Conversion Therapy Bill: Man who underwent conversion therapy says it still very much exists in New Zealand

A man who endured years of harmful practices in a bid to convert his sexual orientation says conversion therapy is still very much alive in New Zealand.

Australian author and founder Jim Marjoram was subjected to the methodology for more than a decade. He is a staunch advocate for the passing of the Government's proposed Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill, legislation intended to protect the LGBT community from the harm of conversion therapy. The pseudo-scientific practice attempts to convert an individual's sexuality from homosexual or bisexual to heterosexual through psychological or physical interventions, a highly contentious methodology that has been branded as ineffective and unethical by medical institutions.

Marjoram, who himself served as a group leader for Living Waters - an organisation that specialised in converting people to heterosexuality - says although many operations have become defunct over the years, the ideology behind conversion therapy is still present, fuelling "small-scale" and "underground" practices. 

Speaking to The AM Show on Thursday morning, Marjoram asserted the harmful methods are still "very much" happening in New Zealand.

"Most of those larger organisations have gone now, so it's very much a small-scale methodology used in many churches, but it's still very active. You could kind of say it has gone underground these days because of all the attention it's brought. Not that many people want to advertise that they actually do it."

Speaking candidly of his experience, Marjoram says he became deeply embroiled in the practice due to his own belief system and values. As a late teen, he was desperate to "be normal", he says, and turned to Christianity in the hope that religion would "help".

"I ended up becoming involved in many different types of [practices], they weren't then considered conversion therapy, they had other names for it. They were basically efforts to change my sexual attraction. Anything from demonic deliverance, casting out all the demons that made me gay, through to all sorts of pseudo-psychological [methods], really weird stuff," he says.

"Finally for about 15 years I was involved with an organisation called Living Waters, which was sort of a pseudo-psychological method of making you straight, basically. I was very much involved with that and ended up being a group leader for quite a few years as well… in New Zealand and Australia."

Marjoram agrees the practices should be totally illegal in New Zealand, noting that "consenting adults" are still largely the victims of psychological coercion.

"The biggest problem is that term, consenting. I was a 'consenting adult', but the problem is, I was consenting because I was coerced by my belief system and the people that promoted that belief system. Those beliefs told me it was absolutely unforgivable, there was no way I could be gay, so I thought I [had to] pursue it. It was sort of a psychological coercion, so was I consenting?"

However, one element of the proposed legislation that has stirred concern is its intent to criminalise the intentional suppression of an individual's gender, with some politicians claiming the wording of the Bill implies a parent's decision to deny their child hormone blockers could be grounds for prosecution - as they have taken an active course of action to suppress their child's identity.

Earlier this month, the National Party said it would not support the legislation without an exemption for parents, with former Opposition leader Simon Bridges calling the Bill an "ideological overreach". Meanwhile the Greens, ACT and the Māori Party all backed the legislation through its first reading, with any concerns to be hashed out during the select committee process.

Marjoram says although the bar for prosecution is high, a tweak to the Bill's wording could be beneficial to provide some clarification. 

"We have to remember that the bar for prosecution is very high… I think there does need to be tweaking there to clarify that," he says. 

"The legislation is clear that it's not an offence to talk to professionals and to allow them to enter into productive discussions with families over the whole process. It's not going to be some sudden [thing] if you even hint at the idea that you want to stop your child from exploring this. That's not the intention and it just won't happen like that.

"The bar for prosecution is very high."

Earlier this week, youth health expert Dame Sue Bagshaw told Newshub she also had concerns about the wording of the Bill, saying jailing parents of denying their child hormone blockers is "way too extreme".

Justice Minister Kris Faafoi says the legislation has been designed so only "serious cases" are criminalised, but ACT Party leader David Seymour argues the Bill will discourage parents having "frank and open conversations" with their children out of fear of prosecution.

"The Attorney-General of the country has to consent to a case going forward to make sure there's enough evidence of that and that it's in the public interest," Faafoi said.

However, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern last month did not rule out the possibility of parents facing prosecution under the legislation. 

Submissions on the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill close on Wednesday, September 8.