The practice of conversion therapy is still widespread in Canada despite a growing movement to make it illegal, according to recent research published in the Canadian Journal of Psychology.
Conversion therapy seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or expression through counselling, medication or prayer.
In January, Travis Salway, a social epidemiologist at Simon Fraser University co-published a study showing approximately 20,000 individuals across Canada had been exposed to conversion therapy.
He says it’s possible even more people have experienced the practice but are unwilling to talk about it due to the toll it took on them psychologically.
“There’s a lot of shame and stigma associated with conversion therapy,” said Salway. “So a lot of the survivors that we’ve spoken to have said, you know, ‘I just stopped talking about it.'”
The practice is opposed by medical organizations including the Canadian Psychological Association and the Pan American Health Organization, which say the practice is unscientific and can cause significant harm to those who undergo it.
Feelings of despair
That’s the case for Harper Perrin, who as a teenager tried to suppress feelings of attraction to men.
“I grew up knowing, just intrinsically feeling that who I was — this massive part of myself that felt attraction was wrong, was damaged, was evil,” said Perrin, who uses the singular they pronoun.
Raised in an evangelical Christian household in B.C.’s Fraser Valley, Perrin turned to their church for help. That in turn led them to the practice of conversion therapy — attempting to rewire the mind to be more stereotypically masculine.
“So I can’t watch Glee anymore,” Perrin told CBC They & Us host Wil Fundal. “I change the way that I walk and change the way that I talk. I ended up buying a lot more plaid …. The idea was if I could change my expression, I could change my identity, how I saw myself, and hopefully that would, somehow, change my orientation.”
Instead, Perrin experienced what many who turn to conversion therapy do: feelings of isolation, depression and self-harm, which they are still dealing with half a decade later.
British Columbia not pursuing ban
Vancouver passed a bylaw making the practice illegal in 2018, but elsewhere in B.C. little movement has occurred, with the provincial government instead throwing its efforts behind a federal ban.
“I would prefer to take the most effective action, and in my mind the most effective action is making it a criminal offence,” said provincial NDP MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert, who in August wrote to the federal government calling for a national ban. “That trumps anything that B.C. would want to do.”
The federal government initially rejected calls for a nation-wide ban, but has since reversed course, promising to outlaw the practice for youth.
Salway said provincial and even municipal bans would still be helpful in sending the message that young people don’t need to try and change who they are.
“We’re trying to send consistent messages to queer and trans youth that says you’re wanted, you’re valuable,” he said. “For that we need a multi-tiered approach.”
To learn more about conversion therapy and gender identity, subscribe to They & Us, a CBC British Columbia original podcast hosted by Wil Fundal.
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