Despite being a churchgoer, Alvin Cheung never prays. Hymns send a chill down his spine, and the last time he touched a Bible was over 10 years ago.
The 38-year-old is a regular at his LGBTQ-friendly church, but avoids weekly worship meetings as he finds them triggering, a reminder of the darkest period in his life.
In 2005, as a university student, he was desperate to change his sexual orientation and attended counselling sessions run by a Christian organisation that said he could be “straightened.”
Over the course of a year, he attended one-to-one and small-group counselling sessions at the organisation, listening to hymns and reciting Bible verses. Each session was focused on a different topic, such as how to build “healthy” same-sex friendships and deal with “relapses.”
“They amplified the message that I had internalised growing up: that same-sex attraction was not normal, that it was unnatural, that it was not right,” he said, adding that they were “brainwashing” him.
The organisation, New Creation Association, is among a number of Christian groups receiving funding from a government scheme to promote the rights of sexual minorities. The groups have been said to encourage sexual orientation change efforts, a practice globally condemned as dangerous and traumatic.
In 2003, the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau (CMAB) began administering an annual Equal Opportunities (Sexual Orientation) Funding Scheme to support projects – from workshops to counselling programmes to drama performances – run by community organisations.
However, since the scheme’s early years, groups said to advocate sexual orientation change efforts have been among those to receive funding.
According to information on the CMAB website, around HK$694,000 has been distributed to such groups since 2017 - about 10 per cent of total funds. Figures for years prior to 2017 were not available on the website, and the bureau said it had no further information.
As well as the New Creation Association, the scheme's beneficiaries include the Post Gay Alliance and the Hong Kong Psychosexual Education Association. The groups, which share a founder and describe themselves as "sister" organisations, avoid language explicitly suggesting sexual orientation change efforts on their websites, but said they supported those perceiving their homosexuality to be in conflict with their Christian beliefs.
Globally, efforts to change sexual orientation, commonly referred to as conversion therapy, have been accepted to cause long-lasting psychological damage and are viewed as inherently discriminatory. In 2020, the United Nations called for an international ban on the practice.
Last April, lawmaker Tik Chi-yuen asked government officials in the Legislative Council whether they were aware of "concern relayed by some community organisations" that certain groups which received funding had made "discriminatory remarks" against the LGBTQ+ community, therefore "contravening the original intention of the funding scheme."
In response to HKFP, Tik said some groups had "reflected" these views to him, and that he hoped the government would address them. "Any form of discrimination cannot be tolerated," he said.
He added, however, that he had not followed up with the government since.
HKFP has reached out to the aforementioned groups, all of which declined interviews and did not respond to emailed questions.
A New Creation Association spokesperson said on a phone call that the group “did not know what conversion therapy was,” and that it offered counselling for "holistic development."
The CMAB did not respond to a question about why it continued to fund groups offering such controversial practices.
'I was torturing myself'
For Cheung, who describes himself as a conversion therapy survivor, a year undergoing counselling with New Creation Association resulted in deep-seated trauma that continues to affect him almost two decades later.
Raised by religious parents and having attended a Christian school, Cheung told HKFP that he sought out New Creation Association in 2005. He recalled seeing a pamphlet printed by the organisation that claimed a 70 per cent “success rate” among people leaving behind a homosexual lifestyle.
“When I called their hotline, the woman who answered told me that her husband was a ‘success case,’” Cheung, a social worker, said. “They said they could help me become straight.”
"They didn't force me to finish their counselling, but it was not easy to leave when these [anti-gay] messages become so ingrained, and when you are so determined to change."
Instructed to suppress all sexual desires while believing he could be “cured” if he "worked hard enough" and trusted in his faith, Cheung - then a university student - fell into deep depression and was unable to concentrate on schoolwork, he said, adding that that he also felt suicidal.
"All my life I have worked hard, whether at school or practicing music," Cheung, who played the clarinet at a professional level, said. "Who knew that in this case, hard work could almost kill you."
The association also advised participants to read books advocating sexual orientation change efforts, he said, a suggestion he took on diligently. One book encouraged readers to analyse the reasons for experiencing same-sex attraction, which Cheung said brought on waves of self-hate and disparaging thoughts.
In a diary entry from the time, Cheung wrote that his skin was too pale, his shoulders too narrow, and that he easily became jealous, was fearful of abandonment, and lacked direction in life.
"I was torturing myself, but I rationalised it by thinking that Christians must go through pain," Cheung said. "After all, Jesus sacrificed himself for us."
Another former participant of New Creation Association’s counselling sessions, Fung Chow, said his counsellor would describe same-sex attraction as the work of the devil.
Unlike Cheung, Chow said he was not emotionally traumatised by his experience. The 31-year-old took part in the sessions in 2017 and said he respected his younger self's decision to seek out the group.
“But still, they gave me false hope,” Chow said. "I am angry at them but also at my own ignorance, which was a product of the church and society's teachings."
Now a regular at Blessed Ministry Community Church, a church that welcomes the LGBTQ+ community, Chow said he no longer believed that Christianity defined same-sex attraction as a sin. "It's people's ideology. It's unrelated to religion," he added.
'They don't stand for equality'
In the face of criticism, the groups and their supporters have maintained that they do not discriminate against LGBT individuals or force them to change their sexual orientation.
The founder of New Creation Association, Post Gay Alliance and the Hong Kong Psychosexual Education Association, Hong Kwai-wah, has previously told Christian media outlets that people have the right to pursue change if they are unhappy with their same-sex attraction.
A receptionist at Hong's psychiatry clinic told HKFP that he was not available for an interview.
Diana Kwok, an associate professor at the Education University of Hong Kong’s Department of Special Education and Counselling, said it was concerning that the government would fund efforts that research had shown causes guilt, self-stigma and internalised homophobia.
“The assumption of sexual orientation change efforts is wrong. The assumption is that homosexuality needs to be cured. It does not need to be cured,” Kwok told HKFP.
Kwan Kai-man, a religion professor at the Baptist University of Hong Kong and a former consultant for New Creation Association, however, said he did not think such efforts were harmful.
“Some people feel unsatisfied [experiencing same-sex attraction] and they think homosexuality is not the solution for them, so they seek help,” Kwan said.
He added that there was “no demonstrated case” in Hong Kong of people developing trauma as a result. He said he also doubted the credibility of studies and media reports suggesting otherwise, calling the topic a “very political issue.”
Cheung, who founded a group that promotes affirmative therapy - a practice that advocates for self-acceptance of gender identity and does not try to "repair" it - said he had been in touch with other “survivors” of New Creation Association’s counselling programmes. He said the organisation’s approach appeared to have softened over the years.
One day in 2016, he received a call out of the blue from his former counsellor, who apologised, saying he had "lacked experience" back then and was now accepting of people choosing to embrace their sexual orientation.
Kit, a lesbian who asked to use a nickname, got to know the group in a different capacity to Cheung and Chow. Raised in a Catholic family, the 40-year-old spent her university years going from one counsellor to another to try to change her sexuality. She believed she succeeded - she said she no longer wanted to date and identified as "post gay," a term used by many Christian groups to refer to people who no longer experienced or acted on same-sex attraction.
In 2016, she began volunteering at New Creation Association, working with parents struggling to accept that their children were gay. Then, she met a woman who she began seeing. They are still dating today.
"When I told people at the group [that I was seeing a girl], I felt the feedback they gave me was bad. The tone was that I've sinned," Kit said.
"Around that time, I stopped going to New Creation Association," she continued. "I realised our views on LGBT issues, as Christians, were too different."
Kit said her mental health was "in a good place" and despite being surrounded by messages that she has since realised she did not agree with, she was emotionally unscathed. But she did not think New Creation Association and its related groups stood for her or the LGBTQ+ community.
Such groups have expressed their opposition to the legalisation of same-sex marriage, calling them a threat to traditional family values.
"Equality is about, 'I'm gay, and I have all the rights that others do'," Kit said. "I don't understand why these groups are receiving government funding that's meant to promote equality."