Using behavioural science to tackle LGBTQ+ change or suppression practices in Victoria

The Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Act 2021 came into effect in Victoria in February 2022. It aims to prevent practices which try to change or suppress a person’s sexual or gender orientation. We know these practices are harmful, unethical and simply don’t work, however, changing these complex behaviours would require more than the introduction of a new law.

The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) has made eliminating LGBTQ+ change or suppression practices in Victoria a priority. To complement the new law banning these practices, the VEOHRC engaged BehaviourWorks Australia as behaviour change experts to help develop a behaviour change approach to support its education and community awareness activities. The VEOHRC also wanted to increase the knowledge of its workforce around behavioural science and increase capability in this area.  

Two researchers worked with VEOHRC; Kun Zhao, who has a background in behaviour change relating to social inclusion, and Erik Denison who has studied changing homophobic behaviours in rugby union and other sports with a large  proportion of highly religious participants.

The challenge:
Developing a behaviour change strategy to stop harmful practices that change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission

What did we do?

BehaviourWorks Australia developed and then delivered a series of bespoke workshops with the VEOHRC team looking at the fundamentals of behaviour change based around the Method (a collection of behavioural science tools for translating research evidence into practice).

The workshops covered the skills for unpacking a problem and diagnosing behaviours, carrying out deep dive research to understand the drivers and barriers of behaviour, and designing and testing behavioural interventions. Along the way, we reviewed a number of case studies drawn from Erik’s work in homophobia in sport, looking at what worked, what didn’t, and key learnings and findings. By mentoring and working closely with the VEOHRC, we were able to support the team in developing their behaviour change strategy.

What did we find?

Unlike many other projects aiming to change environmental and health behaviours, this proved to be different in many ways. For this project we found ourselves working with deeply-held faith and cultural beliefs, values, and social norms, where traditional light-touch “nudges” aimed at making small shifts in behaviour clearly fell short.

We used systems mapping to understand complex pathways of influence within our stakeholder groups and drew heavily on the VEOHRC’s strong relationships with young people and faith groups to understand their unique drivers and barriers.

Our discussions touched on conflicting worldviews around the concept of harm, including religious freedoms and spiritual harm as well as the human rights of LGBTQ+ people and the deep psychological harm that can be caused by change and suppression practices. A key focus was identifying ways to build a bridge between these worldviews. 

With this in mind, we looked for ways in which behavioural science, and behaviour change tools, could support and enhance the education and awareness initiatives carried out by the VEOHRC. It was clear that we were working with a problem and behaviours embedded within strong social and cultural practices, influences, and norms, and our solutions would equally need to go beyond individual behavioural motivations and have a strong social component. We looked at the role of social influencers, role models, peers, and other sources of support, including “champions of change” within religious communities who could help LGBTQ+ people find safe and supportive outcomes.

There are no quick solutions for complex problems like this; there is often a lag between a legal change and society catching up. But we know from other complex problems embedded within social and cultural practices, that change requires a combination of a human rights, legislative, health, and behaviour change approach. The challenge of helping people comply with a new law they may not agree with is not easy, but society has managed this transition before.

Change and suppression (conversion) practices and their impacts, explained by VEOHRC:

What’s next?

The VEOHRC are continuing to work on a behaviour change strategy in close communication with stakeholders, LGBTQ+ community groups, and members of faith communities. They recently launched an animated explainer about the law, and will soon release a collection of initiatives and campaigns targeting young people (who are the peers of those looking for support). With input from stakeholders and community groups, they continue to develop and refine different intervention approaches which can help shift these complex behaviours in a way that respects people’s religious beliefs and values.

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