National MP Simon O'Connor receives backlash for voting against conversion therapy ban but activists fear law needs urgent changes

National MP Simon O'Connor's speech on a proposed law banning conversion therapy has been described as "transphobic" and "cringeworthy". 

O'Connor, MP for Tāmaki, suggested in his speech that banning the controversial pseudo-science practice would somehow erase the identity of gay men, who would be encouraged to live as transgender women. 

"I've got lesbian and gay friends who are concerned about this Bill because actually that community, the LGBTQIA+ community, is not a single cohesive unit," O'Connor said in his speech on Tuesday evening. 

"As one acquaintance put to me, 'As a gay man,' he said, 'actually, in today's day and age I'd be afraid that I'd be told actually I'm really just needing something gender-affirming - I'm not actually a gay man; I'm a woman and I just need to explore that.' 

"He feels his identity as a gay man could be erased with the modern Zeitgeist at the moment that's more around transgender issues. That's his experience."

While O'Connor's speech has been widely trashed by the LGBTQ+ community, activists agree that there are still urgent changes needed to make the legislation effective in achieving its goal: ending conversion practices in New Zealand. 

Shaneel Lal, known for spearheading the movement to ban conversion therapy in New Zealand, launched a petition which has so far gathered more than 17,000 signatures, calling on the Government to "actually ban conversion therapy". 

They hope amendments will be made to the legislation during the next phase in Parliament on Wednesday, where MPs can discuss and agree on potential changes. 

If that doesn't happen, Lal said it will be a "marker in history" that "the Labour Party could have done much more to ban conversion therapy effectively". 

Lal wants people of all ages included in section 8 of the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill. As it currently stands, anyone over the age of 17 has to be able to prove serious harm - a condition not required of those aged 17 and below. 

National MP Simon O'Connor.
National MP Simon O'Connor. Photo credit: Parliament TV

"Currently in the criminal justice system or criminal law, serious harm is defined as grievous bodily harm. That is like being stabbed or having your arm chopped off. The only time an 18-year-old can hold the practitioner of conversion therapy liable in the criminal justice system is if they can prove serious harm," Lal told Newshub. 

"Noone that's practicing conversion therapy in New Zealand is stabbing people and chopping off arms. An 18-year-old will not have any protection under this law because they will simply not be able to prove serious harm. 

"The most common consequences of conversion therapy often include depression and suicidal ideation and it's unlikely that will be captured by serious harm. In criminal law, as of now, there have been no cases recognising depression and suicidal ideation as serious harm or grievous bodily harm. 

"That's the real issue here - an 18-year-old is required to prove grievous bodily harm to be able to hold that practitioner accountable."

Lal also doesn't understand why the Attorney-General, currently Labour MP David Parker, needs to sign off on prosecutions. 

"For those people who are under the age of 18, they will also not have any protection under this Bill because the requirement for the Attorney-General to give consent to prosecute may serve as a barrier to all prosecutions," Lal told Newshub. 

LGBTQ+ activist Shaneel Lal.
LGBTQ+ activist Shaneel Lal. Photo credit: Twitter

"In New Zealand, police can prosecute in cases of murder or rape or sexual violation. Almost any crime that exists in this country can be prosecuted by the police without the interference of the Attorney-General. We think that should still be the route for us to take with the conversion therapy crime. We do not believe that a politician should be able to dictate whether a queer person gets justice in the criminal justice system."

Lal also wants ACC coverage for mental harm suffered as a result of conversion therapy. The proposed law says survivors and victims may seek redress from the Human Rights Commission or the Human Rights Review Tribunal. 

"The Human Rights Tribunal is a judicial process that's lengthy and expensive," Lal said. 

"Survivors of conversion therapy are already on edge, so telling someone who is at a point of killing themsevles to go to court to get mental health support is not approproate, especially in the context of New Zealand where queer people are five times more likely to kill themsevles than non-queer people."

Free speech fears

The Government's intention to ban conversion therapy has been contentious. Under Judith Collins' leadership, National stood alone in August last year as the only party not to support it. The caucus voted as a block.

Collins, at the time, declared the Government "anti-parents" over concerns parents could face charges for preventing their children from taking hormone blockers. Justice Minister Kris Faafoi later said it's unlikely parents would face charges under those circumstances.

The proposed law passed its first reading because Labour has a majority in Parliament. The Greens, ACT and the Māori Party all supported it. 

New National leader Christopher Luxon changed the game and allowed his caucus to vote with their conscience at the second reading on Tuesday night. The problem with that for National is it's now in the public domain the MPs who voted against it: O'Connor, Simon Bridges, Simeon Brown, Melissa Lee, Louise Upston and Michael Woodhouse. 

O'Connor was the only one to speak about it during the second reading. He said his main issue was freedom of speech. 

Former National leader Judith Collins declared the Government "anti-parents" over concerns parents could face charges for preventing their children from taking hormone blockers.
Former National leader Judith Collins declared the Government "anti-parents" over concerns parents could face charges for preventing their children from taking hormone blockers. Photo credit: Newshub

"If this Bill was truly and simply about conversion practices, as I think most of us intuitively and connotatively understand, it would be a no-brainer to support it. It would be relatively easy. The Bill, unfortunately, goes so much further than that," he said.

"That's why I vote against this Bill. It's not that you want to go out and cause harm. It's not that you want to go out and make people unsafe. It's not that you want them to feel disrespected. You know what? Conversations, at times, are difficult; they are challenging. And the underlying paradox in this bill is that in preventing the conversion of some, the bill is seeking to make sure others convert their minds, that they're not allowed to say, think, pray, or feel a certain opinion."

Lal says he's mistaken. 

"This is evidence that Simon doesn't know what he's talking about. The Bill specifically carves out an exemption for people to express their homophobic and transphobic views. If he wants to call people derogatory slurs, he still can. But if he thinks that queer people, and queer children especilally, do not have dialogue with their parents, he's deeply mistaken."

Under the law, performing conversion practices intended to change or suppress someone's sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression, could result in a prison sentence of up to five years. But general expressions of religious beliefs or principles about sexuality and gender will not be captured

Lal accused O'Connor of being transphobic. 

"He said he talked to a gay man who told him that banning conversion therapy would mean that gay men would be erased and be forced to live as trans women. Absolute junk. Noone is trying to make cis gender gay men trans. It highlighted that Simon was only wishing to put forward his transphobic views."

Auckland Councillor Richard Hills made similar criticisms on Twitter, while Labour MP Marja Lubeck described O'Connor's speech as "cringeworthy".

O'Connor told Newshub he had nothing further to add.