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New Zealand just became the latest country to outlaw conversion therapy

People march up Queen Street in Auckland, New Zealand, during the annual Pride Festival in February 2019. Three years later, lawmakers banned conversion practices by a near-unanimous vote.
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People march up Queen Street in Auckland, New Zealand, during the annual Pride Festival in February 2019. Three years later, lawmakers banned conversion practices by a near-unanimous vote.

Lawmakers in New Zealand have passed in a near-unaninimous vote a bill banning conversion therapy, the dangerous and discredited practice that seek to change or suppress a person's sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

The bill, which was first introduced last summer, passed by a vote of 112 to 8 in a legislative session on Tuesday. The text of the bill says it aims to recognize and prevent harm caused by conversion practices and to promote respectful and open discussions around gender and sexuality.

"Conversion practices are based on the false idea that people are wrong or broken because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Such practices and ideas have no place in a modern, inclusive country like Aotearoa," said the center-left Labour Party, using the Māori name for New Zealand.

The Labour Party made banning the practice a 2020 campaign promise.

What the law does and does not do

The new law makes it a civil offense to perform conversion therapy on anyone who is younger than 18 or lacks decision-making capacity, punishable by up to three years in prison. Anyone who performs a practice that "causes serious harm to the individual" — regardless of their age — could face up to five years.

It also creates a pathway for people to raise complaints about conversion practices with the country's Human Rights Commission and Human Rights Review Tribunal. The Labour Party says the service is being put in place because "prosecution won't always be the best way to deal with conversion practices."

New Zealand's Human Rights Commission said the new conversion-practices complaints service will be available starting in August, and aims to be survivor-informed, accessible and culturally safe. Other parts of the bill, like the criminal offenses, take effect immediately.

Labour lawmakers were also careful to mention what the law does not do. It defines what is not considered conversion practice and protects people's right to express opinions or beliefs not intended to change or suppress a person's identity.

"This new legislation isn't about criminalising open and respectful conversations about sexuality and gender," they wrote. "It's been carefully designed to make sure that general expressions of religious beliefs or principles — as well as health practitioners or other people providing legitimate care and advice — won't be penalised."

Conversion practices have been characterized as torture

While mainstream medical and mental health organizations have rejected conversion practices for decades, they still exist in many societies, disproportionately targeting minors and leading to depression, anxiety, drug use, homelessness and suicide in some cases, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims and Independent Forensic Expert Group, as well as the U.N. independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity, released separate statements in 2020 characterizing the practice as torture and calling for a global ban.

More than a dozen countries have some form of a national ban on conversion practices, with Canada joining the list in December. Twenty U.S. states have banned conversion therapy for minors.

New Zealand's bill received unprecedented public input

New Zealand Justice Minister Kris Faafoi said in a statement that the government received nearly 107,000 public submissions on the bill, the most a piece of legislation in New Zealand has ever gotten.

"The unprecedented number of submissions shows the depth of public feeling about this issue and strong support for the Government's moves to protect against these harmful practices," Faafoi said, adding that lawmakers incorporated public input into the final version of the bill.

Lawmakers and LGBTQ advocates are cheering the bill's passage.

Shaneel Lal, who has spearheaded the movement to ban conversion therapy in New Zealand, called the decision "a win for humanity, not just the queer community."

"Queer rights are human rights. Queer people do not need to be tolerated or accepted, we need to be liberated. A ban on conversion therapy is start to freeing queer people in New Zealand," Lal said on social media, noting more must be done to protect queer people around the world.

Lal also said the eight MPs who voted against the ban are "banished from Pride" and would not be welcome at the annual celebration, which is happening virtually throughout the month.

Lawmakers shared their experiences and gratitude

Many of the members of Parliament who supported the ban shared personal stories and messages of gratitude during the session and afterward on social media.

Labour MP Kiri Allan shared on social media that she had gone through conversion therapy through her church as a teenager and had "desperately tried to 'pray the gay' away" in order to gain acceptance.

"It took a long time to shake that shame and trauma," Allan added. "Tonight our Parliament will ensure this practice is banned in our country for good. For our next generation of babies, I am so incredibly relieved."

At the bill reading, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson thanked the "hundreds of activists" who had campaigned for years to reach this point, as well as the lawmakers who shaped and shepherded the law.

He acknowledged two other specific groups of people, according to a transcript: the parents who support their children for who they are and the members of the LGBTQ community who did not make it.

Robertson provided examples of each from his own life, noting that his own parents were "full of acceptance" after he came out to his religious family but that a work colleague named James — "the sweetest, most gentle man" — died by suicide at 23 after having a very different experience.

He called the conversion ban "a promissory note" from the House of Representatives to future generations of rainbow communities.

"It's our commitment that we will love, support and affirm you for being who you are, that we will not give licence to the peddlers of hate, bigotry, and dogma to impose the ill-informed and dangerous beliefs on to you," Robertson said. "We cannot promise to solve all the problems and challenges that you will face in your lives, but we can — and, indeed, in my opinion we must — give you hope for a life of love, fulfillment, and dignity."


This story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.