuality or gender identity.
Activist Shaneel Lal, a survivor who has campaigned against conversion practices in New Zealand, said they broadly welcomed the bill and it demonstrated “potential for real change”. Conversion practices, Lal said, have “pushed and driven so many queer people into a life of pain and misery and death and [thinking that] God will never forgive them for it. Every single story that I’ve heard of conversion therapy, victims have questioned whether it is worth living – and I was one of those people.”
“Religious leaders have weaponised the relationship that queer people have with God and manipulated them into thinking that God will hate them if they don’t change … We are told that we are broken, that we have no future, that we will lose our family and friends,” they said.
But Lal also raised concerns with the bill’s wording, and some of its provisions.
They said the “serious harm” wording “implies that it is OK to cause harm, if it is not serious harm” and raised concerns that survivors may struggle to gather the evidence required to demonstrate that serious emotional and psychological harm had been done to them.
Faafoi said the definition of conversion practices under the law required that they were “performed with the intention of changing or suppressing their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression”. Lal said that proving intent was difficult from a legal perspective, and could leave survivors struggling to clear the bar for prosecution. They also argued the first offence should not have age limits, as queer people could experience harm at any age.
Faafoi said the bill had been “carefully designed” to ensure that legitimate health services, counselling, and “general expressions of religious beliefs or principles about sexuality and gender” will not be captured.
“Health professionals, religious leaders and human rights advocates here and overseas have spoken out against these practices as harmful and having the potential to perpetuate prejudice, discrimination and abuse towards members of rainbow communities,” Faafoi said.
New Zealand has the highest youth suicide rate in the OECD, and that rate is higher among LGBTQI+ youth. Local research from 2019 found 79% of trans and non-binary New Zealanders had seriously contemplated suicide and two-fifths had self-harmed in the past 12 months.
With a majority Labour government in power, the bill is likely to pass.