A proposed Ontario private member’s bill would prohibit any therapies aimed at changing the sexual orientation or gender identity of youth under the age of 18 and delist the therapies from coverage under provincial healthcare.
NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo introduced the Affirming Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Act at a press conference at Queen’s Park in Toronto on March 11.
“To tell a child that who they are is wrong, we consider abusive,” she says, noting that one of the motivations for the bill was the suicide of Leelah Alcorn.
Alcorn, an American trans teenager who died in late 2014, wrote in her suicide note that she was subjected to Christian-based conversion therapists who told her being transgender was wrong.
The Canadian Paediatric Society, the Canadian Association for Social Work Education, the Canadian Association of Social Workers and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health have all called conversion therapy unethical.
According to Dr Joey Bonifacio, the lead at the Transgender Youth Clinic at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto, there is no scientific research that substantiates claims of a “cure” for patients who undergo conversion therapy.
“As per the American Psychiatric Association, potential risks of reparative therapy are great including, depression, anxiety and self-destructive behaviour,” Bonifacio says, adding that the proposed bill is crucial in promoting the mental health and wellbeing of LGBT youth.
The bill would provide recourse for patients or parents if they believed that a practitioner was engaging in conversion therapy.
If the practitioner were funded by the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP), they would be in danger of losing their funding, regardless of the patient’s age.
DiNovo said that if the complainant or patient is under the age of 18, the bill would also apply to non-OHIP funded organizations like religious groups offering conversion therapy.
Erika Muse, a trans activist who underwent gender conversion therapy from the age of 16 to 26, explained that when she was referred to a therapist who was under OHIP specializing in gender identity, she was only given one option for care.
Her therapist, who she did not name, subjected Muse to probing and personal questions in front of groups and did not focus on any of her own issues. “It became clear to me that the therapist didn’t think my trans identity was really real,” she says, but rather that her issues stemmed from her social life. Since the therapy, Muse says she has been suicidal and depressed because of the therapist’s treatment.
“Sessions were not therapeutic — but abusive,” Muse says. “They led to trauma about my body and a lack of faith about myself.”
DiNovo said that the bill was not a response to the practices of a particular practitioner, but to address practices that are still taking place province-wide, noting that she was shocked to find that it is still happening in Ontario.
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto has come under the scrutiny of the LGBT community over the practice of Dr Kenneth Zucker, who runs CAMH’s Gender Identity Services. Activists have alleged that Zucker uses reparative therapy when treating trans patients.
A spokesperson for CAMH said that they are currently reviewing their child gender identity services. They also provided a statement from Dr Kwame McKenzie, the medical director at CAMH.
“This announcement is important because it’s advancing the effort for a much needed conversation on how best to support youth with gender identity issues and their families,” he said. “This is a developing area of clinical practice and it is always important to listen to patients and families and to pay close attention to evolving research and best practice.”
The bill was tabled in the Ontario legislature March 11. DiNovo is optimistic that it will be supported, given her track record getting bills like Toby’s Act — which added gender identity and gender expression to the Ontario Human Rights Code — passed.