By Niko Stratis
The words “conversion therapy” should conjure images of a bygone era, signalling an age when being part of the 2SLGBTQ+ community was considered something that needed to be fixed, often by a trusted member of your local church or a psychiatrist.
It should, but it doesn’t.
In 2021, conversion therapy is alive and well in Canada. For the time being, at least.
Canadian legislators are working right now to pass Bill C-6 through the House of Commons to the Senate, where it could be ratified into law and serve to protect individuals who live at risk of being harmed by this practice.
Conversion therapy, as outlined within Bill C-6, is defined as “practices, treatment or services designed to change an individual’s sexual orientation to heterosexual or gender identity to cisgender or to reduce non-heterosexual sexual attraction or sexual behaviour.”
The bill’s proposed amendments to Canada’s criminal code include five criminal offences regarding conversion therapy. If passed, it will be illegal for children to undergo conversion therapy, force anyone to undergo conversion therapy, advertise or profit from it, or move children out of the country with the purpose of obtaining conversion therapy.
The purpose of the bill is obvious on its own merit. It aims to provide 2SLGBTQ+ Canadians the opportunity of a life of safety and dignity, free from the psychological harm and scars caused by conversion tactics.
The future of this bill is especially prescient for the lives and rights of trans and non-binary Canadians, many of whom face the stigma of being considered part of a culture war by an increasingly hostile political right wing. According to a study by Trans Pulse Canada, over 10 per cent of all trans and non-binary people in Canada have suffered through some form of conversion therapy.
Opponents of the bill enter the fray from a variety of backgrounds, most notably self-identified champions of the right to religious freedom. Some church groups, organizations like The Gospel Coalition, argue that their inability to practice conversion therapy removes their ability to have individuals “hearing and experiencing the joy and freedom found in Christ Jesus.” They argue the criminalization of advertising conversion therapy is an overstep of the government in areas of faith, limiting how they preach the gospel. These church groups are seeking to find comfortable ways to justify its continued practice within their flock.
Further antagonism comes from people arguing on grounds of freedom of speech, an individual's right to autonomy and most aggressively on matters of gender dysphoria and confusion.
Much of the pushback against Bill C-6 is based on the treatment of trans and non-binary people, especially youth. Opponents of the bill worry that in the criminalization of conversion therapy, they lose their ability to prevent trans youth from being able to have a say in who they are. Anti-trans organizations like Gender Report Canada use false statistics -- provided without merit or peer-reviewed studies -- claiming youth will “desist” and grow up to be comfortable in the gender assigned to them at birth.
These arguments -- often disguised as concern for the autonomy of young people, despite the stated goal being the removal of that autonomy -- are couched in the language of caring about and protecting youth. They wish to have more open discussion and claim that they base their arguments on scientific evidence and objective research, despite the widely available and accepted evidence from the scientific community that affirming care is the best way forward for trans youth.
Opponents of the bill decry that the wording is too restrictive, that it won’t allow them to help their patients or their parishioners when they “struggle” with issues of same-sex attraction or dysphoria. They operate under the notion that the work they’re doing is good and just, that people want to stop feeling these ways about their bodies and their sexualities. No longer are more physically barbaric practices like electroshock therapy being used, modern tactics are more psychological: talk therapy, group therapy and shockingly, exorcisms.
Trans advocates and supporters of the bill are often met with extreme harassment and attacks. on social media.
The Future of Bill C-6
The bill does have its champions. Both the Canadian Psychological Association and the Canadian Psychiatric Association are vigorous opponents of all forms of conversion therapy. A number of jurisdictions in Canada have also cropped up making their own legislation around conversion therapeutic practices, and provinces like Ontario, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have banned the practice on minors. The Yukon recently became the first territory to enact a ban and municipalities like Vancouver and Calgary have banned the practise outright.
Supportive voices include a growing number of faith-based organizations with 2SLGBTQ+ congregations that are in unwavering support of a ban on conversion therapy. Recently, at a Regina city council meeting to discuss their own conversion therapy ban, Joy Cowan, a reverend of the United Church stood and spoke on her support of the city moving forward with a municipal ban on conversion therapy.
“LGBTQ people have a right to exist and be who they are without fear of aggression or coercion,” she said. “We are all made in the image of God. And this means that the spectrum of gender identities and sexual orientations are a divine gift and an inherent expression of God. Who are we to reject that gift?"
With so many municipalities coming to an agreement on banning such a harmful practice, we can only hope this bodes well for the future of Bill C-6 passing into law. For now, it is a matter of listening to survivors, supporting their stories, and holding our elected officials accountable.
The conversion therapy ban will be a marked change in 2SLGBTQ+ lives in Canada, with a clear picture of our ability to live our lives as they matter to us, outside the control of forces who would see us hide and destroy the parts of ourselves that make us whole. We should not have to change our lives and our loves in favour of those who would not change their hearts.
For further information, follow and support No Conversion Canada, a national grassroots organization working to raise awareness of conversion therapy, and working with government to ensure policy developed around this issue is comprehensive and safe.
Follow Niko on Twitter @nikostratis