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Religious groups push fear campaign over possible WA conversion therapy bill

ACL volunteer claims they’ve been told Victoria’s conversion therapy ban will see Western Australian pastors extradited to Victoria to face a decade in prison.

On the 26th February former head of the Australian Christian Lobby Lyle Shelton was a guest on the 20Twenty program on Vision Radio Australia. The daily current affairs program commentary on events and culture from a Biblical perspective and sees host Neil Johnson discussing a wide range of current affairs issues.

Shelton appeared to discuss his ongoing legal battles in Queensland, where he’s been taken to an anti-discrimination board over articles he authored about drag performers. During their discussion about Shelton’s legal woes, they took calls from listeners including one from a Western Australian woman who shared her alarm about what she’d been told by the Australian Christian Lobby about legislation being considered by the McGowan Labor government.

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The caller outlined that a re-elected McGowan government has plans to bring in legislation along similar lines to Victoria’s recently adopted Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill. The new laws which stop conversion therapy practices that claim a person’s sexuality or gender identity can be adjusted.

“I’m going to be canvassing here in WA on Saturday for the ACL, and they gave us some facts the other night.” the caller said.

“The bill that’s gone through in Victoria, if someone from Victoria comes to Western Australia sits in a congregation, and here’s the pastor talking about, you know, marriage as God has ordained it, that pastor potentially can be extradited back to to Victoria, because that Victorian was in the congregation, and face up to 10 years jail and $200,000 in damages, which is just extraordinary that we would even consider legislation like that.”

The suggestion that preachers of the gospel could be rounded up, extradited to another state and potentially locked away for a decade, simply because a Victorian citizen was in their congregation when their speaking would send a chill up the spine of even the most radical and open-minded Christian, and neither host Neil Johnson or guest Lyle Shelton said anything to counteract the callers bold claim.

Shelton went on to talk about how churches should work together more to combat policy they disagree with. Listeners were potentially left with the impression that the claims from the Australian Christian Lobby volunteer were genuine – despite there being no evidence of WA Labor considering any sort of conversion therapy related legislation at all.

The scenario put forward by the caller however was not based in fact, it’s not what the recently passed legislation covers.

“That interpretation of the legislation and claims by the caller, are wrong.” a spokesperson for the Victorian Attorney General told OUTinPerth.

“Preaching the tenets of your faith is not defined as a conversion practice under the bill and is explicitly called out as not being a conversion practice in the second reading speech.

“If a Victorian removes a Victorian from Victoria, or induces a person to leave Victoria, for the purposes of a conversion practice, and that person suffers injury as a result, then the person who removed them or induced them to go can be liable for a criminal penalty.”

“Simply preaching is not covered by the Bill – regardless of which state they are in.” the spokesperson confirmed.

Brian Greig from just.equal says there is a deliberate misinformation campaign

Spreading fear about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people is a common occurrence during election campaigns, as Brian Greig of advocacy group just.equal observed.

“The religious right fear-monger using shrill claims about every piece of LGBTI law reform that comes forward. During election campaigns this hyperbole can become extreme,” Greig said.

“The reason simply is that the church has lost its moral authority. A majority of Australians now support equality and non-discrimination for LGBTI people.

“No longer able to persuade people on ‘moral’ or biblical grounds, religious conservatives have resorted to running secular, legal arguments against LGBTI law reform but they are not based on fact. It is just an attempt to cause fear, uncertainty and doubt in the minds of voters and MPs.”

Greig said there was a clear pattern in how extreme Christian groups were operating and spreading misinformation has become a commonly used tactic.

“We saw this clearly during the marriage equality debate and we see it again now on transgender issues, inclusive education and conversion practices.

“This misinformation is designed to camouflage prejudice and religious fundamentalism behind “ordinary” social commentary. It’s important that we call it out for what it really is.”

The former federal senator said it was important that political parties addressed the issue and didn’t allow false claims to go unchallenged.

“West Australians returned a strong Yes vote despite the fear campaigns run against marriage equality, so I’m confident we will also dismiss the current fear campaigns about conversion practices.”

“But fear campaigns still cause damage to vulnerable LGBTIQ+ people and I call on both major parties to condemn them.”

Religious groups ramp up discussions about conversion therapy bans

In Western Australia the Australian Christian Lobby has been holding regular events where transgender rights and conversion therapy have been the focus of the gatherings. The week before the Australian Christian Lobby’s volunteer called into Johnson’s national radio program, the ACL held an event at the Centrepoint Church in Maddington.

The poster for the ‘Real Lives’ gathering featured a seven-colour rainbow motif and promised “stories of hope, vision and dignity beyond LGBTIQ+ ideologies from those who have previously lived and identified as LGBTIQ+ but are now finding new life with Jesus Christ.”

Promotion for the event said Labor governments across the country were at the behest of LGBTQ activists, bringing in laws to stop people from accessing support they were seeking to stop being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

The event urged people to stand against “the lies that people are ‘born’ gay and that children are born in the ‘wrong body’. Vote against bad laws”. It featured a presentation from former state Liberal MP Peter Abetz who claims that the McGowan Government is intending to introduce legislation similar to that found in Victoria, and James Parker, who runs an organsiation called True Identity for people claim they have successfully left their ‘LGBT lifestyle’ behind.

Events featuring the double-act of Peter Abetz and James Parker have become common place in Western Australia. They first began co-presenting during the lead up to the postal vote on marriage equality.

Examples of Parker’s presentations where he shares how he was a gay rights advocate in London before turning to religion and transforming his life into heterosexual marriage and fatherhood are scattered across the internet, where he talks about how people can recover from being gay or lesbian.

OUTinPerth attended one of Parker’s co-presentations with Peter Abetz that was held online in May 2020. In a whirlwind PowerPoint presentation Parker shares a mix of child psychology theories, and religious references.

Parker shares that he identified as gay and wondered if he was transgender when he was a teenager. He describes how he was a gay rights activist in his twenties, and how he’s seen from the inside that the movement is based on “communist goals”.

Parker says that he was privy to a conversation at the London Lesbian and Gay Centre where a visiting American outlined a plan for the gay community to achieve “homo-superiority” by infiltrating the industries of entertainment, politics, religion, education, health-care, the military and sport, with the long-term goal of indoctrinating all children.

In his presentation Parker describes his organisation is a peer-support group for people who are survivors of child sex abuse, people addicted to pornography, those rejecting an LGBTQ+ identity, and those who want to be affirmed in their biological gender.

The Australian Christian Lobby is not alone in claiming the McGowan Government is planning a conversion therapy ban. The Association for Reformed Political Action (ARPA) has also released a ‘How to Vote’ brochure is also claiming that the government is considering a gender and sexuality conversion therapy ban, as well as a change to the legislation around religious based schools.

“The Government is formally considering a Victorian style bill that criminalises patient-led, evidence-based therapy, counselling or prayer for those who want help with unwanted sexual attraction or gender dysphoria. The Government supports removing the freedom of faith-based schools to employ teachers that uphold the parent’s wishes for the school’s values.” the group said in its election document.

The ARPA came to prominence is 2020 when they successfully lobbied the City of Armadale to review their policies around flying flags, after the group shared their opposition to the Pride flag being flown in the city during Perth’s annual Pride celebrations.

Like the Australian Christian Lobby, they also recently held an event focusing on the issue of conversion therapy bans, again the main speaker was James Parker from True Identity and was promoted alongside a video from Peter Abetz.

LGBTIQ+ groups say it’s time for politicians to take action

LGBTIQ+ groups highlight that politicians in Western Australia need to take action on the issue of conversion practices and stand up for those marginalised members of society who are being targeted by the powerful Christian right.

Paul Benson from newly formed LGBTIQ+ rights group Rainbow Futures said whoever forms government after the election would need to address the issue of conversion therapy.

“The vast majority of West Australians recognise so-called conversion therapy for the harmful practice it is. We look forward to engaging with whoever is in government after March 13 on a form of prohibition that is both comprehensive and workable.” Benson said.

Hunter Gurevich, the Chair of community support group TransFolk of WA said it was time for politicians to take action on a practice that does harm to people, and he’s hopefully that Western Australian can follow in the footsteps of Queensland, the Australian Capital Territory and Victoria.

“Conversion therapy does demonstrable harm, which is why it has been outlawed in other states. We hope our State Government follows this move to reduce harm for Western Australian people.” Gurevich said.

Is WA Labor actually planning to address the issue?

As far as OUTinPerth can ascertain the issue is not being considered by the WA Labor party.

Last month when the Peter Abetz, the Australian Christian Lobby’s leader in Western Australia publicly claimed the party was considering bringing in legislation, OUTinPerth contacted the electoral office of Attorney General John Quigley. While his staff assured us that the issue fell under his portfolio they were not able to provide any immediate comments, but a media advisor would be in contact. Over the last month we have approached Quigley’s office on multiple occasions.

This week his media advisor responded telling us it was not within the Attorney General’s area of responsibility, and our inquiry had now been forward to Health Minister Roger Cook. Later in the day a spokesperson for the Health Department contacted OUTinPerth and said because the government is in ‘caretaker mode’ during the election no comment on the issue could be made until after the election.

Caretaker mode, however, does not affect a political party’s ability to make election commitments or comment on issues of the day.

“Consideration of any new election commitments is a matter for the WA Labor party to consider,” the spokesperson said.

OUTinPerth also attempted to ask Premier Mark McGowan about the issue when we attended a campaign event. We were the only media present, but the premier’s tight schedule meant he did not have time to speak to the media. Follow up emails to WA Labor, Premier Mark McGowan and Health Minister Roger Cook have not been answered.

Rights group just.equal has also written to all political parties asking if they could outline their policies as they related to the LGBTIQ+ communities in six key areas. One of these issues is legislation to ban conversion therapy, neither the Labor or Liberal party has responded to the survey.

Graeme Watson

OUTinPerth contacted the Australian Christian Lobby, James Parker, Vision Radio Australia, WA Labor, WA Health Minister Roger Cook, WA Attorney General John Quigley and WA Premier Mark McGowan for comment.

Update: The Australian Christian Lobby responded to OUTinPerth’s inquiry afterour deadline and explained that the caller to the 20Twenty program may have misunderstood what was said in the presentation. WA Director of the ACL Peter Abetz supplied OUTinPerth with a copy of the text of the presentation.

Top image: Stock photo.

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