Maeve Casey remembers sitting in a chair and someone placing a cap on her head and guard in her mouth. There was a huge machine in the room. The place smelled like a dingy doctor’s office. Someone told her what was about to happen wouldn’t hurt much.
“I remember wires sticking out of my head,” Ms. Casey said in an interview. “The pain was like a bunch of needles in your brain. Stabbing your brain."
Ms. Casey was about 7 then, and had earlier told her parents that she was a girl rather than a boy, the gender to which she was assigned at birth. Ms. Casey, now 46, spent decades in the metaphorical closet, trying to piece together what happened that day. About a month ago, Ms. Casey shared blurry bits with her fiancée. Her future wife pulled up a picture of a cap like the one Ms. Casey described. It was a match.
“She’s like: ‘This is a cap for electric-shock therapy.' "
Now, Ms. Casey is among the hundreds of people lobbying Calgary city councillors to ban conversion therapy, an umbrella phrase for practices that try to change or repress someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Methods range from outdated techniques such as electric shocks to more modern approaches such as talk therapy, extreme fasting, exorcism and aversion therapy. On Monday, Calgary city councillors will vote on a bylaw that would prohibit conversion-therapy operations from obtaining business licences, making Calgary’s effort more than a symbolic nod to inclusivity. The proposed bylaw, which would apply to organizations trying to make money as well as not-for-profit organizations, comes with teeth: Those violating the ban face fines up to $10,000 or up to a year in jail.
Groups ranging from the World Health Organization to the College of Alberta Psychologists condemn conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy, as harmful, fraudulent, unethical and unscientific. Vancouver, in 2018, became the first Canadian city to ban conversion therapy; Strathcona County in 2019 became the first municipality in Alberta to pass rules restricting conversion therapy. A number of municipalities have since followed suit, including Edmonton and Fort McMurray. Lethbridge councillors expect a draft bylaw on their desks in June. Not all attempts to limit the practice in Alberta have been successful. In February, Red Deer rejected a motion to take action against conversion therapy, according to documents provided to Calgary councillors. A handful of provinces have passed restrictions limited to health care settings, and the federal government has proposed five offences related to conversion therapy be added to the criminal code.
Conversion therapy, Calgary officials say, has existed in Canada since the 1950s and gained traction in the eighties and nineties. While electroshock therapy, such as the kind Ms. Casey endured, is no longer practised in Canada, modern methods such as gender coaching and regression role play can still have painful consequences, said Kristopher Wells, a professor at MacEwan University in Edmonton, who holds the Canada Research Chair for the public understanding of sexual and gender minority youth.
“It’s not therapy," Dr. Wells said. “It is torture.”
Roughly 20 per cent of Canadian men who identify as gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirited or queer have experienced efforts to change their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, according to Vancouver’s Community-Based Research Centre’s interim survey results released in February. Of those, roughly 40 per cent – the equivalent of 47,000 men – experienced conversion therapy, according to CBRC’s study, which Calgary officials used when shaping the proposed bylaw.
Religious leaders frequently oppose efforts to outlaw conversion therapy, arguing bans infringe on freedoms. In Calgary, however, 44 faith leaders, in a letter late last week, told council any assertion that the proposed bylaw attacks religious freedom is “hyperbolic and false.” The proposed ban excludes the “practice, treatment, or service that relates” to a person’s “social, medical, or legal gender transition,” as well as to an individual’s “non-judgmental exploration and acceptance of their identity or development.”
Carolyn Herold, an assistant priest at Calgary’s St. Laurence Anglican Church, said the bylaw is worded to protect, rather than infringe upon, individual rights. “There’s a specific provision that you can still talk about your faith,” Rev. Herold said in an interview. “No one’s religious rights are being denied.”
Mark Glickman, a rabbi from Calgary’s Temple B’nai Tikvah, said his faith guided his decision to support the ban and that it is a “shame” some use Jewish scripture to justify oppression of LGBTQ people.
“God doesn’t make too many mistakes,” he said. “Conversion therapy, in its attempt to change people into individuals they are not, has brought immeasurable harm to a lot of people.”
Calgary city councillor Jyoti Gondek, when asked why Calgary is weighing in on a social issue rather than focusing on city operations such as sewers, argued municipalities have an obligation to legislate against businesses with harmful practices. Calgary does not permit prostitution businesses, Ms. Gondek said as an example.
“We are the order of government that is closest to our people,” she said.
Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi said the public hearings over the bylaw reminded him that not all human-rights battles have been won. Many LGBTQ people, he said, are still marginalized. “This is critical that in a battle many think has already been won, we continue to stand up for the rights of gender- and sexually diverse people.”
And that is why Ms. Casey, who lives in Edmonton, shared her story as part of Calgary’s public-hearing process. “I never want this to happen to anyone ever, ever, ever, again. It was tragic, what happened to me. Having my voice being taken away."
Here’s a look at conversation-therapy bans in Alberta and provincial legislation across the country:
- Strathcona County, September, 2019: Banned conversion therapy for anyone under 18; prohibited conversion therapy on adults who do not consent; outlawed conversion-therapy advertising.
- Edmonton, December, 2019: Banned conversion therapy, using language similar to Calgary’s proposed bylaw, by declaring it a prohibited business.
- St. Albert, December, 2019: Prohibited conversion therapy; made it illegal to advertise conversion therapy to minors.
- Fort McMurray, January, 2020: Banned conversion therapy on all people, and advertising for conversion therapy where it may be seen or heard by a minor, using licensing powers.
- Rocky Mountain House, February, 2020: Changed existing business licensing bylaws to ban conversion therapy.
- Spruce Grove, April, 2020: Prohibited conversion-therapy businesses and advertising.
- Manitoba, 2015: Issued a policy statement declaring “conversion therapy can have no place in the province’s public health care system. Therefore, Manitoba Health, Seniors and Active Living expects the province’s regional health authorities and health profession regulatory colleges to ensure that conversion therapy is not practised in Manitoba’s health care system.”
- Ontario, 2015: Disqualified conversion therapy from the list of provincially insured services; banned conversion therapy for minors in health care settings.
- Nova Scotia, 2018: Disqualified conversion therapy for adults from the list of provincially insured services; banned health care professionals and people in positions of trust or authority over minors from administering conversion therapy to people under 19 years old, unless the teenager is more than 16 years old and gives consent; clarifies that a parent, guardian, substitute decision-maker or representative decision-maker may not give consent on behalf of a minor.
- Prince Edward Island, 2019: Disqualified conversion therapy from the list of provincially insured services; prohibited health care professionals from administering conversion therapy to people less than 18 years old; restricted people from giving consent to conversion therapy on behalf of a vulnerable person.
Sources: Calgary City Hall; municipal bylaws; provincial legislation