Kristopher Wells is an associate professor and Canada Research Chair for the Public Understanding of Sexual and Gender Minority Youth at MacEwan University in Edmonton.
The federal government recently issued a letter to provinces and territories urging them to take action prohibiting the practice of conversion therapy, which is rooted in the misguided belief that being LGBTQ is a “curable” disease or mental illness. Justice Minister David Lametti has stated the Canadian government will also examine potential reforms to the Criminal Code to “better prevent, punish and deter this discredited and dangerous practice.” This is good news, as both France and Australia report conversion-therapy practices and ideologies are on the rise and are even being mainstreamed within some churches and communities.
Over the past century, conversion therapy has been practised widely, with a belief that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity can be repaired, changed or suppressed through counselling efforts, spiritual prayer, exorcism or other harmful and unscientific methods, which at the extreme included such treatments as electroshock, chemical castration and lobotomy.
Today, modern conversion therapy attempts to disguise its anti-LGBTQ ideology, by cloaking itself in the language of spiritual deliverance, mental health and religious freedoms. These so-called “sexual-orientation change efforts” frequently take the form of talk or aversion therapy, fasting and cleansing, role play, “correct” gender coaching, abstinence and, in many cases, intensive prayer sessions. These activities often occur at organized “conversion camps” and conferences, many of which are still active in Canada.
What is most common with these approaches is the religious or cultural belief that being an LGBTQ person is intrinsically disordered, pathological or sinful. More recently, these reparative practices have also targeted transgender people because of the belief they are “confused” about their gender or are personally broken.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia suggest that as many as 20,000 Canadians have been subjected to conversion-therapy efforts, with one-third of those individuals attempting suicide. The effects of conversion therapy can result in feelings of intense shame, stigma and denial, all too often leading to lifelong experiences of self-hatred, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse. There is no credible research that supports the practice or its efficacy. Conversion therapy has been rightly described by experts as a form of torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment that cannot be condoned in any form.
In Canada, the provinces of Ontario, Manitoba and Nova Scotia have all passed legislation banning conversion therapy, with Prince Edward Island and British Columbia also considering legislative action. In Alberta, the new United Conservative government very recently disbanded a working group focused on bringing forward recommendations to ban the practice. Now, the fate of that work is uncertain, especially given that Premier Jason Kenney introduced Bill 8, which rolled back important supports and protections for LGBTQ students and teachers in schools.
In 2018, Vancouver became the first municipality in Canada to ban conversion therapy. Just this past week, St. Albert, a municipality outside of Edmonton, passed a unanimous motion to create a bylaw banning the practice. Other municipalities across Canada are at various stages of discussion in creating their own bylaws. This Canadian movement parallels similar trends in the United States, where 18 states and dozens of cities have passed laws banning conversion therapy. The cities include New York, Seattle, Denver, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
There has been some question about the legality of legislation that attempts to restrict the practice of conversion therapy. This is a false concern. In Canada, Section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms prohibits any government or publicly funded institution from engaging in or supporting cruel and unusual treatment or punishment. Conversion therapy most certainly meets this definition.
Many experts also believe that conversion therapy is a violation of international human-rights law and there is an obligation to ban the practice under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Conversion-therapy laws have been tested in U.S. courts and all have withstood legal challenges, which have largely come from anti-LGBTQ faith-based organizations claiming violations of their religious freedoms.
Perhaps most importantly, taking an active stand against conversion therapy sends the message to vulnerable LGBTQ youth and adults that their governments stand with them, will support them and will defend their right to be who they are.
By supporting laws and legislation to ban conversion therapy across Canada, we are doing more than just making a statement; we may be saving lives from the untold horrors of psychological abuse, victimization, life-long trauma and suicide.
It is time for our elected leaders to rise and show the human-rights leadership necessary to create safe, welcoming and affirming communities that fully include everyone regardless of who they are or whom they love.
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