“It’s wrong… it’s totally unacceptable. I’m an example of the enormous damage that it can do to people.”
The 71-year-old former Baptist minister is a survivor of electroshock therapy, a now discredited practice once believed to rid patients of their same-sex attraction.
“They … put a wiring on my private parts that measured temperature changes, and showed me about a thousand pictures of men and a thousand pictures of women over about a 10-day period,” Mr Smith recalls.
“When my body temperature rose when I saw the guys, which is natural for me, they delivered high voltages of electricity through wires that were attached to punish me for being gay and try to make me straight.
“It was horrific.”
Mr Smith received the treatment in 1976. It was recommended by his psychotherapist — a respected member of the Baptist community — who knew Mr Smith was gay, and promised this would change his sexual orientation. It didn’t.
Treating a ‘mental disorder’
The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973.
But according to Kathy Baldock, LGBTIQ advocate and author of Walking the Bridgeless Canyon: Repairing the Breach Between the Church and the LGBT Community, efforts were still made to “fix” same-sex attraction.
“Horrendous things happened from the medical community in the ’50s and ’60s,” she says.
“Electroshock therapy — giving people drugs while they showed them gay porn so they’d throw up. Not giving them drugs while they showed them heterosexual porn so they wouldn’t throw up.
“It was all behavioural modifications.”
The delisting of homosexuality as a mental disorder was largely supported by medical professionals of the 1970s.
But Ms Baldock says Christian churches refused to recognise same-sex attraction as an acceptable form of human behaviour.
“The more Pentecostal-leading a denomination is, you’ll find more of that demonic approach [to homosexuality],” she explains.
“‘Gotta get the demons out of somebody, gotta do a deliverance on them.'”
Ms Baldock says Evangelical churches were quicker to realise that same-sex attracted individuals were unable to simply become heterosexual.
“What they would ask people to do is … if you just marry heterosexually, you’ll show God you’re serious about this,” she says.
“So, the men that are in that late 40s, 50s, 60s, 70-year-old group, they married heterosexually. They married to please God because that was the last thing that they should do.”
‘Living out a lie’
Ms Baldock’s research is Mr Smith’s reality.
During his theological training at a Baptist College in the 1970s he met a female student who would later become his wife.
“Being married was a huge realisation [that] I’d made a very big mistake,” Mr Smith says.
“Realising that because I’d taken a vow until death do us part, I was never going to be able to get out of it.”
Mr Smith’s wife has suffered from multiple sclerosis for the past 23 years. She hasn’t been able to stand for many years, and he’s her full-time carer.
“I know carer fatigue and carer burnout really well, looking after my wife, but by far the biggest issue is living out a lie,” he says.
“Now I’m out generally to people, and I’m proud of the fact now that I’m gay.
“Staying married to my wife is living out a lie, and it’s a huge issue even after 47 years, but as I said I will never leave her, I will care for her as long as I physically can.”
As someone who waited until his 60s to officially come out, Mr Smith knows too well the damage of suppressing one’s sexuality.
That’s why he was shocked by Mr Hunt’s refusal to condemn a motion in the Victorian Liberal Party to discuss the “counselling out of same-sex attraction or gender transitioning”.
The motion, which came from a branch of the Victorian Young Liberals linked to veteran federal MP Kevin Andrews, called for the party’s state council to discuss amending the Health Complaints Act.
While the motion was blocked by the president of the Victorian Liberal Party, Michael Kroger, its ripples are still being felt.
“I get very disappointed and very, very annoyed that people think it’s appropriate in these days to treat gays for any reason like that,” Mr Smith says.
“Enormous damage can occur to gays, or anyone who’s been put through it.”
‘Ex-gay’ therapy: a once-global business
The world’s biggest gay conversion therapy organisation, Exodus International, formerly disbanded in 2013.
The organisation, which at its peak had more than 250 ministries in the United States and Canada, and 150 in other parts of the world, promoted “ex-gay” therapies, said to “cure” homosexuality.
Ten years ago, Liam Webb became involved in a sub-set of Exodus International on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.
“I was given a counsellor … I had to read through a book called Journey to Manhood, and we had to work at trying to change my sexual orientation,” he says.
“Being the good Pentecostal boy I was then, I thought that anything was possible in healing, including this.
“So, changing the way I walk, the way I talk, having to pray scripture verses, having to be mentored by males, having to avoid creative arts.”
In 2011, Mr Webb moved to Canada to take up theological studies, but he found the religious counselling services he’d relied upon in Australia were much harder to find.
“There was not as much access in Canada to ex-gay therapies and reparative therapies, so I went to a ‘live-in’ [gay conversion] camp in North Carolina,” he recalls.
Mr Webb says the camp attracted young LGBTIQ Christians who were told they could — and should — adopt heterosexual lifestyles to meet their religious responsibilities.
Promoting ‘untested’ theories
According to Ms Baldock, reparative therapy techniques, as promoted by Exodus International and similar organisations, were built upon clinically disproven psychological theories from the 1950s until the 1970s.
She credits UK author Dr Elizabeth Moberly as the first person to construct theories to “fix” non-heterosexual orientation or gender identity with a Christian bent.
Moberly — who notably had a PhD in theology, rather than psychology — published Homosexuality: A New Christian Ethic in 1983.
“[Moberly] writes a book that catches fire in the Christian movement just as they’re trying to figure out how to fix gay people,” Ms Baldock says.
“She says that if we go back and fix someone’s relationship with their same-sex parent and through the power of God they can become heterosexual.
“So they’re using a premise completely untested by a non-expert … It was all a lie from the start.”
‘Those scars are soft to touch’
Mr Webb says his experience with ex-gay ministries made him feel “ashamed” of his same-sex orientation.
“You’re told you’re not safe to be around children, you’re told that you can never enter into youth ministry,” he says.
“They tell you that you are subordinate to straight men, Christian or not — you are less than them and you shouldn’t be in roles of leadership either, until you’re healed of your homosexuality.”
After embracing his sexuality at the age of 22, Mr Webb is now an active member of his Uniting Church community, and a leader of The Reformation Project, a bible-based support group for LGBTIQ Christians.
But he admits the shame he carried for so many years is still part of his life.
“Carrying that around I understand why I ended up getting an anxiety disorder, why I’ve struggled with co-dependency for so long … it does damage you for life in a lot of ways.
“I’m better now but sometimes those scars are soft to touch.
“In, some ways it’s good they’re soft to touch, because it keeps me open to the pain of others.”