Conversion therapy ban and Activism 101

Shaneel Lal

February 2, 2021
I can't think of any queer movement that didn't start out of anger and just being fed up with the state... Conversion therapy is the one issue that I’m going to fight for to the bitter end. 

Conversion therapy is the pseudoscientific practice of trying to change an individual's sexual orientation from queer to heterosexual using psychological, physical, or spiritual interventions. It is extremely harmful and has shown to double the rates of depression and suicide attempts among LGBTQIA+ youth. Various jurisdictions around the world have passed laws against conversion therapy, however, it remains legal in New Zealand...

Watch full interview here or scroll down if reading is more of ya thing ⬇️

You are known on social media for the activism that you do. It would be great to hear your story about how you got into it and what's your relationship with it like?

I haven't been known for a while; my Instagram had a sudden growth and that was after I spoke at Youth Parliament about conversion therapy. People were either asking me how this is happening or people were saying that this can't be happening in New Zealand. They just couldn’t believe it so a lot of it was coming from a place of denial or just so much shock that people weren't willing to accept it. I think that ‘wow factor’ was what really got it going. So that was mid-2019 and then people started noticing my Instagram. 

But other than that, I think because I have a social media platform and it's relatively big, I've decided to dedicate it to other issues too. I kind of got into this space now where people will expect me to advocate for everything and sometimes you just have to say “No, I don't have the time or energy for this”. Sometimes you post about an issue that may not be important to another person that's following you and they might just leave a comment asking “Why are you not advocating for something else?”. It's like... maybe you should make a post about it? [laughs] A lot of the time people just don't know how to communicate their frustrations and they get angry and annoyed at the wrong people. 

How did you end up in Parliament giving a talk?

Youth Parliament is an event that happens every three to four years and your local MP (Member of Parliament) calls for applications to speak there. My local MP was Jenny Salesa. So she called for applications, then we did an interview process and were chosen. 

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Shaneel speaking Youth Parliament, credit to

And why did you choose conversion therapy as a topic? Is it something that you've already been kind of working on before that?

What we had before Youth Parliament was three petitions and they had more than 20,000 signatures. Also we had a Members Bill in Parliament and neither of them were moving; they had basically stalled. So I thought that this was a good opportunity to push this forward and what I also knew was that every young person was going to speak about climate change. I just didn't want to be another person adding to the noise. I knew that talking about climate change to a group of young people wasn't necessarily: it just felt like these people are, of course, going to believe in climate change. These are young people. 

And no one actually did speak about any LGBTQIA+ issues other than myself. It was one of those issues where I thought: well, if I don't, then who will? 

Do you do this work with a little team of people or is there a community? 

I co-founded the conversion therapy action group with four other people. But over time even the group itself has kind of lost direction because of the lack of action we've seen from Parliament or the government itself. However, we did have a great success recently with the Labour Party saying that they would ban conversion therapy if they were elected. They have been elected and we've heard nothing ever since. On top of that, their policy came during an election period which is in itself a bit suspicious...

However, I have been in touch with the Minister of Justice who will be responsible for introducing the policy to Parliament. So I think a lot of the work now is happening by individual people and then we kind of piece it together. Someone, for example, would be working inside the Labour Party; whereas, a lot of my work is working with medical bodies so they would denounce conversion therapy. I am usually the person emailing Ministers asking for them to put out policies and then I kind of just do social media stuff as well.

Being in the space of advocating, whether on social media or in person, and seeing the lack of response from the government. What’s your personal way of staying motivated? 

No no no no, every day is a bit like: “oh is it still worth fighting for?” [laughs] and even if the answer is “yes”, is it practical to fight for this? Can this be achieved? So it’s a balance... But the answer to both questions is simply yes - it's important and it can be achieved. That's what I’ve told myself. I think 99% of the work is actually believing that you can do it and sometimes we get into the cycle of just talking about what we want to achieve but I think that we need to stop talking and fight for it.

That's where my heart and mind is at at the moment with conversion therapy. While it is really disheartening and discouraging to see this government just sit on this issue and do nothing, if I stop pushing for it, I do not see who else will. Because people are either too occupied with other issues or have just moved on.

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Shaneel at Pride Parade with a rainbow and transgender flags, laughing, talking to Jan Logie, Green MP, credit to Re:news

Thinking back to when you were a kid, when did you feel like that sort of feeling of wanting to fight for what's important or being more vocal and putting yourself a bit more on the line? 

I mean I grew up in a brown family so being vocal was never an issue for me. The only way to be heard in a brown family is to be vocal because everyone grows up loud. I grew up in a big family, a very loud family as well, so I always knew that I had to vouch for myself. But I also think that I always had the personality of someone who just never accepted things as they were. That's probably because I grew up in Fiji, which is a largely conservative community. Nothing in the community was fit for purpose for me so I always had to be like: “No no, this doesn't work”. Although I wasn't voicing it like I am now, I always knew that a lot of the things that were happening in the community weren't the way that I would see things in an ideal world.

Fiji is a largely sexist community with men always holding the highest status. So there were these large issues that have become just such normal parts of my life, and people around me just seemed to be okay with it. A lot of the time people can also think that maybe it's just a part of the culture and you shouldn't challenge it. And I think:

Well, if the culture that I live in is contributing to someone's oppression maybe we don't need that culture anymore.

I'm from Kazakhstan and it's very patriarchal and corrupt with a whole bunch of other issues, right? So I always find it hard to balance between knowing that my culture needs a lot of work and yet it also needs to be represented and has its place. I can see a lot of Western thinking like “oh well, you know, we're doing it better so why do we need your presentation with your corrupt sexist values?” and I don't think it's as straightforward as it seems… 

I think a lot of people, especially the Pacific community, tend to forget that they are a colonised community. And a lot of things that they practice and preach including Christianity is not an indigenous way of being. Pacific people get so annoyed when they hear that actually Christianity was used to colonise them but it's the truth. A lot of the things like homophobia, sexism and transphobia are justified using the Bible. So I think that indigenous communities don't need to modernise or westernise, because the way that they are living their life right now is the Western way: homophobic, transphobic and sexist. Because those concepts were introduced to indigenous communities through colonisation, through British imperialism. What needs to happen with these communities is to decolonise and re-indigenise and maybe a part of that is actually picking on things like Christianity and saying “these are the good parts and these are the bad parts and we're not going to believe in the bad ones anymore”.

Do you have any sort of short-term or long-term measurable goals or a mission for yourself? 

I have what people would call outrageous goals because most of them are very difficult to achieve. I’m thinking that maybe after we ban conversion therapy and maybe after I’m educated with a degree from a colonial university, I do want to return to Fiji to advocate for legalisation of same-sex marriage. I think there hasn't really been a strong movement or a lot of support from countries outside Fiji, so having people that have lived in Fiji but have also had experience or skills advocating for change will really help. 

I think that Parliament is a very stereotypical place for people to head towards. Ultimately the Parliament does make the law of the country and especially in New Zealand, the Parliament is supreme. So that could potentially be something that I do down the line but then I believe that it can be very limiting because suddenly I’m having to censor myself and having to pledge allegiance to the queen... 

I came to New Zealand when I was 16 and I have definitely been kind of thinking of going back to Kazakhstan to contribute but it's scary. Knowing how much resistance people experience back there, it’s quite overwhelming… 

We do live with a lot of privilege in New Zealand in terms of our civil and political rights but yeah, I do have fear too. The response in Fiji to queer people is terrible. There are videos of people just openly comfortably harassing trans people and that's just a normal part of living there so I think that there is an aspect of fear but I can't think of any queer movement that didn't start out of anger and just being fed up with the state. You can go all the way back to Stonewall and people are just freaking sick of the police and you just get sick with the state and say “you either do things that we want or you're gone”. 

With a lot of social media or media personalities in general, it's hard to see real struggles and what people are really facing in their lives. Even with social change, you can see people being really brave and strong on social media and you don’t see the challenges they experience. It would be cool to hear your thoughts around this and maybe something that you’ve recently been struggling with yourself?

I think for me what's been really difficult is advocating for change and ensuring that people believe in you while trying to be vulnerable at the same time. You have to make people believe that change is going to happen but if you're at the same time crying on your Instagram, saying that, actually I feel miserable and hopeless, it's really difficult to get people to trust you. So I think a lot of the times my biggest struggle is being very transparent and honest with people. 

Sometimes I do feel like this conversion therapy thing is not going anywhere and I just feel hopeless but you just can't go out there and publicly tell people this all the time. Because then people just get into this idea of thinking that you've been doing this for so long and you feel hopeless so why are you still doing this? Sometimes people send me messages saying “Well, you've been advocating for three years and you've gotten nowhere. Why do you think that people will believe in you?”.Those kinds of messages are pointless but it's the idea of having to balance honesty and hope...

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Shaneel wearing their own tapa, credit to Ensemble Magazine

There are a lot of people now who say that they want to help but they feel like they get paralysed with not knowing what to do or what the right thing is? Do you have any suggestions or advice on the topic? 

I do think that I am sometimes that person, more so before I got involved. I think with activism, especially political activism, there is this idea of being involved in everything and I used to be like that. I would think that I need to do work in every single area or I have to support every political cause. But over time you just learn that that's impractical and not the best use of your time. So I’ve picked one thing and I will consistently advocate for that until I get what I want and then move on to the next thing. Rather than trying to spread myself too thin and advocate for every single thing and not achieve anything.

I think the best thing for people who are looking to support a cause is to find something that you care about because if you don't care about it you'll very easily lose interest when the going gets tough. You need to care about something enough that when things become difficult, the amount of care or concern you have for an issue keeps you going. Then find people who've been doing that kind of work and get in touch. Sometimes it can be as simple as signing a petition; sometimes it can be actually sending an email to your local MP.

In terms of banning conversion therapy, what do you encourage people to do? What’s your sort of ‘message’?

Well, we know that the Labor party itself holds a majority in Parliament so if they wanted to stay true to their word and put through their policy, they would easily be able to ban it. But what that also means is that most of our local MPs are now Labor MPs so sending them an email is one of the best things that you can do right now.

And if you need a template, people can always get in touch with me and I have tons and tons of emails that I've written and sent to people and I'm happy to share. Now that I have sent an email to the Minister of Justice, I'm hoping that I will get a reply in time. Usually they take a month or two, and depending on his reply I would know whether they intend to introduce a policy to ban conversion therapy. If they don't, then we need to start petitioning again. I think it's really important for us to run a successful campaign and that includes things like printing posters and putting them around the streets and the cities and letting people know. 

One of the biggest responses I got about conversion therapy is that people didn’t believe it actually happens in New Zealand. That it can’t be possible or that it’s not actually a serious issue because it’s a thing of the past. So posting on social media, sharing content and we have an Instagram account too, is really key to raising awareness and therefore educating people.

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