A Dark Journey Into Hong Kong's World Of LGBTQ Conversion Therapy
As advocates in Hong Kong work to spread the word that being LGBTQ+ is not an illness, conversion therapy centers like New Creation continue to harm and traumatize those who want to get "out of the gay life." Members of the LGBTQ+ community struggle to reconcile their faith and their orientation in a society that continues to be institutionally homophobic.
HONG KONG — Alvin Zhang has kept a diary for 18 years.
Flipping through the pages, he sees where he wrote, in large letters, "Weak emotion vs strong reason" at the top of the page. "There are two of me; one of me is actually so evil," he writes on one page. "I hate this 'me', I have to deal with this 'me'", "I am so hurt inside," he continues.
The "me" in Alvin's diary refers to his sexual orientation. Alvin is gay. Eighteen years ago, in 2005, a 21-year-old Alvin was undergoing counseling to change his sexual orientation, at an organization called the New Creation.
When you open the organization's website, you're greeted with the words "Dare to be different" and a rainbow-colored navigation bar, giving the impression that it's an LGBTQ+-friendly organization. But the difference is that, since it was founded in 2004, this Christian organization has been working to get LGBTQ+ people "out of the gay life."
Alvin's story: an inner war
Alvin grew up going to church with his mother and attended religious schools for both kindergarten and elementary. When he was in his first year of secondary school, he unintentionally saw male nudity on the Internet, and became excited – before quickly telling himself that it was not good. When he was in his third year of secondary school, he liked a boy who was also Christian. That boy used to call gay people “disgusting," and when their friends would laugh about it together, Alvin did the same, fearing that his secret would be found out.
"Even when I watch porn, I always type 'boy' and don't dare to type 'gay', or I just watch movies about men and women, and realize that my eyes have been looking at the men. I have to force myself to look at the girls," he says.
When Alvin was in college, he fell in love with a heterosexual Christian boy, and they went to church together often. Alvin once saw a church pamphlet that said, "Seventy percent of homosexuals can be converted," and the boy he fell in love with told him, "It's okay; God will help you." Alvin began a years-long war against himself.
In 2005, Alvin wanted counseling and joined the Life Renewal Group part of the New Creation, where he and other gay men tried to change their orientation under the guidance of the counselor. Alvin was the second member of the group.
The group viewed homosexuality as a form of "sexual indulgence."
Alvin showed a journalist the form for signing up for the Life Renewal Group, which showed that the group would meet 12 times in total, every two weeks, at a cost of 1,200 HKD ($155). At the bottom of the form was a declaration which read: "I have made up my mind that I am willing to change my homosexual orientation with God's help and I am willing to terminate all homosexual relationships and sexual behavior during my participation in this group.”
The last lessons of the group were "Getting along with the opposite sex" and "Relationships with the opposite sex."
The group also has a lesson entitled "Rebuilding the Self - Recovering Masculinity and Femininity."
Participants read books together, including "I'm Not Gay Anymore," "Recovering My True Self: Breaking Free from the Chains of Homosexuality," and other books which tried to analyze the reasons for homosexuality. These reasons could include "weakness of character" or "family reasons," for which the books offered "solutions" so that homosexuals could change their sexual orientation.
After a while, Alvin began to reflect in his diary:
"What caused me to be gay:
1. Lack of manliness: shoulders not broad enough, pale skin.
2. Self-consciousness of not being loved
3. Fear of rejection
4. Severe jealousy
5. Low self-esteem
6. Dislike of sports and no athleticism
7. Fear of being around boys
8. Lack of guidance
9. Fear of abandonment
10. Fear of being hurt"
He also wrote: "The homosexual is often unexpectedly dependent on others to do things for him, a child who has not grown up, who does not know how to be independent, who does not want to be independent."
The group also viewed homosexuality as a form of "sexual indulgence," from which release could be achieved by such methods as "finding someone to confess: no longer denying the problem." After that, every time he sat next to a boy he liked and made physical contact, Alvin blamed himself for his "poor self-control."
He divided himself into two "I's." One, a rational "I" close to God, and a weak "I," attracted to the same sex, and he mentioned many times in his diary that he wanted to overcome the latter.
Soon after, Alvin began to suffer from poor mental health, fatigue, dizziness, extreme depression and breakdowns. At this time, the group emphasized the value of "suffering" many times, and one of the group's materials that Alvin showed to the reporter contained a section titled "The Path of Suffering," which mentioned "repentance" many times, and said that "Repentance is defined as hurt with action," which may include "breaking up with a loved one, cutting off a longtime friend, giving up a job, or even moving to new and unfamiliar surroundings."
I have no self
Seeing that Alvin was deteriorating and even trying to commit suicide, the New Creation's human counselor referred him to see the association's founder, psychiatrist Kang Guihua.
In one of Alvin's notes of the meeting, he asked Kang, "I have no self, I am depressed, anxious, I want to find myself again, but I am still in need of a same-sex relationship. Can you help me solve this dilemma?"
At that time, Kang claimed, "There are many causes of depression. Studies show that homosexuals and these kinds of people will especially have depression."
Kang has been working on sexual orientation change since 1984, and has long been controversial, with many accusing him of psychologically traumatizing people.
In 2011, he was invited by the Hong Kong Social Welfare Department to conduct a social worker training course, citing research and other evidence that homosexuality "can be corrected and treated and turned into heterosexuality." This sparked protests from LGBTQ+ groups, who questioned the course's violation of human rights laws and United Nations standards, as well as its discrimination and pathologizing of homosexuality.
In 2007, Alvin decided to leave Kang, after a long struggle. He stopped analyzing his "problems" and wrote in his diary half a year later, "It turns out that as long as I accept my sexual orientation, there is no problem at all. My self-image has improved and I'm not so depressed."
Looking back at his diary 18 years later, Alvin said, "I later found out that I actually am very athletic, swimming and playing badminton are sports I like and am good at."
Boris Dittrich, advocacy director of the lesbian, gay bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights program at Human Rights Watch, poses with a report in Hong Kong.
Kit's story: you're either Christian or gay
Kit (not her real name) was watching Alvin in 2022 when he spoke about this experience in a theater. "I was thinking to myself, I totally get what he's talking about."
Kit, who is about Alvin's age, is a Christian and was also involved in New Creation's small groups from 2015 to 2016.
Kit has known since elementary school that she likes girls. She often came out to those around her, and for her it was a cry for help, wondering "Why am I different from everyone else? What should I do?" But teachers would say "You're gay because your dad left," or, "You just haven't grown up yet."
She knew that gay was not a good word. "When I was a kid watching TV, every gay character was vilified, either as a pervert or a stalker. It was all so frightening."
Later, she started dating a girl, but after experiencing a difficult breakup, Kit went back to the church and cried. The pastor was calm and asked her, "Are you crying because you can't let go of the gay life?" The pastor said that homosexuality is a sin, and he felt that Kit was doing it knowing it was a sin.
He said, "You're not being a good Christian. God draws a sheepfold for the sheep, and if the sheep leave the fold, they will naturally get hurt."
Being a Christian was extremely important to Kit, and she was horrified when the pastor told her to her face that she "didn't look like a Christian." She began attending church regularly.
Kit wrote about her experience and submitted it to New Creation. After receiving an invitation from them, Kit began to participate in the Life Renewal Group in 2015, and also volunteered in the Parents Group.
During those years, she tried very hard to straighten herself out and tried to date boys, but it was "a very big disaster," Kit said, adding, "All in all, I couldn't do it. I wanted to die if I had to be with a boy."
Whenever she was with someone of the opposite sex, the people in the association were happy, "When they saw you with someone of the opposite sex, they were there applauding and happy. If I was unhappy then they were happy," she says.
"The things that make me happy are the things that will always disappoint them.”
Two years later, she fell back in love with a girl.
LGBTQ+ presence in Hong Kong
Attempts to eliminate an individual's sexual attraction to the same sex and promote sexual attraction to the opposite sex, are most commonly done through methods such as conversion therapy (or reversal therapy).
As early as 1973, the American Psychiatric Association had voted to exclude homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Homosexuality was first included in the DSM in the 1950s, and for a time was considered a mental illness.
The True Light Association, which focuses on sexual minorities in Hong Kong, and John Chan, Associate Professor of the Department of Special Education and Counseling at the Hong Kong University of Education, released the "Hong Kong Sexual Orientation Trial and Rehabilitation Study Report 2022" in 2023. Of the 219 respondents in the report, 21.9% of the LGBTQ+ respondents have tried to change their sexual orientation, while 73% of them have a religious background. Most of them are pressured by family members and religious leaders to change their sexual orientation.
The New Creation Association has repeatedly emphasized that it does not "force" homosexuals to change their sexual orientation. Reporters called the clinic of the association's founder, and the nurse on duty, replied, "Dr. Kang does not accept interviews anymore."
In the past, Kang has emphasized that if people voluntarily want to change their sexual orientation, then they should be helped; that he was not forcing them to change their sexual orientation, but rather letting them "leave the homosexual life" and become "post-homosexuals."
He said that he had successfully changed his sexual orientation and married a woman. They do also admit that the percentage of people who “successfully change” their sexual orientation, marry someone of the opposite sex and have children is extremely low.
If they had a choice in the matter, given the circumstances in Hong Kong, wouldn’t they choose to be straight?
But is changing one's sexual orientation really voluntary?
Hong Kong decriminalized same-sex sex activity in 1991 – and according to a survey conducted in Hong Kong in 2023, 60% of people said they supported same-sex marriage, while 17% said they did not support it and 23% were neutral.
The legalization of same-sex marriage in Hong Kong is still not on the agenda, and the Sexual Orientation Discrimination Bill, which has been pushed by civil society groups for years, has still not been passed.
These controversies have affected the self-acceptance of LGBTQ+ people.
In 2004, the case of Leung TC William Roy v Secretary for Justice was hotly debated throughout Hong Kong. In 2005, the case ruled that the age of sexual consent for anal sex should be changed to 16.
Alvin, who was struggling with his sexual identity at the time, said, "Heterosexuals can have sex at 16, and homosexuals have to wait until they're 21. That’s really saying that homosexuality is bad and that you have to wait until you are more mature to make such a choice. I don't think it's fair, but there's nothing I can do about it."
Dino, founder and chairman of True Light Society, said, “It says that changing one’s sexual orientation is voluntary, but if they had a choice in the matter, given the circumstances in Hong Kong, wouldn’t they choose to be straight?”
Thousands of people take part in the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgender (LGBT) parade in Hong Kong.
Chan Long Hei/Pacific Press via ZUMA
The True Light Society
The True Light Society has no religious background and emphasizes a "scientific approach" to discussing sexual orientation issues. However, Dino and vice-chairman Jensen Yao are both gay Christians.
Dino has tried to "straighten" himself throughout his life. At the age of 13, he realized that he liked boys, but was never able to accept himself. "At that time, I thought that homosexuality was very strange, that society wouldn't accept me. I hadn’t ever seen a positive image of homosexuality."
In 2007, the Domestic Violence Bill was amended to extend its scope of protection but specified that same-sex cohabiting couples were not protected. LGBTQ+ groups launched protests. After nearly three years, the bill was eventually renamed the Domestic and Cohabitation Relationships Violence Bill, which introduced the term "cohabitation relationship" to cover same-sex cohabiting couples.
Dino was in secondary school at the time, and there were heated discussions among his classmates, "Everyone would say, how can two men or two women be considered a family?" That’s when he really felt how unfriendly people were towards gay people.
At that time, he had no religion. "I thought that if I believed in Christianity I could definitely be converted," Dino said. He became a Christian: "Who knows? Jesus was awesome, yes, but it still couldn't change me," Dino jokes about his self-acceptance nearly 20 years later.
Vice President Jensen, who has been a "very good and devout Christian" since he was a child, has always been frustrated by his desire to "have a girlfriend and get married at 18," he said.
"I grew up as a homophobic person, afraid of myself and others. Every time I started thinking about boys, I would confess to God and feel guilty; when I saw men holding hands on the street, I thought it was unacceptable."
In 2012, some religious organizations launched a joint petition against the legislation of the Sexual Orientation Discrimination Bill, and Jensen, who was a student at the time, saw it on Facebook and joined the petition.
It wasn't until a colleague came out to him at work that Jensen realized "there are really gay people in this world," and began to accept that he was one of them too.
An end in sight?
Alvin was so traumatized by his "therapy" experience that he tried to commit suicide several times and has been unable to have an intimate relationship for the past ten years. Doctors believe he suffers from PTSD and his memory and logical thinking are affected.
Whilst conversion therapy companies, like The New Creation Society try to emphasize that their mission is not to “reverse sexual orientation," they still manage to heavily traumatize those they try to change.
As of January 2022, Canada and France have banned conversion therapy altogether; the UK and the U.S. are in the process of having partial state bans.
The 2022 Hong Kong Sexual Orientation Trial Reassignment Study Report revealed that 29.2% of those who had experienced conversion therapy felt shame, guilt and hated themselves. 39.6% and 27.1% reached clinical depression and anxiety levels respectively. 20.8% felt accepted and 27.1% felt that they had found a safe place to share, 83.3% had suicidal thoughts.
So why is there still conversion therapy in Hong Kong today?
In June 2023, the True Light Society published the Sexual Minority Counseling Handbook to promote the use of LGBTQ+ Affirmative Practices in the social welfare and counseling sectors.
Jensen and Dino found that in Hong Kong, many counselors are eager to learn about LGBTQ+ issues, but have no channels to do so. Dino, who has taken a course on social work and psychology, said that the course did not cover much: "It was just a very simple talk about what the L stands for in LGBT and what the G stands for.”
Many of his classmates, who are psychologists, interact with sexual minorities and LGBTQ+ people, but without the proper training and education they may not know how to help them.
Therefore, the manual is regarded by them as "the only reference on sexual minorities for counselors in Hong Kong."
The Hong Kong Psychological Society, founded in 1968, is one of the major professional associations in psychology, and it has issued a Position Paper on Psychologists' Work with Sexually and Gender Diverse Individuals in 2012 and 2023, which states that "Psychologists should recognize that different sexual orientations are not illnesses; different sexual orientations are simply part of the natural human condition."
This stands in contrast to their 2012 statement, which states that "attempts to change sexual orientation have not been shown to be effective and harmless." Their 2023 statement states that "Psychologists should abandon conversion therapy, which has been scientifically proven to be ineffective and potentially harmful." In addition, the 2023 statement also includes transgender people. However, this position paper is only a statement of the Hong Kong Psychological Society's position and is binding only for members of the Society.
Healing from conversion therapy
Alvin had expressed his desire to be baptized in the church three times, but was rejected. "Why don't you take care of your own business first," he recalled them saying.
He participated in the Hong Kong LGBTQ+ Pride March in 2018, and remembers holding a microphone and shouting the slogan "Gay or not, we are all part of society," which was healing for him.
Kit says, "Gay people are a minority, and gay Christians are a minority of a minority. A lot of people say to me, 'It's okay if you don't believe in (religion),' but both faith and sexual orientation have been big parts of my life for a long time."
There are also gay-friendly Christian churches in Hong Kong. Founded in 1992, Keen House became the first Protestant church in Hong Kong founded by homosexuals and the first officially registered gay Christian organization in Asia.
In recent years, there are also gay-friendly churches such as the Kowloon Chow Ning Church and the Joy of Christ Church. However, these churches are still in the minority under the current circumstances.
Conversion therapy changed the trajectory of both Alvin and Kit’s lives. The trauma it left has taken decades to heal, and they continue to do so every day, albeit with love and acceptance for themselves.
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