FHS professor Travis Salway and his collaborators surveyed and interviewed over 9,000 LGBTQ2+ individuals, finding 1 in 10 had experienced so-called “conversion therapy”. The team is using their data to advocate for legislation, education, and supports to address ongoing conversion therapy in Canada. Photo: Rachel Taylor

FHS professor works to help end conversion therapy in Canada

January 11, 2021

By: Geron Malbas

FHS professor Travis Salway and his team spent the past year collecting data from thousands of Canadians to expand their understanding of ongoing conversion therapy practices in Canada. In early December 2020, he found himself sitting in front of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights presenting his team’s findings on conversion therapy and SOGIECE (sexual orientation and gender identity or expression change efforts) in an effort to expand conversion therapy’s definition with language that better matches unifying features of its practices.

Salway and his team used data from a Community-Based Research Centre survey of 9,000 gay, bisexual, trans, Two-Spirit, and queer men, finding that 1 in 10 – corresponding to tens of thousands of individuals in Canada – had experienced conversion therapy. Wanting to better understand the nuances of recent conversion therapy experiences, his team then interviewed and surveyed more than 50 individuals from across Canada who had undergone conversion therapy, asking in-depth questions to better characterize the nature of contemporary conversion therapy.

“One of the most important things we learned is that none of these individuals [from our study] simply showed up to a service advertised to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity,” Salway explains. “One participant explained that the service he attended was described to him as a ‘pursuit for purity’, thereby skirting the language of being ‘designed to change [his] sexual orientation.’ This led us to conclude that the defining feature of so-called conversion therapies is not conversion but, rather, the goal of rejecting LGBTQ2 lives as compatible with being happy and healthy.”

SOGIECE is the term used to refer to these less well-delineated attempts to persuade and affirm rigid expectations of cisgender and heterosexual expressions and identities. The distinction between SOGIECE and conversion therapy is not always clear, and SOGIECE often leads to more formalized experiences of conversion therapy like targeting one’s sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or a combination of those traits, practiced by healthcare providers, religious leaders, and everyday people who take on the ‘mission’ of policing the genders and sexual orientations of the people around them.

Based on these findings, Salway and his team advocated that the definition of conversion therapy in Bill C-6 – which proposes amendments to the Criminal Code that will ban the practice – be altered to include all sustained efforts proceeding from an assumption that certain sexual orientations, gender identities, or gender expressions are disordered, pathological, or less desirable than others.

Bill C-6 proposes “[e]veryone who knowingly causes a person who is under the age of 18 years to undergo conversion therapy is (a) guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term of not more than five years; or (b) guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction.” One of the misconceptions of this framing of the amendment to ban conversion therapy is that the risk of coercion by parents and other adults can only happen before the age of 18. Many Canadians continue to rely on familial support well into their 20s -- this applies to housing, tuition, living expenses, and more. With this in mind, Salway points out the age 18 threshold is arbitrary.

“Even for those who have moved away from home, the choice to attend conversion therapy is often a false choice,” he says. “One interviewee explained that his parents threatened to stop paying for his university education if he did not comply with their wish for him to reject a gay identity. For these reasons, I recommend expanding conversion therapy protections to people of all ages.”

Salway also emphasizes the critical importance of ensuring Bill C-6 accounts for conversion therapy that target transgender and non-binary people. His survey results found that conversion therapy exposure was twice as high (20%) among trans and non-binary respondents, likely owing to pervasive transphobia across multiple Canadian institutions.

In an open-letter by Erika Muse, trans woman activist and survivor of conversion therapy, she explains how trans conversion therapy remains particularly insidious, in many cases condoned by licensed healthcare professionals who claim to act in their patients’ best interests. Her letter also recommends ways to make the bill equitable for trans people.

“We urgently request that your ministries reevaluate this bill and communicate how the federal government will address conversion therapy practices that trans Canadians experience,” she says. “In addition, we ask the government to communicate other proactive strategies that will be used—beyond legislative changes to the Criminal Code—to ensure equitable access to trans-affirming information and supports for trans people of all ages (including youth), as well as their families, communities, and service and support workers, across the country.”

Salway urges us to remember we cannot rely on a single legislative action to eradicate all conversion therapy, and existing regulatory efforts are not sufficient to curb it entirely. Banning conversion therapy at multiple levels of government, as well as investing in LGBTQ2+ affirming educational resources, will be required.

“I urge that a statement be added to the preamble of the bill reiterating the need for provinces and territories to continue to pass regulatory laws, which can work in complementary ways to federal legislation.”

For the full brief presented to the Canadian House of Commons, visit here.

This work was made possible due to the groundbreaking advocacy efforts of Canadian conversion therapy survivors. The research was supported by the Community-Based Research Centre, Andrew Beckerman, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.