Supporting those harmed by sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts: A survivor-led and ally-supported research project

January 09, 2024
This article is co-authored by Reilla Archibald, Jordan Sullivan, and Travis Salway. Reilla was an MPH student at SFU Faculty of Health Sciences. As an ally, she supported Jordan’s work, including data collection and analysis of interview findings. Jordan is a survivor of conversion practices and the Conversion Practice Prevention and Survivor Support Coordinator at the Community-Based Research Centre. Travis is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at SFU.

In December of 2021, the Canadian House of Commons voted unanimously to pass a bill making it a crime to perpetrate so-called ‘conversion therapy.’ From various surveys of Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (2S/LGBTQ) people in Canada, we know that tens of thousands of people have endured these often harmful practices.

Exposure to anti-2S/LGBTQ messages embedded in conversion practices contribute to social isolation, anxiety, loss of self, and suicide. Countless 2S/LGBTQ people have tragically died after experiencing conversion practices, ending their own lives after struggling with internal doubts about the validity of their identities.

Mindful of the vast and largely undocumented needs of conversion practice survivors, we have spent the last few years conducting survivor-led action research with the aim of finding ways to best support healing and recovery from traumatic change efforts. While Parliament enacted law with an unequivocal message that conversion practices are incompatible with Canadian values, we conducted interviews with survivors from across Canada, knowing that the law would not be enough to redress the pain and distress caused by these practices occurring in the preceding decades.

To do so, we worked with three community partners including: No Conversion Canada, which is a national, nonprofit, grassroots organization committed to ending conversion practices in Canada; CT Survivors Connect, a support group for survivors of conversion practices; and, the Community-Based Research Centre, a national organization that promotes the health of people of diverse sexualities and genders through research and intervention development

Here’s what we learned:

  • Because survivors experienced harm in the context of practices that purported to be therapeutic, extra care is required to identify support services that both affirm 2S/LGBTQ identities and acknowledge and work with the trauma caused by conversion practices. As our community partners put out resource lists, extra care was taken to vet these resources. In some cases, we identified 2S/LGBTQ-affirming practitioners who have specific experience and expertise in supporting recovery from religious or other anti-2S/LGBTQ forms of trauma.
  • Healthcare providers need more education and financial and structural support in order to expand the currently limited network who are prepared to work with survivors in specific and meaningful ways.
  • Beyond the healthcare system, we need educational efforts for the general public, including teachers and others working with youth, to confidently and consistently express support for 2S/LGBTQ identities, using the platform of the federal conversion practice ban to steer youth away from these harmful practices. For example, the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity offers life-saving foundational workshops in schools. These are critical interventions, and yet they’re not enough.
  • Future research can help refine our understanding of how best to support survivors. In particular, more work is needed to identify intersectional needs of survivors. Experiences of and recovery from conversion practices indeed may look different among Indigenous, Black, other racialized, and immigrant 2S/LGBTQ communities–all of whom experience a greater burden of exposure to conversion practices than 2S/LGBTQ counterparts.
  • Our community-engaged research project was led by survivors (i.e., those with lived experience) but actively supported by allies (e.g., Reilla, Travis). We believe this model helps to reduce the emotional burden placed on those with lived experience—a point discussed by our colleague Marina Khonina in a recent CERi blog post–while ensuring that allies are learning and preparing to educate others.

What’s next?:

We took what we learned from this project to index survivor supports on two up-to-date web-based resources:

  • The education page at CT Survivors Connect includes information (podcasts, articles, etc.), contact details for support groups, and 2S/LGBTQ-affirming resources by province.
  • In the fall of 2023, CBRC launched the Stop Conversion Practices Knowledge Centre, a knowledge and research-sharing initiative created by survivors and informed by research that facilitates the exchange of information on conversion practices.

We will continue to work within and beyond our network to ensure that the thousands of survivors in Canada receive equitable support that corresponds to their particular needs.

Everyone in Canada has a role to play in mobilizing these initiatives–building on the foundation of the federal law and ensuring that every 2S/LGBTQ person receives the message that their identities are complete, valid, and beautiful.


Acknowledgments: We are grateful to SFU CERi for their support which enabled the involvement of a graduate student research assistant (Reilla). The development of the Stop Conversion Practices Knowledge Centre is made possible through financial support from the Department of Justice and the LGBTQ2 Community Capacity Building Fund through Women and Gender Equality Canada (WAGE). We wish to thank Michael Kwag (CBRC) and Sarah Watt (SFU) for their in-kind support for this work, and Ben Rodgers, Elisabeth Dromer, and Nick Schiavo for their input throughout the process of developing the CT Survivors Connect education page.

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