UPDATE: On Mar. 9, the federal government proposed a bill to ban conversion therapy on a national scale. This story has been updated to reflect this news.
In the final moments of the last decade, as most Canadians drafted a list of new year resolutions, newly re-elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was doing the same. Mid-December, his office issued a series of mandate letters to recently appointed cabinet members—marching orders for the country’s top political decision-makers.
Tucked neatly in the middle of Minister of Justice and Attorney General David Lametti’s to-do list: “…Ban the practice of conversion therapy and take other steps required with the provinces and territories to end conversion therapy in Canada.”
Before the Crown’s chief lawyer weigh in on this issue, here’s everything you need to know about conversion therapy in the country.
What is conversion therapy?
Sometimes called “reparative therapy” or to some, “reintegrative therapy,” conversion therapy is an organized, sustained effort to change someone’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
The practice takes many forms: Participants might be encouraged through prayer and counselling to reject their feelings of same-sex attraction or their gender identity. They may roleplay romantic relationships with the opposite sex, or be forced to dress and behave in the most traditional expression of their assigned gender. In the most extreme forms, abusive punishments are meted out: People are given electric shocks or are forced to vomit if they become aroused when shown homosexual imagery.
In recent years, films like Boy Erased and The Miseducation of Cameron Post introduced the practice to a wider audience. The films were inspired by real-life cases of adolescents who were brought to camps and told their sexuality or gender identity was a disorder, sin or disease that must be fixed, cured or healed.
There is international consensus in the medical community that you cannot change your sexuality or gender identity, and any attempts to do so can be traumatizing. In 2015, the Canadian Psychological Association said that conversion therapy leads to “anxiety, depression, negative self-image and a feeling of personal failure.” In 2012, the World Health Organization classified conversion therapies as “unjustifiable practices that should be denounced and subject to adequate sanctions and penalties.” Similar statements have been made by dozens more professional organizations, as well as by survivors of the practice.
As Peter Gajdics, a writer and survivor of conversion therapy in Canada, puts it: “The truth of the matter is that practitioners of conversion therapies—whether religious-based or, as in my case, secular—prey on the vulnerable and those in need of relief from suffering by turning the desire to belong into a desire to change one’s sexuality.”
Is conversion therapy really happening in Canada?
That’s a question Canadian researchers and advocates are trying to answer more accurately.
“From studies conducted in the U.S., we know that as many as 20 percent of LGBTQ2 people have experienced conversion therapy and, until recently, similar data were not available in Canada,” says Travis Salway, a professor at Simon Fraser University. He is working with the Community-Based Research Centre (CBRC) to learn more about conversion therapy’s reach in Canada, and says community-led projects like CBRC’s Sex Now Survey and the Trans Pulse Survey are working to eliminate this blind spot. Taking from previous Sex Now results, he estimates as many as 20,000 Canadians have experienced some form of conversion therapy.
“20,000 is a low-ball estimate, too,” Salway says.
If we close conversion therapy camps across the country, we solve the problem, right?
Unfortunately, no. While stories from camps and other day programs are poignant examples of conversion therapy, advocates have recently begun using the term SOGIECE (sexual orientation and gender identity and expression change efforts) to describe a much broader set of practices that do just as much harm.
What is SOGIECE?
Pronounced “soj-eese,” the term stands for “sexual orientation and gender identity and expression change efforts.” Think about a teenager confiding in a coach or teacher about their sexual orientation, only to then be advised on how to “stay straight.” Or a counsellor who, after learning about a client’s true gender identity, advises them against exploring it further. Neither of these examples involve a conversion therapy organization but can be just as damaging.
“SOGIECE occurs in many different contexts: Doctor’s offices, church basements, in camps and in our own homes, and any legislation needs to stop the harm in any and all situations,” says Erika Muse, a trans writer and activist from Hamilton.
Some organizations also use turns of phrase that keep them under the radar. References to “unwanted same-sex attractions” are common.
Muse, a survivor of conversion therapy herself, began speaking about her experiences when she became involved in developing a bill that would ban the practice in Ontario. As the province’s elected officials debated the legislation, she spoke about an eight-year-long struggle to receive treatment to ease her transition, such as puberty blockers and other hormonal interventions. Rather than receive the care that she asked for, Muse says doctors and psychiatrists who saw her gender identity as a mental health challenge to overcome delayed prescribing her treatments.
“Sessions were not therapeutic, but abusive,” she says. “They led to trauma about my body and a lack of faith in myself. I left feeling violated and hurt.”
How can the federal government enact change if education, healthcare and childcare are the responsibility of the provinces and territories?
Elected officials have tried to pass the buck before. In March 2019, the Trudeau government rejected an 18,000-signature petition to ban conversion therapy for minors tabled by NDP MP Sheri Benson. Their reason: Conversion therapy was deemed a provincial and territorial issue.
Many activists disagree. “There is no question that conversion therapy prohibition falls within the federal government’s mandate,” says Nicholas Schiavo, the founder of No Conversion Canada, a national, non-partisan coalition dedicated solely to banning the practice. “Canada’s constitution spells out the government’s responsibility to protect every individual without discrimination. Despite being a leader on some LGBTQ2 issues, Canada is lagging behind its peers in protecting individuals from this abuse.”
Schiavo adds that all levels of government have important roles to play when it comes to ending SOGIECE in Canada. Municipal governments can amend existing, or create new, bylaws around safety and business regulations relating to SOGIECE. Provinces and territories can ensure no licensed health practitioner or mental health provider can provide SOGIECE. They can also change laws to allow social workers to intervene to prevent SOGIECE-related harm in a minor’s life.
What is the status of a national ban on conversion therapy in Canada?
Trudeau’s 2019 election promise to ban conversion therapy on a national scale appears to be materializing: On Mar. 9, the federal government proposed a bill that would amend the Criminal Code to make the advertisement and financial or material benefits of conversion therapy an indictable offence. The proposed bill, Bill S-260, is not limited to advertising to minors as was the case in its previous iteration.
The bill would add five new provisions to the Criminal Code related to the practice, including:
- causing a minor to undergo conversion therapy;
- removing a minor from Canada to undergo conversion therapy abroad;
- causing a person to undergo conversion therapy against their will;
- profiting from providing conversion therapy; and
- advertising an offer to provide conversion therapy
“This legislation is a long time coming,” says Schiavo. “It’s legislation survivors have been fighting for for decades.” The bill, he adds, signals a significant turnaround on the part of the Trudeau government, who had flip-flopped on his position before the last federal election.
Still, Schiavo says, there’s plenty more to be done beyond the bill, including creating more space, counselling and social supports for survivors who are often stigmatized.
Muse agrees, noting that the legislation, while a great step forward, doesn’t speak directly to trans experiences of conversion therapy. She hopes that as the bill evolves, more pointed language around trans folks’ experiences may be included.
Where is conversion therapy currently banned in Canada?
What other countries are tackling the issue of conversion therapy, and how?
A number of countries have taken legislative action against conversion therapy, and many more are tackling the issue at a regional level.
“Conversion therapy bans are not novel—there are dozens of jurisdictions around the world who have already taken action to outlaw this barbaric act,” Schiavo adds.
Malta, for instance, has one of the most far-reaching laws. Anyone who tries to “change, repress or eliminate a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression” will be fined or jailed. This includes a provision that enshrines in law that sexual and gender variations should never be portrayed as a disorder, disease or shortcoming.
Another example is German legislation that makes it clear that parents or legal guardians who attempt to “cure” their children could face punishment for gross violations of their duty of care.
What if someone willingly undergoes SOGIECE?
This is an argument commonly used by organizations running SOGIECE. For example, Vancouver-based Journey Canada says it does not practise conversion therapy because it focuses on reducing same-sex actions, not same-sex attraction.
But this is just a rhetorical side-step that ignores what the program is promoting: that a healthy life, relationship and family can only be built between a man and a woman. In 2018, the organization ministered this message to more than 9,100 people in 39 cities across Canada, according to its annual report.
What if someone’s religion supports SOGIECE?
Places that ban SOGIECE have had their laws tested in courts as a violation of religious freedom or freedom of expression. However to date, all of these laws have been upheld—including by the U.S. Supreme Court.
While the Canadian constitution does protect a person’s right to religion and free expression, there are limits. Think back to 2018, when Canada’s Supreme Court ruled in favour of “proportionate and reasonable” limits to religious rights in order to ensure open access for LGBTQ2 students at an evangelical university.
Moreover, many faith leaders are among those who condemn conversion therapy—including the more than 350 Canadian pastors who have signed on to the pledge “Pastors Stopping the Harm.”
Pressure from coaches, teachers or parents sounds pretty informal and discreet. Is a ban really going to help?
While bans are important, necessary parts of reducing the reach of organizations that conduct SOCIEGE, their limitations should be considered.
For instance, bans do little to help the thousands of SOGIECE survivors who are struggling today.
“Providing support and funding for survivors is a necessary part of any legislation,” Erika Muse says. “Many of us are traumatized, our lives significantly wounded or halted, and we need help moving forward and becoming whole again.”
One of the reasons people are pushed by their parents or other authority figures into SOGIECE is because to them, the idea of living a happy, healthy life is incompatible with their understanding of other sexualities or gender identities. To fight that flawed perception, governments can support campaigns or groups that affirm sexual and gender minorities.
To be most effective, Canada needs to attack this issue from all sides—with bans limiting the reach of SOGIECE through legal interventions, support for survivors to aid in recovery and publicly funded campaigns to help people see that there is nothing to fix when it comes to queer people. Because there is nothing broken.
For further information about conversion therapy:
- The Community-Based Research Centre’s SOGIECE research and policy work
- No Conversion Canada’s advocacy to ban the practice federally
- Generous Space Ministries efforts to be a “living apology” for faith-based SOGIECE
- A model law on prohibiting conversion practices in Canada
- The federal Standing Committee on Health’s report on improving LGBTQ2 health, which includes recommendations about conversion therapy