Jace Reh spent six years at a religious school, where he was forced into activities that tried to change his sexuality and shamed him for being transgender and queer.

Nearly a decade later, the 23-year-old is leading a campaign to end LGBT conversion practices in South Australia.

“Still to this day those voices run around in my head, and they tell me that what I’m choosing to do is wrong and a crime to God,” he said.

“If I could’ve prayed it away, it would have happened – it’s a long time of telling myself, ‘Stop thinking your gay thoughts and God will forgive you’, and yet I’m still here today, trans and queer.

“I’ve had periods of suicidality, I’ve had periods of self-harm — and those aren’t things that I can’t feel anymore.”

Jace Reh is one of several survivors involved in a South Australian group that is pushing for robust laws to ban practices which try to change or eradicate an LGBT person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

According to the South Australian Rainbow Advocacy Alliance (SARAA) campaign, these practices can range from informal counselling and teachings to religious rituals like exorcisms and psychiatric or psychological interventions.

“I’ve got people that have spoken about experiences that they’ve had within the last 10 years,” Reh said.

“These things are still happening, but people are afraid to talk about it because there is such a deep, deep shame tied to it.”

Government to ‘consider its options’

South Australia is the only state yet to commit to outlawing conversion practices.

Before becoming premier at the 2022 election, Peter Malinauskas, told SARAA campaigners he would work to ensure this practice does not happen in the state.

Two years on, the SA government says it stands by its promise, but is cautious about tackling what it has called a “complex issue”.

“I don’t want to say it doesn’t happen, but it is certainly not a widespread practice,” Mr Malinauskas said.

“The government will consider its options and if we choose to pass legislation then we want to make sure it’s done very carefully.”

A 2018 Human Rights Law Centre report found that up to 10 per cent of LGBT Australians were vulnerable to “harmful conversion therapy practices”.

According to the report, conversion activities – which emerged in Australian conservative Christian communities in the 1970s – are more commonly practised today as counselling or prayer or group sessions.

“Rather than receding, our research suggests that conversion practices and ideologies are being mainstreamed within particular Christian churches,” the report stated.

Pastor Rosalie Dow, who is now part of Adelaide’s independent Activate Church, has seen this play out in her own communities.

“I hear probably once a month or so about a new person who has experienced conversion or suppression practices,” Pastor Dow said.

“Even once a person has left that church community it’s still impacting their day-to-day life, because it’s still so much a part of their family and their experience.”

Rosalie Dow is a pastor at the independent Activate Church, which is queer-friendly and commits to inclusive faith.(ABC News: Brant Cumming)

With New South Wales recently legislating a ban, and conversion practices already outlawed in Victoria, Queensland and the ACT, advocates are pushing for the SA government to begin consultation and pass laws by the end of the year.

Reh said while Victoria’s laws are considered an international “gold standard”, improvements could be made.

“A decision like this can’t be made just by politicians,” he said.

“We’re encouraging faith leaders of all denominations to come forward and speak — people in the education sector, survivors with lived experience, religious community members — we want to make sure everyone has a moment to speak.”

Experts call for more awareness, robust ban

Gender and sexual diversity expert Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli says survivors are often left with debilitating long-term mental health impacts.

Dr Pallotta-Chiarolli, an honorary fellow at Deakin University, said her team’s research backs SARAA’s educational campaign to raise public awareness around the issue.

“It’s extremely important to understand what conversion practices are, what the ideologies are, but also what they aren’t,” Dr Pallotta-Chiarolli said.

“We’re not saying you can’t pray, or you have to remove yourself from your religious place, but it’s about coming into your faith with all of who you are and being accepted and loved.

“Many of our mental health practitioners are very reluctant or worried to approach or talk about the topic because they feel like they don’t understand it.”

Dr Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli says survivors are often left with long-term mental health impacts.(ABC News)

She said that Victoria’s ban on conversion practices was already having an impact, and that laws can offer much-needed safeguards for survivors and third parties.

“We have identified and removed from practice some [Victorian] mental health practitioners that are working within their cultural communities,” she said.

“We do find it [gay conversion practices] does decrease.

“Often our school counsellors are not aware of what it is, and what their rights are, and this is why legislation is important.”

Jace Reh says he doesn’t want others to experience what he went through.(ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

For Jace Reh, the fight for these laws is about “changing lives”.

“This is about ensuring that what I went through and what changed the way that I looked at the world doesn’t happen to someone else,” he said.

“For the South Australian government to put forth [a] bill and make these changes is saying, ‘What happened to you wasn’t OK, and we are sorry that it happened, and it shouldn’t happen again.'”

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