It's been discredited by numerous psychiatric associations and banned in several American states, but "reparative" therapy – the controversial practise of changing or directing patients' sexual orientation or gender identity – continues to be used in Ontario. And unlike your dental bill, it can be funded by taxpayers.
NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo is fighting to change that with new legislation that seeks to ban reparative therapy (also known as conversion therapy) for anyone 18 and younger in Ontario, and to have this type of therapy delisted from OHIP for everyone else.
"This is about children and about intrinsically who you are. Children who come forth and tell adults who they are, and adults who say 'it's wrong and it needs to be fixed' – that's more than sad. It's abusive, and it needs to be stopped," said DiNovo.
Conversion and reparative therapies are a range of treatments intended to change the patients' gender identity and sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. Conversion therapy for minors is banned in California, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., with similar legislation pending in nine other states. Such attempts to "cure homosexuality" have also been criticized and discredited by numerous medical associations in Canada and the United States. Recently, the magazine Psychology Today banned advertisements marketing reparative or conversion therapy, and deleted practitioners of these treatments from its directory.
"Conversion therapy comes from a pretty 1950s sensibility about what constitutes 'normal,' which is not the psychological associations' concept of normal," said DiNovo. "All of the professional bodies have moved on, but some individuals have not."
Her bill, the Affirming Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Act would make it an offence for doctors to try to change or direct the sexual orientation or gender identity of patients under 18, and prohibits such therapies from being an insured service.
"The thing that shocks most people is it's covered by OHIP," said DiNovo. "We can't claim dental on OHIP, we can't get our eyes examined, but we're still paying for people to do this?"
Health Minister Eric Hoskins told Sun Media that such therapy is barred by anti-discrimination provisions in the Ontario Human Rights Code. Hoskins said there is no specific OHIP billing code for conversion therapy.
DiNovo says that conversion therapy isn't typically billed separately but instead as part of a psychiatrist's general practice. She and other advocates have argued that patients treated with reparative therapy don't feel empowered to bring forward complaints of professional misconduct under the current system.
As a United Church minister who performed the first legalized same-sex marriage in Canada, DiNovo said she's spoken over the years with parishioners who had been shunned by religious parents after coming out. "It's being practised in Toronto, in Ottawa. It's everywhere," said DiNovo, noting that the parents would consult with their priests, imams or rabbis to find reparative or conversion therapists for their children. "That's the market, and it's ongoing," DiNovo said. "Pick a religion. It's across all religions."
Such parental rejection is a major concern for transgender youth: Research has shown that without familial support, trans youth are far more at risk of depression and suicide. A 2011 Ontario study found that 70 per cent of transgender youth with unsupportive parents had contemplated suicide; 57 per cent had attempted. That drops to just 4 per cent among children with very supportive parents.
DiNovo said the inspiration for the bill was Leelah Alcorn, the Ohio transgender teen whose suicide last December sparked an international protest movement. In a suicide note posted on Tumblr, Alcorn wrote about being transgender and suffering rejection from her devout Christian parents, who wouldn't allow the teen (named Joshua at birth) to begin transitioning. In her note, Alcorn alleged that her parents reacted to her coming out by putting her into faith-based conversion therapy.
"Fix society – don't fix me. That was her message as she killed herself," said DiNovo of Alcorn's plea.
The Transgender Human Rights Institute launched a petition for "Leelah's Law" to put an end to psychologically harmful conversion therapy. The petition garnered more than 100,000 signatures in a matter of days.
"This is a no brainer," said DiNovo. "It's a dark and ugly little secret. We need to expose it."
The second reading for the bill is April 2.