Surviving conversion practices: Trans woman Asha was told she was "sexually broken"

Trans woman Asha Brodel claims she was told by leaders of her church that she was queer because she had been sexually abused as a child. She said the comments from her religious community have caused deep trauma.

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Source: Getty

Last week, Queensland became the first state to ban conversion practices -- something that Asha knows all about.

Asha first experienced conversion practices -- often referred to as ‘gay conversion therapy’ -- as a teenager while attending a small church in Victoria.

For three years she had weekly catch-ups with ministers, who she claims encouraged her to suppress her same-sex attraction.

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“They communicated to me when I came out that I am broken due to some kind of past trauma growing up that had caused damage to my psyche and that resulted in same-sex attraction. They didn’t know I was trans at the time. I was still processing that,” Asha told The Feed.

“I had just told them I was struggling with these attractions and I didn’t know how to be both a Christian and to be attracted to men at the same time,” she said.

Asha said that hearing those words from people who she described as her “friends” and “family” was “really raw” and that it ended up re-traumatising her.  Asha says had previously suffered sexual abuse as a child. 

“That was the most damaging thing they actually said because it was said to me by the people [who abused me] that it was because I was feminine, that I was girly and that I was gay, and that was part of the grooming,” she said.



Due to her turbulent home life, Asha went to live with a friend’s family when she was 18 years old. 

Soon after, she started attending the family’s church and eventually disclosed to leaders of the church that she thought she could be bisexual.

“They began to tell me it was a sin and that it wasn’t how God had designed me because I was born as a male, I should be attracted to the opposite sex,” Asha said.

“They said that I should pray consistently and read the scriptures, seek counselling, and stay close to people in the church and really lean on them for support to overcome my ‘perversity’.” 

Asha said that from an early age, she had felt like she was “detached” from her body and that she might identify as a transgender woman.

“What I felt was that I identified with the girls and women around me and not with the guys. And when I began to express myself as a feminine person, I was gender-coached and shamed by all of the role models around me,” she said.

“A few of the ministerial leaders said to me that I should seek spiritual counselling. It began to be something I needed to be healed from. It wasn’t just something that was passing, it was something that could be life-long. Kind of like a chronic illness.”

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Source: Getty


Asha said the message from her church was that transgender people are “rejecting god’s design” for their bodies.

She said she was told the only way that she could fit into the church was to be celibate.

“It was kind of like, ‘there’s hope for the homosexual. There’s hope for the transgender person’,” Asha said.

“They would encourage you to look at the stories of people who have detransitioned and who had actually left the ‘lifestyle’ so you had encouragement and a story that inspired you about what you could achieve if you were devout enough,” she added.

The harms of conversion practices

Tim Jones is a researcher on conversion practices and a senior lecturer at La Trobe University. 

He told The Feed that the core message of conversion ideology is that “if you’re same-sex attracted or gender diverse that there’s something broken in you.”

“In lots of conversion programs, there’s an impulse to identify what that is,” Dr Jones said.

“That might be family problems, it might be physical or sexual abuse, it might be demon possession,” he added.

He said that while conversion practices can occur in a formal medical setting against the ethical standards of organisations, they most often take place in pastoral care.

“It can be a range of things from psychology, gender normativity, spiritual healing prayer, various kinds of blends of religious and therapeutic methods,” Dr Jones said.

“It’s sometimes mixed in with forms of psychotherapy or behavioural kinds of therapy. So the idea that if you learn to act like you’re a cis-gendered man or woman, your sexual orientation will follow,” he continued.

“So if you butch-up if you’re a gay man or if you become more femme if you’re a woman, everything will magically follow that behaviour.”

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Source: Getty


The mental health impacts of involvement in conversion ideology and practices are stark, according to Dr Jones’ .

“Everybody had severe mental health problems [and] have struggled with suicidality at moments in their journey,” he told The Feed.

“One of the perhaps surprising things is people express really, really deep spiritual harm of being rejected by their religious community, being told that they weren't acceptable to their god or their faith,” he added.

Dr Jones said there was a lot of variation in the amount of time people engaged in conversion practices.

“Some people went along to one or two meetings for years. Others tried for decades to change themselves to try and conform with the values of their community,” he said.

How have conversion practices changed over time?

Anthony Venn-Brown OAM was 40 years old and a high profile preacher when he fell in love with a man.

“That changed everything for me because up until that point it was about sexual attraction. It wasn’t about love, or tenderness or intimacy,” Anthony said.

“It took me about six to seven years to sort that out and feel at peace with myself and with my sexual orientation,” he said.

Anthony Ven-Brown
Anthony at his wedding in 1973 and another photo of him in 1969. Source: Supplied


Anthony had been married for 16 years to a woman and had undergone two decades of conversion ideology and practices to suppress his attraction to men.

“I grew up in an era where homosexuality was a criminal offence and mental health professionals were still in belief that they could cure people,” Anthony told The Feed.

“My first awareness was quite traumatic that I was same-sex orientated. That meant that I was a pervert and deviant. This caused me great stress and anxiety then it went into depression and attempted suicide,” he said.

When Anthony first realised that he was gay, he went to a psychiatrist and then ultimately, turned to God. He said he partook in conversion practices both in Australia and abroad.

Anthony Ven-Brown
Anthony preaching in the 80s. Source: Supplied


“I thought that God would be the answer so I became a Christian,” Anthony said.

“When I was in bible college in New Zealand, I was told it was because I had demonic spirits so I went through several weeks of exorcism to cast the demon of homosexuality and other things out of me,” he said.

After Anthony returned to Sydney, he participated in a "residential program" for several months to attempt to change his sexuality.

“That was very much about gender conforming. I had to wear certain clothes. I couldn’t wear anything that was pink and I had to do masculine chores outside the house, not inside the house: that was women’s work,” he said.

Today’s conversion practices are a lot more “subtle” than they were in the past, according to Dr Jones.

“The number of organisation advertising ex-gay or ex-transgender or identity change programs has declined in the past 20 years,” he told The Feed.

“But from our research, it feels like it’s gone more underground and in fact, in conservative, religious communities it’s become mainstreamed in their religious ministries,” he said.

What do survivors say should change?

While Queensland has become the first state to ban conversion practices, survivors claim the legislation avoids some of the key manifestations of the practices and its ideologies.

Nathan Despott is the founder of a support and advocacy group for LGBTIQ people of faith.

He said the legislation is not clear enough when it comes to how it covers informal practices like pastoral care.

“We now realise that, particularly in light of people from culturally diverse backgrounds and other faiths, most conversion practices, don’t occur in formal, paid health professional settings,” he told The Feed

“They usually happen in unpaid informal settings, such as pastoral care. And the primary driver of the harm is often the false and misleading claims that accompany the practices,” he said.

“In other parts of the world, those claims have been labeled as therapeutically fraudulent.”

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Source: Pixabay


Despott said rather than criminal charges, survivors would be more interested in a warning system with criminal penalties for those that continue to advocate conversion ideology and practices.

Anthony has since founded Ambassadors & Bridge Builders International, an organisation that reaches out LGBTIQ people and churches, aiming for respectful dialogue.

He’s also authored a book  and written into the history of conversion practices in Australia.

He told The Feed he’d like people to think about the tone of the debate around conversion practices.

“The reason being is I think of the young gay 13-year-old in a church like Hillsong, who has never ever heard anything positive about being gay,” Anthony said.

“If our tone is not one of welcome and acceptance, if it’s abusive, it’s just going to reinforce what they’ve already been told: that we have an agenda,” he added.

“Faith is important for some people and it’s just as much as part of them as their sexual or gender orientation. For us to reject that or shut it down, it’s not the way forward.” 

Survivors can reach out to or for support. Asha is also encouraging other survivors to contact her at asha.qcadvocacy@gmail.com


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Published 20 August 2020 at 6:21pm
By Eden Gillespie