There are few things more unsettling to the LGBTQ community as the idea of conversion therapy. The fact that organizations and practitioners exist to drive human beings to try to kill off part of their true identity is worsened only by the reality that this unique brand of torture is still legal throughout most of Canada. It’s why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s December announcement that he would move to ban conversion therapy nationwide has brought such palpable relief to victims like myself.
A 2019 report out of the University of British Columbia and submitted to Canada’s House of Commons estimates that more than 20,000 sexual-minority Canadians have been exposed to some form of conversion therapy — though I suspect the real numbers to be much higher. Roughly 700,000 U.S. adults have been subjected to some form of the practice. Not all of these folks were coerced into a form of conversion therapy; in fact, a great many people actively seek out these programs and willingly sign on to their methods.
I know, because this is precisely what happened to me.
I was 24 years old and living in Vancouver, B.C., when a plea for help turned into a six-year nightmare that altered my life forever. In 1989, my family’s rejection of my homosexuality left me spiralling into a deep depression. My family doctor referred me to a psychiatrist who, over the next six years, told me that he was repairing my damaged inner masculinity and sexuality using drugs and methods such as aversion therapy and “reparenting;” that he was helping me “unlearn the error” of my homosexuality. I left the treatment feeling dead inside.
You belong. Sure, you also may contemplate suicide, but that’s beside the point.
In the medical malpractice lawsuit that followed, the psychiatrist denied any wrongdoing. He claimed he had simply treated my depression, but his actions echo the false belief that people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or any other sexual minority are “broken” and in need of “fixing.” He’s not alone. Since the demise of Exodus International, the world’s largest ex-gay organization, “conversion therapy” or “reparative therapy” programs that seek to change homosexuality to heterosexuality now veil their intentions in seemingly pro-LGBTQ language with a focus on “sexual integrity,” “sexual struggles” and “identity issues.” Today they talk less about “changing” sexual orientation,” and instead offer “healing through Christ” to help “the homosexual live a celibate or heterosexual lifestyle.”
The outcome of these programs is always the same. No deep inner transformation takes place. Instead, such programs take an individual’s desire to belong and turn it into a desire for conformity. If you learn how to “walk like a man” or to “dress like a woman,” to couple with an opposite-sex partner, you are “healed.” You belong. Sure, you also may contemplate suicide, but that’s beside the point.
Conversion therapy bans must go further
I have been an advocate for legal restrictions on conversion therapy for over 20 years. I helped push for the first municipal ban in Canada in my home city of Vancouver. When I first reached out to the city in 2017, Vancouver’s then LGBTQ2+ Advisory Committee (a sub-committee of Vancouver City Council) resisted the idea that a ban on conversion therapy was even needed, or that such “therapies” still occurred at all. Sharing my experiences helped change their minds. The motion had originally been restricted to those under 18 years of age, which was amended after one councillor voiced their shock.
But when the ban was enacted in 2018, it was a milestone, not a solution. The ban prohibits any business in the Vancouver area from “charging a fee for any services that seek to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of any person.” It further clarifies that “Services prohibited do not include services that provide acceptance, support or understanding of a person or the facilitation of a person’s coping, social support or identity exploration or development.”
This definition allows some organizations offering “change” treatments to continue with business as usual, continuing to insist they provide counselling and faith support rather than services that seek to change sexual orientation or gender identity.
The ineffectiveness of Vancouver’s ban demonstrates that Trudeau will need to do far more than any provincial or municipal bans have previously attempted. Defining what exactly constitutes conversion therapy, then targeting known practitioners, will be his government’s challenge.
Conversion therapy, like all forms of hatred and intolerance, is a problem of ideology.
Senate Bill S-202, “An Act to amend the Criminal Code (conversion therapy)” has reached second reading after being tabled in early 2019 by Senator Serge Joyal. Unfortunately, the bill makes no mention of criminalizing the act of conversion therapy, only “advertising” and gaining of “material benefit” from it. Bill S-202 is also restricted to people under the age of 18.
In part, the bill now reads: “... conversion therapy means any practice, treatment or service designed to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity or to eliminate or reduce sexual attraction or sexual behaviour between persons of the same sex. For greater certainty, this definition does not include a surgical sex change or any related service.”
This is just not good enough.
The Senate bill’s definition of “conversion therapy” falls short in capturing the full scope and subversive nature of these treatments. It is no longer good enough to state that these treatments seek to “change sexual orientation or gender identity;” lawmakers now need to clarify that “conversion” or “reparative” attempts typically occur under the guise of help, a distinct part of what makes today’s so-called conversion therapy so covert — and deadly.
Lawmakers need to ban these conversion attempts for all, not only for those who are coerced or forced to sign up. To be sure, no one ever chooses conversion therapy so much as they continue doing to themselves what society has done to them from the start. Any amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada in an effort to end conversion therapy should make the act itself an indictable offence, regardless of material benefit or in the absence of advertising. And the ban should not be restricted to minors. Finally, all faith organizations known to practice these anti-LGBTQ treatments should be stripped of their charitable status.
When I provided my witness testimony to Vancouver City Council, I told them that conversion therapy, like all forms of hatred and intolerance, is a problem of ideology — it knows no borders or nationality. Conversion therapy is torture, plain and simple. No one has the right to torture another human being, or to expose them to a fraudulent, cruel and dangerous human rights violation.
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