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Victor Szymanski, 24, is the inspiration behind Saint John's recent move to become the first city in Atlantic Canada to ban conversion therapy.

A University of New Brunswick student who spent years believing there was something wrong with him because he was gay is working to change the laws in his province around the controversial practice known as conversion therapy.

Victor Szymanski, 24, is the inspiration behind Saint John’s recent move to become the first city in Atlantic Canada to ban conversion therapy, the widely discredited practice that attempts to change the sexual orientation of bisexual, gay and lesbian people to heterosexual.

Mr. Szymanski was 15 when he told a sibling he suspected he was gay, and he was outed to the rest of his family. His parents, deeply religious Polish immigrants, organized an “intervention” and put him in conversion therapy, he said.

The online therapy sessions went on in secret for several years, until Mr. Szymanski, racked by depression, anxiety and insomnia, tried to take his own life while in university in 2013. He recently went public with his story and has become an activist to stop the practice.

“I was raised with the belief that this was a sickness,” he said. “But I don’t want to vilify my family. I love them very much. And I know they did this out of love. It was just misguided.”

Saint John city councillors have instructed the city manager to find ways to “eliminate or curtail” conversion therapy in the city – joining Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and St. Albert, Alta., as Canadian cities that have taken a stance against the practice. The federal government is also considering a change to the Criminal Code to ban conversion therapy across the country.

Mr. Szymanski wants Saint John to create a bylaw that would, among other things, fine anyone who enrolls a minor in conversion therapy. But a municipal ban can be tricky to enforce, he acknowledged, since many of the practitioners of conversion therapy are often out of country.

In his case, he underwent biweekly Skype sessions with Thomas Schmierer, an American therapist in California, who told him homosexuality was a disorder caused by narcissism and mental distortion based on shame. Mr. Schmierer runs online therapy courses to treat what he calls “sexual identity disorders,” charging up to US$200 for a 45-minute session.

“Even as a teenager, I knew it was bogus,” Mr. Szymanski said. “But I went along with it because I was willing to do anything I could to earn my family’s approval.”

The motion to ban conversion therapy was brought to Saint John’s council on Jan. 27 by city councillor David Hickey, who worked with Mr. Szymanski, an old friend from high school, to draft it.

“There’s a perception out there that in Atlantic Canada it can take us a little bit of time to catch up on things. I wanted to show we can be a leader on issues like this, and that we are an open and accessible community for all people,” said Mr. Hickey, who at 24 is the youngest councillor in Saint John’s history.

“This is about setting an example. This should have been done a long time ago. We’re talking about really vulnerable people being put into really risky situations.”

The motion’s warm reception from fellow city councilors and residents is a sign attitudes are changing in Saint John, Mr. Hickey said. His city was once the fiefdom of long-time mayor and MP Elsie Wayne, a popular social conservative who was a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage and pride parades.

“Yes, we’re still that blue-collar, gritty, industrial city that we’ve always been, but things are changing in Saint John,” he said.

Mr. Szymanski is also working with provincial Green Party MLA Megan Mitton to introduce a bill that he hopes would ban conversion therapy across the province, following the example of Nova Scotia and PEI. Ms. Mitton hopes to be able to table a proposed legislative change in March.

New Brunswickers, especially youth, need to be protected from these kind of harmful therapies, she said. Yet even as some religious groups began to push back on a potential ban, some of her fellow politicians were in denial it was even a problem in their province, she said.

“I don’t think they really believed this was happening in New Brunswick,” Ms. Mitton said. “Now that we’ve proven that false, we need to listen to people like Victor and have the political will to stand up for human rights.”

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