Simon Bridges criticised for 'shameful' conversion therapy comments

Golriz Ghahraman and the youth branch of the National Party have called out comments Simon Bridges made where he said banning conversion therapy was an attack on free speech.

Bridges, the former National Party leader and current spokesperson for justice, told The AM Show on Friday banning the often harmful practice of trying to change, suppress, or eliminate someone's sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression would pander to what he says is a growing cancel culture. He believes forcing anyone to do something against their will is wrong - including conversion therapy - but he had concerns about making it illegal.

"I personally do have a wider concern. That is freedom of speech. That is in a liberal society, in a tolerant society, we have been very tolerant of different views," he said.

"We are, with this, moving down a track to a situation where it is actually cancel culture. 

"If we don't like it we are going to criminalise it and I do worry about that."

Conversion therapy is based on a belief that people with diverse sexual orientations or gender identities are abnormal and should be changed so they fit within hetero-normative standards.

The treatment, which has been linked to severe mental health issues, uses psychological or physical interventions in an effort to convert sexual orientation or gender identity. It is primarily used within religious sectors.

The Green Party's Golriz Ghahraman, who supports banning the practice, denounced Bridges' comments.

"When you think (and publicly announce) that your right to say stuff is more important than other people's right to exist... It's time to quit public life," she tweeted.

"For the record: human rights are always balanced against one another to ensure the rights, safety and integrity of us all."

The Rainbow Greens said Bridges "trying to justify literal torture" as free speech is "shameful", and they called on him to read both the United Nations Human Rights Commission report on conversion therapy and the NZ HRC Prism report on rainbow rights.

Shaneel Lal, co-founder of the Conversion Therapy Action Group which advocates for a blanket ban of the practice, says Bridges showed a "high level of ignorance" in his comments.

"Hatred towards queer people is not freedom of speech, it's hate speech. You don't get to be openly hateful towards marginalised people and expect a pass for it," they told Newshub in a statement.

"Conversion therapy is the torture of queer people, and there is no such freedom that should allow for that to continue.

They added Bridges' comments are "no surprise", given he voted against same-sex marriage and said when he was younger he is "not really into homosexuality".

"I extend an invitation to all parties to engage with me and the Conversion Therapy Action Group to understand why we need a ban immediately," Lal says.

The Young Nats, the youth branch of the National Party, who didn't call Bridges out by name, said they've supported a ban on conversion therapy since 2019 and they still "strongly" hold that position.

"We will continue to support and advocate for this law change, both publicly and within our party, because it's the right thing to do," they tweeted.

Bridges has been contacted for comment.

The AM Show co-host Mark Richardson - a fervent National supporter - also disagreed with Bridges. While he backed his call to protect free speech he didn't think conversion therapy fell into this category. 

"This [conversion therapy] is a practice, this is something that is going on that unfairly harms people. It is not just words, it is a practice," he said during Friday morning's show. 

"I do believe people should be able to voice their opinion on things. But this is a ridiculous practice and I expect politicians to act on that."