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Australian State Considers Banning Gay Conversion Therapy

By Beh Lih Yi

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — An Australian state is considering the nation's first ban and jail sentences for so-called gay conversion therapy, a bid that has sparked division more than two years after the country legalized same-sex marriage.

The northeastern state of Queensland introduced a bill in November that would prohibit conversion therapy, with its top health official labeling the practice "highly destructive." Offenders could face up to 18 months in jail under the proposal.

The bill, if passed, would be the first outright ban on conversion therapy in Australia. Other states have come under pressure to adopt the same ban, and the state of Victoria began public consultation on a proposed law in October.

A committee in Queensland's parliament that has been tasked to examine the bill on Friday urged the government to review parts of its proposal to provide clarity on which health services would fall under the ban.

But LGBTQ campaigners urged the government to pass the bill without delays.

"It's ground-breaking because it will be Australia's first gay conversion therapy ban if the law is passed in Queensland," said Shelley Argent, a spokeswoman from the advocacy group Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) in Australia.

"Conversion therapy is psychological abuse because it's telling the person they are broken," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Conversion therapies range from counseling to hypnosis and electric shock therapy and have been widely condemned by medical associations globally as ineffective and harmful to mental health.

Worldwide Malta, Ecuador, Brazil, and Taiwan have banned conversion therapy, according to LGBTQ advocacy group OutRight Action International. Britain and parts of Canada are also mulling bans and about 18 US states outlaw such therapy for minors.

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Conversion therapy is "pervasive" in many faith communities in Australia, according to a 2018 report by Melbourne-based La Trobe University and campaign group the Human Rights Law Center.

The bill has faced opposition from Christian groups, which slammed the proposed jail term.

"Conversion therapy is vaguely and and very broadly defined," said Mark Spencer, the director of public policy at the Christian Schools Australia, which represents over 125 schools across the country.

"The bill as it stands potentially criminalizes biologically sound and medically factual responses to students by school counselors and possible even classroom teachers," he added.

Queensland's officials said they want to lead the way in protecting LGBTQ people.

"Practices that try to change or suppress a person's sexual orientation or their gender identity have always been immoral and unethical," the state's Health Minister Steven Miles said last year, calling the practice "highly destructive."

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The minister's office did not immediately reply to a request seeking comment on Friday's report.

The move to ban conversion therapy came after Australia allowed same-sex marriage in December 2017 in a country where some states ruled homosexual acts illegal until 20 years ago. 

(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)