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Anthony Venn-Brown was one of Australia’s highest-profile preachers. Now he is a gay activist trying to expose the dangers of conversion therapy.
Over many years, he subjected himself to multiple therapies that were meant to ‘cure’ his homosexual thoughts.
Travelling across the country in a caravan with his wife and two children, Anthony spread God’s word in many of Australia’s mega churches.
But secretly, Anthony was fighting an internal battle, refusing to accept that he was gay.
“Trying not to be the person you are is an enormous struggle. It was a daily battle,” Anthony said..
Anthony tried prayers, exorcisms, and even went into a rehabilitation residential program for six months, where he could only do ‘masculine’ activities, like fixing a car. He was forbidden to do ‘feminine’ tasks like cooking and cleaning.
“I thought that I had demons living within me - that’s not good for your mental health,” he said.
“It’s a miracle I’m still alive. People have been through what I’ve been through, and for some it got too much, and they took their own lives,” he said.
Anthony is not alone in his experience of religious-based attempts to change one’s sexuality.
The process of trying to ‘cure’ homosexuality, now termed conversion therapy, has been practised in different forms throughout Australia for decades.
There is evidence to suggest conversion therapy still occurs in Australia, undertaken in private religious settings.
Recently, the Greens successfully passed a motion in the Federal Senate calling for the government to work with state and territory leaders to stop the conversion movement.
Greens LGBTIQ+ spokesperson Senator Janet Rice condemned the ‘deeply harmful’ practice.
“Conversion efforts still exist in many forms across the country and are often insidiously hidden or dressed up as ‘mentoring’ or ‘counselling’,” Ms Rice said.
“We must end these harmful practices and provide proper mental health and support services for LGBTIQ+ people and survivors of these conversion efforts,” she said.
I felt completely worthless, that I was a disgusting, abhorrent human being - Kate
The Greens motion came just days after Prime Minister Scott Morrison told radio station 3AW that conversion therapy "was not an issue for him" and that he was "not planning to get engaged in the issue".
Senator Rice said Mr Morrison’s dismissal of the issue was an "absolute disregard of duty".
When asked by Central News about conversion therapy and his previous remarks, Mr Morrison declined to comment.
After 22 years of Anthony denying his sexuality, things suddenly shifted one night when he connected with a man, Jason*.
“I realised, ‘Oh my god, I’ve fallen in love’. This is the worst thing that could have ever happened,” Anthony said.
He decided to reveal his true self. He had to make a public confession before a congregation of 800 people. He separated from his wife, and left all his friends and family.
“It was a horrendous time. I was completely traumatised by the public confession. I cried for three weeks,” Anthony said.
Anthony related his experiences in his autobiography, A Life of Unlearning, and said his email inbox was flooded with similar stories.
He has now devoted his life to exposing the painful realities of conversion therapy, and through his organisation, ABBI, he tries to educate religious organisations about sexuality.
Associate Professor Damien Riggs is the National Convenor of the Australian Psychological Society’s interest group on gay and lesbian issues.
Dr Riggs said there was no scientific basis to suggest that a person’s sexual attractions can be changed by therapy.
“Given the lack of evidence of the efficacy of conversion therapy, and the evidence that such therapy can cause considerable harm and distress, the APS clearly opposes conversion therapy in any form,” Dr Riggs said.
Anthony said increasing awareness of conversion therapy in the wider community, together with societal acceptance of LGBTIQ+ relationships, has meant that churches have become ‘media savvy’ and were unlikely to openly discuss their practices.
One church allegedly offering conversion therapy in the past was Liberty Christian Ministries.
When contacted for comment, Liberty said they were not "a gay conversion or ex-gay ministry".
“We encourage and support Christians who are gay or same-sex attracted to live out their faith and thrive in the church community,” Jackson Stace, a Liberty spokesperson, said.
Kate Phillips endured 15 years of conversion therapy. Source: Supplied
Kate Phillips, like Anthony, was also taught her homosexuality was "the evil of evils".
Now 34 and living in Melbourne, Kate endured conversion attempts for 15 years while she was a young evangelical/charismatic Christian in the United Kingdom.
She participated in counselling, personal prayer, inner healing and exorcisms to try and "cure and save" herself.
But as she struggled daily with the feelings that would not go away, she felt extreme guilt.
“I felt completely worthless, that I was a disgusting, abhorrent human being,” she said.
“It’s like being in a prison in your mind, or slowly tortured, with no sense of it ever ending,” she said.
After years of inner turmoil, Kate got to a point where she could no longer accept her feelings were just a phase, and she came out.
She has since moved away from her faith, but has learnt how to accept her sexuality, which she described as the "best feeling ever".
“To now know I belong, that I am worthy, I am strong, I am who I am and that’s a good thing...it’s incredible.”
But while Kate has worked on her inner validation, she said it was difficult to feel confident when people like the Prime Minister failed to condemn the practices which caused her so much trauma.
“By not calling it out as a practice that should be banned, they perpetuate a culture of self-hatred and validate the idea that it is okay to try to change people,” Kate said.
“We need legislative and policy change, but we also need attitude change within and without the church,” Kate said.
Anthony also believes the practice must be outlawed.
“Legislative change is important because it sends a very strong message that this is no longer acceptable,” Anthony said.
The Human Rights Law Centre has released a report examining conversion therapy in Australia in October.
The Australian Christian Lobby and the Christian Democratic Party did not respond before publication.