Beyond the Ban: Taking Action Against Conversion Practices After Bill C-4
2022, Equity + Justice, Health
Florence Ashley (they/them)
Florence Ashley (they/them) is a transfeminine jurist and bioethicist currently completing a doctorate at the University of Toronto. Florence frequently contributes to public discussions around trans issues and served as the first openly transfeminine clerk at the Supreme Court of Canada. They are widely published in law and healthcare and are the author of Banning Transgender Conversion Practices: A Legal and Policy Analysis (UBC Press, 2022).
By Victoria Barclay, MA Student, UBC Department of Sociology
At Beyond the Ban, Florence Ashley and Jules Sherred sat down with Travis Salway, assistant professor in SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences, to discuss the continued harmful impact of conversion practices on trans people, despite these practices being recently banned by the Canadian government. Salway began the event by highlighting the misalignment between the federal government’s definition of conversion practices and how these practices materialize. To open the conversation he read an excerpt from Ashley’s newest book Banning Transgender Conversion Practices: A Legal and Policy Analysis (UBC Press, 2022, p. 23):
It may be more helpful to understand conversion practices not as an attempt to convert gender identity or sexual orientation but, rather, to convert them into gender-normative subjects. Because they cast gender creativity as undesirable, trans conversion practices seek to promote identification with one’s sex assigned at birth and to discourage behaviours that are associated with a different sex assigned at birth.
What are conversion practices?
Ashley explained that conversion practices is a “fuzzy” term because these practices exist on a spectrum, but at their root, conversion practices are a systemic attempt “to prevent people from being queer or trans.”
Sherred spoke about how conversion practices exist within the home. At a young age Sherred showed gender nonconformity, and in a “cute” way was labelled a tomboy— until it was not so cute. His parents punished him by forcing him to wear pink and participate in femininity. Therapists enable these behaviours from parents by “coaching” them to have their child conform to gender norms, which is devastating for the child, as Ashley explained.
Laws banning conversion practices must be specific
Ashley argued that the federal ban on conversion practices requires more specificity to be effective. They questioned how conversion practices are conceptualized and emphasized the need for “institutional scaffolding” to discourage harmful practices. Sherred added that mechanisms must not incorporate law enforcement because this would be unsafe for trans folk. He also asserted that governments must take responsibility for funding conversion practices.
Thinking critically about consent to conversion
The issue of "consent" raises further areas of concern when it comes to justifying conversion practices. Sherred shared that he consented to conversion therapy as a child because he “didn’t want to hate himself… Society has convinced us we hate ourselves, but it’s society that makes us hate ourselves.” As Ashley noted, Canada does not lawfully allow people to consent to harm, and consent is “not the metric” of what is ethical and not. Further, people are not told they are being subjected to conversion therapy, nor do professionals outline the risks, the research, and the widely contested perspectives on these practices, so Ashley interrogates the validity of consent under these circumstances. Children are also not of age to consent—parents consent on their behalf, which calls for further scrutiny from an ethical standpoint.
What should Canada do to ensure a ban on conversion practices?
Ashley pointed to Australia, which uses laws shaped by survivors, as a nation that has made greater strides than others, though they too are not perfect. They explained that the US approaches to banning conversion therapy are “extremely conservative and risk-averse” because of limitations imposed by their constitution. Canada does not face the same constitutional challenges as the US, so Ashley advises against looking to the US as an example.
Ashley and Sherred iterated that laws require a mechanism for enforcement. Sherred believes the BC Human Rights Tribunal should be responsible for enforcement as they have “set precedence” that other Canadian human rights courts can take note of when it comes to trans rights. Salway suggested that it would need more funding to do so.
An audience member asked whether gender identity training in schools would be a positive step forward. If trans people are administrating and conducting the training, then Sherred believes it is a good idea. Ashley believes education is important but highlights that education also needs “accountability and enforceability structures.” They noted that education is not particularly useful without action. Sherred continued to explain that education is required in many ways, including for teachers and for judges who impact the lives of trans people. A multi-prong approach that disallows doctors from denying life-saving medical procedures and provides spaces—that are not foster care— for trans youth facing abuse is needed, Sherred said.
To close the event, Ashley and Sherred named some organizations that people can look into and support if they would like to know more about trans rights and fight against conversion practices.
- Centre for Gender and Sexual Health Equity
- Community-Based Research Centre
- CT Survivors Connect
No Conversion Canada
- Rainbow Refugee