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Saint John man’s experience with conversion therapy inspires municipal action

Saint John to ban conversion therapy
WATCH: The controversial practice of conversion therapy is often labelled as harmful pseudoscience. And as Travis Fortnum reports, it affects people right here in New Brunswick.

When Victor Szymanski was a teenager growing up in Saint John, he was pushed into conversion therapy.

“I was 16 when my family staged an intervention centred around the question of, ‘Victor’s gay, how do we fix this?’” Szymanski says.

“I didn’t realize how harmful it [conversion therapy] was until I went through it. I certainly had my doubts, but when you are 16 and you’re desperate for your family’s approval, then you will do anything.”

READ MORE: Calgary city committee moves forward with steps to ban conversion therapy

Now Saint John is looking at putting a ban in place that would prevent other LGBTQ2 youth from being exposed to the same trauma.

Conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy, is the practice of trying to change a person’s sexuality through psychological tactics.

When Victor Szymanski was 16, he was pushed into conversion therapy.
When Victor Szymanski was 16, he was pushed into conversion therapy. Submitted by Victor Szymanski

For Szymanski, that meant keeping track of any homosexual desires, recounting them to a therapist and having that person attempt to explain how that desire was rooted in shame or past experiences — ones that sometimes weren’t grounded in reality,” he says.

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“It was very paralyzing,” he said.

“My interpersonal relationships with my family suffered very much.”

“There was a lot of fabricated tension between my father and I due to this therapy … I was encouraged to express a lot of anger at my father for things that he wasn’t accountable for.”

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Szymanski became depressed while undergoing the therapy, a depression that culminated in a suicide attempt in the fall of 2013.

“I had attempted suicide due to the rejection and the anxiety,” he says. “Just this buildup of self-hatred from this pathologization of this part of me that isn’t a sickness, but for some reason has historically been interpreted as a sickness.”

READ MORE: Federal government asked Canadians if they’re ‘comfortable’ with LGBT people

It wasn’t until recently that Szymanski, now a Masters student at UNB, began speaking publicly about his experiences.

His story resonated with David Hickey, Saint John city councilor and Szymanski’s former classmate.

“Knowing that that’s something he went through put me in a position that said if I can do something about this, I have to do something about this,” Hickey said.

“If he suffered to that extent, there’s definitely others who are suffering too.”

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At the Jan. 28 common council meeting in Saint John, Hickey proposed a bylaw banning conversion therapy in the city.

“Business licences would be revoked if instances of conversion therapy were found,” says Hickey, “and they’d be fined accordingly.”

Calgary city councillors lobby for ban on conversion therapy
Calgary city councillors lobby for ban on conversion therapy

Councillors questioned the city’s ability to enforce such a ban, however, as well as the research forming the basis of Hickey’s motion.

“There’s two sides to every story,” Deputy Mayor Shirley McAlary said during discussions.

“I support this but also there’s other issues I’d like to hear from… that’s why I want a little more research on it.”

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Szymanski says he’d welcome the opportunity to meet with McAlary to discuss the research available.

Victor Szymanski underwent conversion therapy for over a year. (Global News)
Victor Szymanski underwent conversion therapy for over a year. (Global News) Travis Fortnum

Despite the debate, the proposed bylaw was passed by council and will now be reviewed by the city manager’s office.

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Until legislation is put in place, Szymanski offers the following to those who find themselves subjected to the practice.

“There’s hope for anybody who’s experiencing the kind of darkness that I experienced,” he says.

“Rejection is very hard, but it is not the end.”

Extended: Victor Szymanski opens up about conversion therapy
Extended: Victor Szymanski opens up about conversion therapy