Contrary to popular belief, only two communities in Canada have outright banned conversion therapy. Photo: Flickr/Nan Palermo
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The LGBTQ2S+ community in Canada is rallying to pursue a legislative ban against conversion therapy

When Canadians think about conversion therapy, they tend to brush it off as an archaic practice that doesn’t exist in Canada anymore. After all, how could Canada — a country rooted in “multiculturalism” and “diversity” — have a movement comprised of mental health professionals subtly working to convince LGBTQ2S+ individuals that their sexual orientation is something that can and should be changed?

In recent years, the harmful practice of conversion therapy or reparative therapy has been propelled to national prominence in North America, in large part because of the Hollywood adaptations of two memoirs about adolescent experiences with conversion therapy: Golden Globe-nominated Boy Erased by Garrard Conley and The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth. 

The practice of conversion therapy has been around since or before Sigmund Freud’s paper The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman published in 1920. Over the past 100 years, therapy that sought to force heterosexuality — acquiring the name “conversion therapy” in the 1970s — has been present and adapting to cultural changes in order to stay relevant. But a mixture of shame and pseudoscience has always been at the root of conversion therapy.

Persistence in the modern day

In recent decades, organizations across North America offering conversion therapy began referring to homosexuality as “unwanted same-sex attractions,” in an effort to brand the practice to faith-based communities. 

Given that the practice is not founded in any form of science, the causes of non-heterosexual attraction as explained by conversion therapy providers fall on a large spectrum, ranging from absentee parents to demonic possession to childhood sexual assault. In the Canadian Psychological Association’s (CPA) policy statement on the matter, they note that no evidence exists to justify the negative effects of conversion therapy.

The American Psychological Association (APA) classified homosexuality as a mental disorder, but in the 1970s they removed it from the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM), following the abandonment of the practices of sterilization and electroshock therapy. In the years that followed, many other medical organizations publicly concluded that the process of conversion therapy is not based on science and that the therapy has not been shown to be successful.

The CPA also notes that “scientific research does not support the efficacy of conversion or reparative therapy (which) can result in negative outcomes such as distress, anxiety, depression, negative self-image, a feeling of personal failure, difficulty sustaining relationships, and sexual dysfunction.” This stance toward the practice is echoed by the APA as well as an array of governing bodies for health professionals throughout North America.  

In Canada, conversion therapy is not a practice that is offered by psychologists or psychiatrists because it is considered unethical and not founded in science. For this reason, conversion therapy has funnelled its way into faith-based communities where it is harder to follow and can be shielded, at least in part, by freedom of religion protections.

In 2005, a story surfaced in the New York Times of a young boy named Zach, who came out to his parents as gay and was then sent to a conversion therapy camp. At the time, Zach took to his MySpace page to share his experiences. 

“Somewhat recently … I told my parents I was gay … my mother, father, and I had a very long ‘talk’ in my room … I am to apply for a fundamentalist Christian program for gays. They tell me that there is something psychologically wrong with me, and they ‘raised me wrong.’ I am a big screw up to them,” he wrote.

Zach’s story is not unique and camps that reinforce the notion that being gay means being psychologically flawed still exist. 

Matt Aschroft, a 17-year-old who was raised in a small town in Alberta, was forced by his parents to attend a camp that offered conversion therapy, mixing psychological practices with peer pressure and shame for homosexual feelings to offer a specialized ‘treatment’ for homosexuality. When Ashcroft’s parents confronted him about his sexual orientation, they told him that they viewed it as abnormal and shameful towards his family, he said. 

At the camp, Aschroft says the counsellors tried to convince him that his sexual orientation was due to him having an absentee father. They organized an activity whereby students were instructed to hit a punching bag on the ground while imagining it was their father. They were not allowed to stop until they could no longer lift their arms. The exercise was designed to get camp attendees angry at their fathers for being the cause of their sexual attractions, he says.

Ashcroft recalls another activity that was organized at the camp, directed towards a person that had been raped.

“I had to watch as they re-enacted the rape in front of me,” he says.

The entire encounter is something that continues to haunt him today.

“(My experience in conversion therapy is) something that I think about every day of my life, its something that I dont want anybody to go through,” he says.

Conversion therapy in Canada is not limited to small towns and rural areas; it is just as present in large cities. In November 2018, the Journal de Montreal reported the story of Gabriel Nadeau, a Montreal native who was subjected to three forms of conversion therapy as an adolescent. 

The most extreme of these incidents occurred when Nadeau was subjected to a religious ceremony that was likened to an attempted exorcism. Four men held him down and repeatedly screamed in his ears, “Demon of homosexuality, come out in Jesus’ name.” The faith-based establishment that Nadeau belonged to was pentecostal, a denomination under protestantism; they believe that homosexuality is caused by demonic possession.

“I just wanted to cry because it was very violent, but I really wanted it to work,” he told the Journal.

A similar scene is depicted in the film adaptation of Boy Erased, where a mock funeral is organized for a teenage conversion therapy patient who is deemed at risk of accepting his sexuality. The family members of the teenager seeking treatment for homosexuality are instructed to strike him with bibles in an attempt to get demons, who are believed to be the cause of his sexual orientation, to leave. 

The scene includes a depiction of the teenager being struck by his younger sister with a bible as well. The teen ends up dying by suicide — an outcome that is not uncommon in conversion therapy circles. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Homosexuality found that parent-initiated sexual orientation change efforts among adolescents led to a 500 per cent increase in suicide attempts.

Many of the conversion therapy organizations that exist throughout Canada and the United States, such as the ones referred to in Boy Erased and The Miseducation of Cameron Post, came to prominence in the 1990s and have maintained their support through Christian evangelical communities. These camps are often led by clergy members who claim to have been “cured” and converted to heterosexual tendencies.

But in recent years, it has been reported that many of these leaders have since renounced their conversion to heterosexuality and accepted their sexual orientation which further calls into question the practices’ efficacy.

Despite the scientific evidence against conversion therapy and the statistical data that shows the harm that it can cause to LGBT individuals, CBC found that the number of jurisdictions within Canada that have a complete ban on conversion is two: Vancouver and St-Albert, Alta.

The only other jurisdictions that have some form of ban are Ontario, Manitoba and Nova Scotia where the practice is either banned to be performed on minors or by health professionals. 

Change on the horizon

Greater pressure is beginning to build to ban conversion therapy for good. For example, an organization working to ban conversion therapy in the United States called Born Perfect has succeeded in helping pass conversion therapy bans in 18 states and 23 other states have conversion therapy bans pending.

Several petitions circulating online in early 2019— including a petition on change.org sponsored by an organization called It Gets Better and E-Petition 1833 created by Devon Hargreaves from Lethbridge, Alta. — saw thousands of Canadians rally around a call to have legislation passed in Parliament to ban conversion therapy.

E-Petition 1833 received 18,200 signatures and the petition sponsored by It Gets Better, which originally sought 15,000 signatures, received 71, 307 signatures at the time of writing.

“We have 70,000 signatures supporting our call to have Ottawa make a clear statement against conversion therapy,” said Christopher Gudgeon, president and CEO of It Gets Better Canada, in a statement to the Fulcrum.

“Canada’s LGBTQ2+ needed a strong statement of support from the federal government; now they’ve got one.”

According to CBC, even in March 2019 when E-Petition 1833 had received more than 18,000 signatures, the Liberal government rejected it on the grounds that the issue was under provincial and territorial jurisdiction.

But the Liberal party has appeared to change its position in its official party platform for the 2019 federal election, stating on Oct. 5 that a re-elected Liberal government will “protect same-sex marriage [and] ban conversion therapy.”

Liberal Senator Serge Joyal tabled Bill S-260 in April 2019 which seeks to amend the Canadian Criminal Code. According to the Parliament of Canada’s website, the bill defines conversion therapy as “any practice, treatment or service designed to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.” The bill looks to make advertising and the receipt of a material benefit of such therapies an  “indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term of not more than five years.”

The bill has been stalled in the Senate at its second reading since May 2019.

While most of the major parties support some form of a ban on conversion therapy, they disagree on how to go about implementing a full ban because of the restraints of federalism. The administration of health care under the Canadian constitution is predominantly a provincial or territorial responsibility, which seems to have placed significant restrictions on the federal government to be able to crack down on this practice. 

All the major parties were contacted about their position on the bill for and the other efforts to ban conversion therapy for this story. The Liberal, New Democratic and Green parties have all pledged to support a ban on conversion therapy through the criminal code; however, it remains unclear if they will support Bill S-260.

In a statement, Ottawa-Vanier Green Party candidate Oriana Ngabirano confirmed her support for the bill, but she also suggests the problem should be addressed before it even begins. 

“I believe there should be more focus on prevention … funds should primarily (be) on support systems for the victims and educational measures to prevent harm from happening in the first place.”

Conservative representatives were somewhat less clear.

“Conservatives have a proud history of fighting for the rights and protection of all Canadians, including those in the LGBTQ community…it is vital that the rights of all Canadians are protected regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation,” wrote Daniel Schow, press secretary to Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, in an email to the Fulcrum.

However, Schow did not provide any examples of Scheer supporting LGBTQ2S+ Canadians in domestic policy. Scheer is notably the only major party candidate not to participate in any Pride parade across Canada. In an interview with CBC’s Rosemary Barton, Scheer said he would not walk in the parades as prime minister, adding that there are “lots of different ways to show support to a community.”

With all the many issues that are dominating debate this election, it’s easy for LGBTQ2S+ rights to get lost in the shuffle. But it’s important to keep in mind that for all Canada’s many triumphs when it comes to inclusivity, there remain glaring inconsistencies. While pop culture may lead you to believe conversion therapy is a thing of the past, the reality in Canada indicates otherwise.

Editor’s Note (21/10/19, 12:46 p.m.): This article has been updated to include information on a petition started by Devon Hargreaves.