Monday could be a landmark day for Calgary’s LGBTQ community with city council voting on a proposed bylaw that would ban conversion therapy practices.
“I think it would be a validation that these things sort of happen,” Pam Rocker, director of Affirming Connections, told Global News Sunday.
“For so long, so many survivors of conversion therapy have told their stories, and sometimes, it falls on deaf ears.”
Rocker said that despite advances in LGBTQ rights in Canada, the existence of conversion therapy is still a barrier for that community.
“Yes, it’s 2020. Yes, gay marriage is legal and all of those things but it doesn’t actually mean that we all still get treated the same way… because heterosexuality and being cisgender is still the norm and what a lot of people think that we should aspire to,” Rocker said.
On May 14, a committee recommended that city council pass the bylaw that prohibits conversion therapy as a business, including advertising, with a possible $10,000 fine and one year in prison.
The definition of conversion therapy in Calgary’s proposed bylaw is near identical to ones passed in Edmonton and St. Albert:
“Conversion therapy means a practice, treatment or service designed to change, repress or discourage a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression or to repress or reduce non-heterosexual attraction or sexual behaviour. For greater certainty, this definition does not include a practice, treatment or service that relates (a) to a person’s social, medical or legal gender transition; or (b) to a person’s non-judgmental exploration and acceptance of their identity or development.”
On social media, seven Calgary councillors announced their intention to vote in favour of the bylaw on Monday.
Brian Lavender, a pastor at GracePoint Fellowship, said he agrees with the ban on conversion therapy but has an issue with how the bylaw could affect counselling he and other pastors provide.
“Pretty much all the clergy, all the Christians I know, every single person in my church, are all for banning conversion therapy,” Lavender told Global News.
“The problem was when I heard about the actual wording of the bylaw, which goes far, far beyond simply banning conversion therapy. It tries to limit us from actually teaching what the Bible teaches, limits us from counselling people who actually want help in certain areas.”
Lavender feels he couldn’t help someone struggling with reconciling their sexuality and their faith.
“According to the bylaw, I could not counsel them in an ongoing way, even if that’s what they want themselves,” Lavender said.
“That’s what really concerns us clergy. We are not trying to change anybody. We’re not trying to change anybody’s orientation.”
A long history of conversion therapy
Dr. Kristopher Wells, the Canada research chair of the Public Understanding of Sexual and Gender Minority Youth at Edmonton’s MacEwan University, said Canada’s long history of conversion therapy is rooted in anti-LGBTQ ideology.
“In the past, it has ranged from practices including things like electroshock therapy to lobotomy. Chemical castration was often performed by medical professionals as a way to quote-unquote cure homosexuality,” Wells said.
“Today, the more modern forms of conversion therapy involve things like talk therapy or aversion therapy, regression role-play, gender coaching and even things as extreme as exorcisms that still happen.
“What underlies conversion therapy, all of the different kinds of practices and techniques, is this anti-LGBTQ ideology that inherently there’s something sinful, immoral or pathological with being a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender person. Therefore, you have to be changed in order to be quote-unquote normal or to gain acceptance in your family, your community or in your faith.”
Psychiatric and psychological associations in Canada and the United States, as well as other medical associations around the world, oppose the use of conversion therapies, with no credible research backing its effectiveness.
“It’s called a pseudo-scientific practice because it’s not backed by any evidence,” Wells said. “It’s, in fact, fraudulent. It’s deceptive and it’s dangerous.
“It can have lifelong impacts on individuals, including depression, self-hatred, post-traumatic stress disorder issues, even self-harm to suicide. We know that, listening to many survivors, the effects can last with them for a lifetime.
“Many consider conversion therapy to be tantamount to a form of psychological torture.”
READ MORE: Calgary moves to ban conversion therapy
Rocker said there are still conversion therapy practices in Calgary.
“I have a list of conversion therapy providers that are active in Calgary right now. A list of churches who work with them right now. And over and above that, I have people contacting me almost every week who have either recently come out of a program or they’re trying to be coerced into one or different restrictions are put on them unless they deny who they are and do behavioural correction.
“It’s from everyone from 14-year-olds to 45-year-olds.“
Wells said there is a better approach to helping someone come to terms with an identity that isn’t a societal norm.
“Rather than try to change individuals, what you want to do is try to help them come to terms with their identity, develop positive coping strategies and mechanisms to help them overcome internalized homophobia, internalized transphobia,” Wells said.
Wells would like to see Canada work toward the goal of sexuality and gender not affecting standing in society.
“No one needs to come out and declare themselves as non-heterosexual or as transgender because it simply doesn’t matter. We understand and respect the diversity of humanity.”
Rocker said the bylaw vote would be a show of support for the LGBTQ community’s struggles.
“I would really see this as a chance for Calgary to say this is not who we want to be.”