10/09/2018 17:46 EDT | Updated 10/10/2018 16:04 EDT

How Gay Conversion Therapy Got A Foothold In Canada

The practice has been discredited by mental health organizations worldwide.

Despite being discredited by major mental health organizations, conversion therapy — the practice of trying to "cure" LGBTQ people of their sexual orientation or gender identity — is still offered in Canada.

Now, LGBTQ activists in Lethbridge, Alta., are trying to get the federal government to make conversion therapy for minors a criminal offence.

Devon Hargreaves, of YQueerL Society for Change, and Jennifer Takahashi, with Lethbridge Public Interest Research Group, have started an online petition urging the government to ban the practice of counselling minors to change their sexual orientation, and to make it illegal to take minors outside of the country for conversion therapy.

Watch more about the history of gay conversion therapy in psychiatry:

"It's a matter of preventing individuals from pushing their ideological or religious views on someone else's identity, which has psychological, emotional and sometimes even physical repercussions for the child," Hargreaves told CBC News.

E-Petition 1833, launched late last month, has garnered enough signatures to be presented in the House of Commons.

A separate petition calling for a similar ban, has also garnered more than 52,000 signatures.

Psychologists condemn the practice

The Canadian Psychological Association (CPA) has condemned the practice of conversion therapy, as have most psychiatrists and psychologists across the country.

"Conversion or reparative therapy can result in negative outcomes such as distress, anxiety, depression, negative self-image, a feeling of personal failure, difficulty sustaining relationships, and sexual dysfunction," reads the CPA's 2015 statement.

"There is no evidence that the negative effects of conversion or reparative therapy counterbalance any distress caused by the social stigma and prejudice these individuals may experience."

The reality, however, is that conversion therapy is still being offered across Canada, mostly by religious groups.

So, how did we get here as a nation?

It's important to remember that homosexuality was a part of Canada's Criminal Code until 1967.

Up until that point there were many efforts made to out gay people, including a so-called Cold War "fruit machine" used by the Canadian government.

Until 1973, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) also had homosexuality classified as a mental illness. That year, however, the APA changed their tune and it was declassified.

From there, the "ex-gay movement" was formed and conversion therapy began to get some mainstream attention.

Watch: The dark history of gay conversion therapy

Exodus International, largely considered to be the religious face of the movement, was formed in 1976 and ministered to gay and lesbian people who were looking to limit their homosexual desires. With its help, small church ministries in the U.S. and Canada were paired up with mental health practitioners who were willing to "treat" LGBT patients.

The AIDS crisis in the 1980s fuelled the fire of anti-gay rhetoric, and in 1992 a more "secular" face of the ex-gay movement, the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), joined forces with Exodus International to promote what it called "reparative therapy" — a form of confessional talk-therapy with roots in psychoanalysis and behaviourism.

Conservative Christian groups took a big step in 1998, launching a print and television ad campaign in the U.S., lending a human face to conversion treatments by featuring testimonials from ex-gay participants claiming the methods "cured" them of their homosexuality.

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Canadian organizations emerge

Meanwhile, in Canada, programs following the ex-gay movement began to pop up, including Exodus Global Alliance (a sister organization to Exodus International), New Directions Ministries, and Living Waters Canada (now Journey Canada).

It was the 2000s that brought some significant blows to the ex-gay movement in Canada.

In 1998, the APA said there was no scientific evidence that conversion therapy is effective, and said it could be downright harmful.

New Direction Ministries left Exodus in 2002, and stopped offering conversion therapy. They have since rebranded as Generous Space Ministries, and executive director Wendy Gritter has spoken on numerous occasions about the damaging effects of the outdated practice.

In 2008, a series of ex-gay television ads produced by Life Productions Ministries were pulled from CTV in Northern Ontario after widespread backlash from the public.

In 2012, then-president of Exodus International, Alan Chambers, publicly admitted that 99.9 per cent of people who undergo ex-gay therapy do not change.

A year later Exodus International shut down, and Chambers issued an apology to conversion therapy survivors.

More recently, ex-gay therapy in Canada has been increasingly pushed to the fringes, if not outlawed altogether.

Ontario has banned conversion therapy for anyone under 18, and prohibits practitioners from billing public health insurance for the treatment.

Manitoba and Nova Scotia have also recently imposed bans, while the City of Vancouver has banned licensed groups from offering the therapy to people of all ages.

The Canadian Press
Nova Scotia Justice Minister Mark Furey speaks at a news conference in Halifax on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. Nova Scotia has introduced a law that prohibits the use of conversion therapy with LGBTQ youth. The bill to ban conversion therapy, a practice that attempts to change people's sexual orientation, outlaws people "in positions of trust or authority" from attempting the practice for youth under 16.

Alberta's NDP government also recently announced its first steps toward a ban.

Some Canadian organizations that were once big players in the business of conversion therapy have now closed shop, or are distancing themselves from the movement.

"Journey Canada is a discipleship ministry and therefore does not seek to change same-sex sexual orientation/attraction," says a special note on the Journey Canada website.

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