Problems that seem easy to fix are often the hardest to fix. Banning conversion therapy is a classic example.
Possibly during the spring sitting, but no later than this fall, the Liberal government will introduce legislation making it a criminal offence to offer therapy aimed at altering a person’s sexual orientation. There is no such therapy, and anyone who claims otherwise is a quack or a bigot. Conversion therapy can leave people confused, filled with doubt, even suicidal.
A number of municipalities and provinces have banned the practice; the new federal legislation would make it a crime. But there are pitfalls.
For one thing, the legislation could conflict with religious freedom. If a faith leader tells a troubled teen that their homosexual orientation is an abomination in the eyes of God, that they must remain celibate and that they should seek forgiveness and counselling, would that violate a conversion-therapy ban? Probably not, because such speech is protected by the Charter guarantee of religious freedom. But if a faith leader or anyone else offered therapy to cure the affliction, that would cross the line.
There’s a bigger problem. In recent years, the term conversion therapy has migrated from sexual identity to gender identity, where things get much more complicated.
For more than three decades, Kenneth Zucker was head of the Gender Identity Clinic for children and adolescents at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. But CAMH shut down the clinic in December, 2015, after complaints that he was practising conversion therapy on gender dysphoric youth – children who do not believe that their true gender matches their biological sex. In this context, conversion therapy refers to any approach to gender dysphoria that attempts to help a person feel more comfortable with a gender identity that matches their sex at birth.
CAMH later apologized and there was a substantial financial settlement. Dr. Zucker continues his practice. But he is alarmed by the idea of criminalizing conversion therapy, because he fears the new law could interfere with legitimate clinical approaches to treating gender dysphoria.
“I don’t think gender identity should be part of the legislation, because it completely distorts the original intent of people who are concerned about conversion therapy,“ he said in an interview.
There are different therapies for a child who identifies as a gender different from the one assigned at birth. A therapist might advise nothing more intrusive than watchful waiting, as it is called, because gender dysphoria sometimes disappears with the onset of puberty or earlier. They might advise psychotherapy, to explore why the child feels the way they do. Gender dysphoria that is, as is said, “insistent, consistent and persistent,” might require measures to support a transition process, starting with changes in name, pronoun and gender presentation, perhaps followed later by hormonal treatment and surgery.
“All of the approaches are designed to reduce gender dysphoria one way or another," said Dr. Zucker, who has used all these treatments. But the federal legislation, he fears, could criminalize any therapy that falls short of full, immediate acceptance of any assertion by anyone, at any age, that they are transgender or that their gender is fluid.
Kristopher Wells strongly disagrees. The Canada Research Chair for the Public Understanding of Sexual and Gender Minority Youth at Edmonton’s MacEwan University argues that conversion therapy legislation can accommodate differing good-faith approaches to treating gender dysphoria at any age.
“Any support that helps a person to explore their identity, to come to terms with their identity and that is non-judgmental is absolutely valid,“ he said.
But "if you’re trying to repair a quote-unquote defect in someone, that’s not acceptable, under the name of religion, culture or science.”
He is urging Ottawa to bring forward legislation that aggressively targets both sexuality-based and gender-based conversion therapy.
“The federal government has a real opportunity with this legislation to think big and to lead, not just in Canada, but to lead the world.”
A federal criminal law on conversion therapy should go after hucksters and shamans who target LGBTQ people with useless or dangerous therapies. It must protect the rights of transgender Canadians. But the science of sexuality and gender is not settled; good-faith efforts by qualified professionals to help people, especially children, who are unhappy in their bodies must be protected.
The government should take its time with this bill.