The Government has introduced a new Bill to make conversion therapy a criminal act. This Bill comes after a long campaign to ban the physical and psychological torture of many people in the queer community from human rights activists, health experts and members of Parliament.
Last Thursday, Parliament voted on the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill introduced by the Labour government. The Justice Select Committee will take public submissions on the Bill after passing its first reading.
The proposed legislation states that it aims to “prevent the harm conversion practices cause in New Zealand”, with research showing that conversion therapy causes severe harm for LGBTQIATakatāpui+ people. The Bill defines conversion therapy as covering all practices that attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. These practices do not work and have been discredited by the National Health Service (NHS) and the World Psychiatric Association.
If this bill becomes law, hose who practice conversion therapy on people under 18 or with impaired decision-making capacity will be subject to three years imprisonment. Encouraging a young person to go to therapy to change their sexual identity will also become illegal. It will also be an offence to perform conversion practices on any other person, irrespective of age, where the practices cause serious harm. The maximum penalty for this offence is five years. Pathways for civil redress will also be available to conversion therapy survivors where complaints can be filed to the Human Rights Commission and the Human Rights Review Tribunal.
In a comment to Craccum, Theo van de Klundert, an executive member of Rainbow Law, (a student-led group which provides support to Rainbow students and allies) stated that the proposed legislation appears to be a constructive starting point to criminalizing conversion therapy. “Criminalizing conversion therapy for minors and in cases of serious harm will likely tighten the practice’s legality in the public domain. Conversion therapy may only be administered with the subject’s consent, so the current legislation will likely reduce the effect of damage it has on minors.”
The student group member says that the proper legal effect and meaning of “serious harm” has yet to be seen because the legislation has not been deployed in a court setting. “I hope this legislation will be a starting point to more holistically criminalising conversion therapy by banning the practice entirely, explicitly filling the legislative gap between the 18-year-old age of consent and the serious harm damage threshold that the Bill proposes.”
However, under the Bill, advising someone to seek religious, medical or mental health support about their sexual orientation will remain legal. Speaking to the media, Justice Minister Kris Faafoi confirmed, “this Bill will not outlaw a person’s right to hold personal beliefs about sexual orientation or gender identity.” Theo van de Klundert told Craccum that religious communities can exert a powerful influence over conversion therapy subjects. “There is no guarantee that the practice will not continue behind closed doors. A more potent approach would be to criminalise conversion therapy practices in faith institutions, considering the role religious pressure plays in relation to the practice.”
Commenting on religious freedoms arguments, the Rainbow Law executive member believes there is a strong case against them for conversion practices. “Conversion therapy is difficult to justify in a free and democratic society, a consideration already built into New Zealand’s Bill of Rights Act that courts use to determine the scope and application of rights.”
The Bill has seen support from the Labour and Green parties, and Te Pāti Māori, and the ACT party agreed to support the Bill at its first reading. The National Party said it would only support the legislation if it was changed to protect parents from prosecution. The National Party has been criticised by its youth wing, Young Nats, for voting against the proposed law to ban conversion therapy on Twitter. “We acknowledge that the Bill is not perfect. However, we believe it should proceed to Select Committee and be given the chance for a full and frank debate.”
This year, over 157,764 people signed a petition by Green Party rainbow communities spokesperson Dr. Elizabeth Kerekere to ban conversion practices. During the 2020 election, Labour pledged to ban conversion therapy if elected, and Kerekere belives the success of this Green’s petition sped up this process. In a press release, Kerekere stated that the party would work to protect other communities affected by conversion therapy practices. “We also acknowledge that conversion therapy happens to other communities, in particular to people with disabilities.”
Theo van de Klundert expressed their concern over the Bill’s late passage. “The Ardern government promised the anti-conversion therapy legislation last term. The absence of a more holistic criminalization raises whether Labour has rushed the legislation to fulfill some of its election promises.” However, they are hopeful that the Bill will lead to greater change. “We support how the Bill places greater protections of the right to sexual and gender identities. Hopefully, with time and development, the full effect and practice of conversion therapy will be erased from New Zealand’s face.”