‘Cure’ harms budding minds
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‘Cure’ harms budding minds

As the ACT Legislative Assembly prepares to debate a same-sex marriage bill, Lisa Cox examines claims a Canberra Christian school counselled gay teens against homosexuality.

She was a 15-year-old in her first relationship, wondering how she would tell her parents that she liked girls.

Her girlfriend, in a grade below her at Trinity Christian School, was among the few peers like her who were openly gay at the south Canberra school.

A rainbow coloured crossing at Trinity Christian school, Wanniassa.

A rainbow coloured crossing at Trinity Christian school, Wanniassa.Credit:Melissa Adams

She says they did their best to hide their affections.

But there were stares in the corridors and, later, a school announcement that same-sex partners would not be welcome at school social events.

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And the decision she’d been pondering – exactly how and when to tell her family – was suddenly not hers any more when staff called home and informed her parents that their daughter was gay.

Counselling was suggested and she says her family agreed.

But the sessions, which began with teachers at Trinity in 2004, were not to support her but "to convince me that I wasn’t actually gay, just young and confused".

"The counselling they offered was more of a lecture on how it was a sin and against the Bible and not what God would have wanted," said the woman, now in her 20s.

"I remember feeling like a complete outcast at the school and that was when I lost my faith in Christianity.

"I couldn’t understand how a God who was supposed to love everyone equally and a school that believed so strongly in religion could produce so much hatred towards something that felt so natural to me."

In September this year, before the ACT government had introduced its same-sex marriage bill, parents at Trinity Christian School received an email urging them to lobby against the laws.

The kindergarten to year 12 school, which promotes Christ as being "at the centre of all that we do", attached a letter from the Australian Christian Lobby and suggested that parents "respond according to your conscience".

Within days, students past and present had set up a Facebook page with a pro-marriage equality stance and chalked rainbow crossings around the grounds of the school.

The Facebook page’s creator, former student Michael Mazengarb, said he wanted to reach out to students in the Trinity community who might feel "afraid to be open about their sexuality at the school".

Mr Mazengarb, who graduated from the school in 2005, recalled friends from his class cohort who had waited until they left Trinity before coming out.

"If you were going to a school formal you weren’t allowed to bring a date of the same sex," he said.

After the letter was sent, the woman and her former girlfriend came forward to say they were required to undergo counselling because of their homosexuality while they attended the school.

Fairfax Media has chosen not to name the women, who say the sessions occurred in 2004 and 2005 when they were aged between 14 and 15.

Trinity’s current principal Andrew Clayton was not at the school during those years and, in an email, said he had no knowledge of the events.

Questions as to whether this was a current practice of the school’s were unanswered.

The school’s former principal, Carl Palmer, said he, too, was unaware of the claims but such a practice "would not have been consistent with the school’s approach to student pastoral care".

But former classmates of the women say they recall their friends were given counselling, which both women said was to convince them that they were not gay, that being gay was wrong, or that they could change their sexuality.

One friend recalled a school camp where teachers spoke of "people who have been healed" of their homosexuality.

"They did speak about if you feel like you’re gay there’s people you can talk to, there’s things you can do to make it better, so to speak," he said.

The first woman said it took her two sessions with teachers before "I realised that I wasn’t actually being properly counselled in regards to helping me come out".

She said the circumstances made life at home difficult "as they painted being homosexual in a negative light and my mum began to worry".

She started to rebel and often found herself in trouble.

"We were treated noticeably differently by the teachers and also many of the students," she said.

"I wasn’t even allowed to bring her to my formal, even as a friend.

"This was announced at one of the assemblies and I felt like they were targeting me since I was the only openly gay person in my year.

"The looks we received from the teachers, when I was with [my girlfriend] and even in class on my own and the way the students treated me different, is something I’ll never forget."

She begged her parents to attend another school in her senior years, a Catholic school where she found "the kind of support that restored my faith in teachers and a little in the church".

As a senior student at St Clare’s in Canberra’s inner south she said she had teachers who "were accepting of my sexuality" and a supportive year co-ordinator who "even spoke to me about attending a conference for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) teens".

The second woman said her parents do not remember being asked for consent for the sessions to occur.

She said she would be asked to meet with various teachers a few times a week when she was in year eight and year nine.

They would discuss both her sexuality and the fact she was a non-Christian.

She said the meetings, while regular, were presented to her as "unofficial catch-up sessions".

"It was them pulling me aside. I didn’t want any part in it," she said.

"It was mostly sit down and discuss, basically trying to make me come around to the idea that I didn’t have to be that way and to accept Jesus.

"They never were blatantly saying ‘You’re wrong’, it was an undercurrent.

"The way it was handled was a case of ‘She’s got something wrong with her, let’s make sure she knows it and fix her."’

She said during some sessions they "prayed for me".

"It was the whole understanding. You need to understand you can fix this by accepting something that’s missing from your life which is our religion," she said.

"It was very confronting so, firstly, I felt very confused about my feelings and second of all I felt like there was something wrong with me and my teachers that I was supposed to look up to thought I needed to change.

"Suffice to say it made for some pretty lonely, awkward formative years."

She says by year nine "I realised I wasn’t going to change and there’s nothing wrong with me".

"Fortunately I was raised to believe that there is nothing wrong with not being religious in any shape or form and being different to those that surround me," she said.

She also left the school for her senior years, saw a psychologist and said "I’m pretty happy with who I am" now.

"I never really thought about it that way, but what happened to me was probably really wrong," she said.

In Australia there are no laws regulating the use on children of practices such as reparative therapy, which purport to influence or suppress a person’s sexual orientation. Dianne Hinton, the head of the ACT branch of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, said "rejection and discrimination towards LGBT young people are primary contributors to depression and anxiety".

Young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people were five times more likely to commit suicide than their peers.

"The thought that ACT schools may be subjecting our children to that cruelty, that there is no protection for these vulnerable children, is appalling," Ms Hinton said.

"With our community’s well-informed knowledge that these practices cause irreparable harm, and consistent with the international move to protect children from these practices, it’s time for the ACT government to create protections for these children and young adults."

NSW independent Sydney MP Alex Greenwich wants exemptions for private schools removed from that state’s anti-discrimination act, to give greater protections to vulnerable students, including gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex children.

Mr Greenwich also has a motion, which could come before the NSW Parliament soon, to "condemn the promotion" of ex-gay or reparative therapies.

He notes that the Australian Psychological Society has referred to such treatment as harmful and that there "is no scientific research to substantiate the claims that medical and psychological treatment can change a person’s sexual orientation."

Anthony Venn-Brown is a former evangelist and preacher in the Assemblies of God churches who underwent a reparative therapy program in the 1970s in a "desperate attempt" to change his homosexuality.

Years later, he left his 16-year marriage and wrote a book about his experiences and now runs Ambassadors and Bridge Builders International, a consultancy that provides training for churches, faith organisations and religious leaders about LGBTI issues. He said two-thirds of the organisations running reparative therapy programs in Australia had shut down but "even though these organisations are failing" there are still churches and schools that refer to them.

"If you’re a young kid in an evangelical Christian school you’d be having the same experience that I had in high school in the sixties," Mr Venn-Brown said.

"These are well meaning people but what they don’t realise is the long-term harm that they cause for a young girl or guy who is coming to terms with their sexuality.

"I would hope Christian schools would become more informed about sexual orientation, to not be telling a young person that there is something wrong with them or that they can change. You are setting people up for years of trauma."

Queensland psychologist Paul Martin treats people who have experienced reparative therapy for their sexuality.

He is a former leader of the Melbourne chapter of the Exodus Foundation, the US organisation that shut down and apologised to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community this year after claiming for decades to offer a "cure" for homosexuality.

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Mr Martin said "any attempt at discouraging someone’s sexuality, telling them one way or another that they should feel ashamed of it, that they should avoid it, to me that would be crossing a line into reparative therapy".

He said counselling of this nature was occurring in Australian schools. "It’s just no one is talking about it," he said. "What they’re saying is how you are is not really how you are. That’s inevitably very confusing and stressful."

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