Conversion Therapy Is Harmful and Wrong—So Why Is It Still Legal in Canada?

*Trigger warning* This article contains reference to physical, sexual and mental abuse

(Photo: Focus Features)
(Photo: Focus Features)

“I love you, but we cannot see a way that you can live under this roof if you’re going to fundamentally go against the grain of our beliefs.” This line, spoken by Russell Crowe playing a Baptist pastor in rural Arkansas, is the crux of one of the most painful scenes in Boy Erased. The film, which came out in November 2018, is an adaptation of Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir of the same title. It follows a 19-year-old (played by Lucas Hedges) as he is forced by his parents to attend a faith-based program intent on “correcting” his homosexuality.

It was the second picture to tackle the subject of conversion therapy that year, following the premiere of The Miseducation of Cameron Post at Sundance in January. Starring Chloe Grace-Moretz, Post similarly tells the story of a small-town teen coerced into anti-gay counselling after her boyfriend catches her making out with a girl.

When we think about conversion therapy, we usually picture exactly what these two films portray: horrifying “treatment centres” in the backcountry of middle America that surely couldn’t exist now. But Canada has a history of conversion therapy, too, and it happened—and is still happening—right under our noses, in major cities across the country.

Peter Gajdics was 24 when he was referred to a local licensed psychiatrist by a doctor in Victoria, B.C. The writer, whose book about his experience with conversion therapy, The Inheritance of Shame, was published in May 2017, had just told his family that he was gay—and they rejected him. Soon after, Gajdics moved away from his hometown of Vancouver to start over. But dealing with his family’s rejection wasn’t as easy as just putting miles between them. “I was isolated and depressed,” he recalls. It was 1989, the early days of the AIDS crisis and, for Peter, the cultural fear and panic around the disease was further stigmatizing what it meant to be gay at the time. A victim of childhood sexual abuse, he was also carrying some pretty significant emotional trauma that he had never dealt with. So therapy, in many ways, was overdue.

Gajdics remembers feeling nervous the first time he was called in to the windowless office of Dr. Alfonzo (not his real name), a man in his fifties dressed in head-to-toe black with short, greying hair and a cropped goatee. When he took a seat on the rickety stool for the first time, Gajdics had no idea that what he was embarking on was a form of conversion therapy that would stretch on for six years.

“The psychiatrist told me that my history of abuse had created the false sense that I was gay, and that our goal in the treatment would be to ‘revert’ me back to my ‘innate’ heterosexuality,” he recalls. “The term he used, specifically, was that we needed to ‘correct’ my sexuality—that there had been an ‘error.’”

Naturally, Gajdics was hesitant at first to accept the psychiatrist’s theory that his traumatic history had somehow “created” his homosexuality. But, he says, “I was young when I met him. I’d just been rejected by my family for my homosexuality and I felt like I had nowhere else to turn.” So, he kept going, and his twice-a-week appointments soon moved to three, a mix of individual counselling and group sessions.

Another reason he was compelled to continue is that his treatment included the use of addictive psychotropic drugs—and throughout therapy, Dr. Alfonso kept increasing his dosages. “Eventually, these psychotropic drugs were combined with overlapping use of a sedative, three or four antidepressants and an antipsychotic,” Gajdics says. “Then he started to inject me with ketamine hydrochloride”—an animal anesthetic. “He would use that drug before what he called ‘reparenting’ sessions, where I would lay in his lap and he would nurture me like a newborn baby.” This technique involved Dr. Alfonso taking on the role of Gajdics’s “new daddy,” ostensibly to repair his damaged masculinity. The medications were prescribed at the highest level, Gajdics later learned, and could have been fatal. “It was a miracle I didn’t die,” he says.

Gajdics was also subjected to primal scream regression therapy, which continued when he moved into a house with other psychiatric patients also under the treatment of Dr. Alfonzo, where he lived for five years. When Gajdics found he was still attracted to men despite these extreme measures, Dr. Alfonzo turned to aversion therapy. It’s the type of aggressive action that we can often be fooled into thinking only happens in movies, like Boy Erased, where characters are subjected to physical abuse to help them “overcome” their sexuality.

What is conversion therapy?

(Photo: Film Rise)
(Photo: Film Rise)

Since the ’80s and ’90s, conversion therapy has been condemned by most psychiatrists and psychologists, and the Canadian Psychological Association formally opposed its techniques in a statement released in 2015—due not only to the lack of scientific research supporting its efficacy, but more importantly because of the documented mental health consequences, including anxiety, distress, depression, difficulty sustaining relationships and sexual dysfunction.

Gajdics eventually stopped therapy in 1995, but it left him with a number of severe mental health issues. “On top of the slow process of recovering from the addiction to the debilitating medication, I had insomnia, panic attacks and a fear of the doctor stalking me, because it was a small town and I lived close to where his office was,” he says. To heal from the six-year ordeal, Gajdics began writing as a way of making sense of what he had experienced. “I had to get over the shame not only from the childhood sexual abuse, but also from the lie that it made me gay.”

Jo-Anne Beggs is a queer psychotherapist based in Mississauga, Ont. who has worked with LGBTQ clients that have undergone conversion therapy. She concurs that, typically, individuals are left with lasting, detrimental effects. “When people experience conversion therapy, especially in their late teens or early twenties, and there’s already a struggle of coming to terms with their sexuality and homophobia in their family, they already have a baseline of traumatic experiences going into to treatment,” she explains. “By nature, the form of treatment is extremely invalidating and compounds the pre-existing abuse that people have experienced.” After treatment, she says, this often manifests in depression, anxiety and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc—a professor and director at the University of British Columbia’s School of Nursing researching the stigma, trauma and resilience of sexual minority youth—notes that young people are particularly vulnerable to the mental health effects of conversion therapy, especially if they lack family support. “Many youth are brought to conversion therapy by their parents—which is a challenge because parents are essentially telling them that there’s something wrong with them and want to change who they are,” she says. “That breakdown in a trusting, nurturing relationship between parents and children in adolescence is a key part of why conversion therapy can be so devastating.”

Despite this, conversion therapy is still legal in the majority of Canadian provinces—and there is no existing nationwide ban.

Why is conversion therapy still happening in Canada?

Currently, only a few provinces have implemented restrictions on conversion therapy. They began in 2015, when the Government of Manitoba outlawed health professionals from practising conversion therapy based on the fact that the province’s human rights code “prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.” Manitoba’s Health Minister at the time, Sharon Blady, said that the motion was initiated because the province wanted to be proactive after hearing that conversion therapy was happening elsewhere.

Following Manitoba’s lead, Ontario introduced its own bill later that year to end the funding of conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth under the province’s health insurance plan. The ruling, which was instigated by an NDP private member’s bill,  is not a strict ban but rather a restriction on this type of therapy, since it would no longer be covered under Ontario’s health insurance plan.

Vancouver became the first Canadian city to ban conversion therapy in June 2018, when its city council voted to restrict businesses from offering services that aim to change an individual’s sexual orientation. The motion was first introduced by councillor Tim Stevenson, and stemmed from the Vancouver city council’s commitment to “supporting the equality and human rights of the LGBTQ2+ community and all city residents.”

Another ban came into effect in Nova Scotia in September. The legislation was introduced when concerns arose around a church-run conference in Pugwash, N.S. promoting conversion therapy practices. Pride Halifax and the Youth Project initiated a petition and this, Global News reports, drew Justice Minister Mark Furey’s attention to the gap in Nova Scotia’s legislation for protecting LGBTQ youth. The new bill now makes it illegal for health professionals to provide conversion therapy for those under the age of 19, makes conversion therapy an uninsurable practice and ensures groups that advocate and provide these services will not be eligible for government funding. 

“Canada is catching fire slowly, but it’s happening,” says Gajdics—noting that Alberta may be next to introduce a bill restricting conversion therapy and also that there is a call for conversion therapy to be outlawed in B.C. beyond its municipal restrictions in Vancouver. (Editor’s note: the city of St. Albert passed a motion banning conversion therapy on July 8, 2019, which means it may soon be the first city in Alberta with this type of restriction.)

Why has conversion therapy not been outlawed at the federal level?

While these provincial and municipal measures are a step in the right direction, it’s shocking that decades after Gajdics escaped from it, conversion therapy is still practiced at all in Canada.

One of the main challenges to a nationwide ban is that health and social services are provincial responsibilities. And as Devon Hargreaves, a queer activist and co-president of YQueerL Society for Change in Lethbridge, Alta., explains, these provincial restrictions don’t technically make conversion therapy illegal: “So far, cities and provinces have banned insurance claims supporting conversion therapy and medical professionals from engaging in this behaviour—but that doesn’t outright ban conversion therapy itself.”

This in turn makes the practice even more difficult to regulate, because now it’s being performed by smaller religious groups that are not registered businesses. It also makes it difficult to come by definitive numbers of just how many people have been subjected to these treatments, though a recent American study gives us some clue: The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law estimates that nearly 700,000 LGBTQ adults in the U.S. have received conversion therapy at some point during their lives.

The fact that these conversion therapy groups operate under the radar also means many Canadians simply aren’t aware that it’s still happening. “Most people, when asked about it, think it’s something that happened in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s,” Gajdics says. Hargreaves, who is working on a petition for a nationwide ban, agrees that this makes it more challenging to rally people for his cause, saying that the most common response he receives is: Why do we need do ban something that doesn’t happen in Canada?

For Beggs, the fact that conversion therapy is still legal in this country speaks to how the LGBTQ community has historically been silenced. “I have to question if it’s just not being raised to a high enough importance because of the community being affected,” she says. “I can see the progress Canada has made, but still, LGBTQ rights aren’t the priority.” Recent headlines support Beggs’s suspicion—just one example is from this September, when Ontario schools reverted back to its 1998 sex-ed curriculum, excluding topics of same-sex relationships and gender identity—an action that puts LGBTQ rights and safety at risk.

“It’s time for Canada to put its money where its mouth is and do something to improve the quality of life for LGBTQ youth,” says Hargreaves. “It’s gone on long enough.” His petition, which was initiated with members of the YQueerL Society for Change and the Lethbridge Public Interest Research Group in September, is pushing for conversion therapy on minors to be included in the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code—which, according to Hargreaves, would entrench a ban on conversion therapy at the federal level. So far, he says the petition has earned “overwhelming support,” with more than 8,000 signatures and counting—something he notes is well over the minimum requirement. The Ontario Association of Consultants, Counsellors, Psychometrists and Psychotherapists has expressed its support as well. The petition will remain open until January 18, 2019 and will then be taken to the House of Commons. “If it goes through, it’ll make being queer youth in Canada that much safer, and give LGBTQ [people] freedom of expression without being subject to someone’s outdated agenda,” Hargreaves says.

After experiencing conversion therapy himself, Gajdics feels personally invested in the success of Hargreaves’s mission and is now working with him to support and spread awareness about the petition. He hopes that it will feel like a positive step forward for LGBTQ youth who are trying to heal from the negative consequences of conversion therapy. “At the very least, I hope the petition will open up the dialogue,” he says. “Since it launched, I think people are starting to realize that these things still are happening—and that’s already a positive change.”

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