conversion therapy

To Edmonton City Council: Conversion Therapy

The following is the written response to Edmonton City Council, regarding their decision to consider banning “conversion therapy.” A similar presentation was given to the city subcommittee examining the issue on August 21, 2019. The ban was approved on August 27th, 2019 with the language of the ban still being worded.

a) Defining Conversion Therapy

Conversion therapy has become an important national issue. On April 9th Senator Serge Joyal introduced Bill S260 in the Canadian Senate, which, if passed, would ban conversion therapy across Canada.  The Bill defines conversion therapy as “any practice, treatment or service designed to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity or to eliminate or reduce sexual attraction or sexual behavior between persons of the same sex.” It may be difficult at first glance to see the long-term problem with such a definition. Here’s the problem. The Bill’s definition is so broad that while it covers coercive counselling practices such as electroshock therapy, it also covers something as unremarkable as a discussion about same-sex attraction between consenting adults. In other words, it potentially bans any actions by trained counsellors who believe sexual orientation can change, and it would prevent adults who choose to reject their same-sex attractions from finding the counselling and support they seek.

Even those who support this point of view agree. In public statements, as well as in his own submission to the Edmonton City Council subcommittee last week, MacEwan University professor and LGBTQ activist Kris Wells stated that S260’s broad definition of conversion therapy can even include something as innocuous as simply praying over someone to change their sexual orientation. Or, as he put it, “praying the gay away.” A ban on conversion therapy, then, may include simply praying for someone as a show of support for their choice not to act on their sexual attractions to the same sex. Clearly there is a world of difference between a coercive, harmful practice and praying for someone who has consented to those prayers. Yet according to S260 advocates, both would be banned once the bill is passed.

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Councilors may be tempted to question why governments are being asked to pass legislation that so openly violates Canadians’ Charter guarantees of freedom of religion and freedom of speech. In response opponents of conversion therapy raise two concerns that in their view trump everything else. First, members of the LGBT community claim that many of them have been victimized by counsellors who physically, verbally and spiritually abused them. Some say they were coerced to get counselling against their will. Their second concern is that conversion therapy questions the existence of a gay identity. From their point of view conversion therapy exists because of the belief that homosexuality is a disorder to be treated.  It is their view that anyone seeking to change sexual orientation is contemplating an action analogous to changing their natural height or skin color. Thus, it follows that anyone offering conversion therapy is spreading false hope and should be considered guilty of bogus advertising. 

By conflating these two concerns, opponents of conversion therapy end up targeting the kind of coercive practices that even the founders of “conversion therapy” oppose, as well as therapy chosen by consenting adults who no longer desire to act on their same-sex attractions.

A proper definition of conversion therapy by those who actually practice it, shows just how difficult it is to ban a practice using broad and overly inclusive terms. Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, who coined the term, “reparative therapy” (used interchangeably with conversion therapy) says it refers to the repair of emotional wounds through the therapeutic process. As to the principles of this form of counselling, he writes:

First, as with all good therapy, Reparative Therapy (RT) never involves coercion. The client has come to the therapist seeking assistance to reduce something distressing to him, and the RT psychotherapist agrees to share his professional experience and education to help the client meet his own goal. The therapist enters into a collaborative relationship, agreeing to work with the client to reduce his unwanted attractions and explore his heterosexual potential. This collaborative relationship could not, of course, include imposing methods or techniques attempting to “cause” sexual-orientation change—which would, anyway, be quite impossible. (1)

On the sensitive question of young people being brought to the counsellor by worried parents, Nicolosi makes it clear that the only thing that counts, the only thing that works, is the autonomous self-motivation of the person seeking help:

Creating bylaws to prevent counselling for consenting adults leads to the absurd situation that two consenting adults can engage in any sexual activity they choose but those same adults could not talk about those sexual practices within a counselling relationship.

Sometimes, the client does not know what he wants, as is often the case with the teenager asked to come into treatment by his parents. In those cases, if the teenager does decide to come in, we agree NOT to work on his homosexuality, and the therapeutic alliance is founded upon some other of the client’s goals, such as managing parental disapproval without family breakup, or dealing with problems of peer rejection. (2)

Another leading therapist, Dr. David Pickup, writes:

Did you know that eliminating shame for having homosexual feelings is one of the very first priorities of authentic Reparative Therapy? Aversion techniques, behavioral-only changes, coercive attitudes, electroshock and the like are NOT a part of authentic Reparative Therapy. Truly effective therapy is hard work. Deep emotions are experienced, and wounds are healed. This can, in time, result in spontaneous and successful change.(3)

The professional association to which both Dr. Nicolosi and Dr. Pickup belong is the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity. It clearly rejects any coercive methods and makes this statement on the right of individuals to seek professional help, free of harassment by the state:

The Alliance respects each client's dignity, autonomy and free agency. We believe that clients have the right to claim a gay identity, or to diminish their homosexuality and to develop their heterosexual potential … "Tolerance and diversity" means nothing if it is extended to activists and not traditionalists on the homosexual issue. (4)

The originators of the term, “conversion” or “reparative” therapy themselves, reject coercion, forced therapy or electroshock therapy. Any such practices are likely already illegal or at the very least discouraged by any professional governing bodies. 

b) Committing “Fraud”

Is it truly fraudulent to believe that sexual orientation can change? The facts actually show that sexual orientation is a spectrum and many Canadians fall between purely heterosexual and purely homosexual.

Two years ago, Vice.com covered a report by trend forecasting agency, J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group. It found thatonly 48 percent of Gen Zs, individuals under 20, identify as exclusively heterosexual, compared to 65 percent of millennials aged 21 to 34. On a scale of zero to six, where zero signified "completely straight" and six meant "completely homosexual," more than a third of the young demographic chose a number between one and five, indicating that they were bisexual to some degree. Only 24 percent of their older counterparts identified this way.(5)

California psychologist Dr. Christopher Rosik adds that large numbers of young non-heterosexual women, and (to a slightly lesser extent) non-heterosexual men, report fluidity in their sexual attractions and identities (Katz-Wise, 2014; Katz-Wise & Hyde, 2014), which typically first begin before the age of 18. He says, “I find it especially of interest that men who had experienced fluidity believed sexuality was changeable much more than men who did not experience fluidity, who tended to believe that sexuality was something a person is born with.” Dr. Rosik suggests those who oppose, “conversion therapy” are those who do not experience sexual fluidity.

This raises the possibility many non-heterosexual male activists who fight against a client’s right to pursue professional care for unwanted same-sex attractions are men who have not experienced change and who assume that this is the case for all non-heterosexuals. Therefore, they may erroneously assume that all claims of change must either be lies or self-deception. (7)

If Dr. Rosik is right, then a “conversion therapy” ban is pushed by those who don’t experience sexual fluidity but want to force their experience onto those who have a more fluid identity. If this is the case, then a ban won’t actually protect sexual minorities but favours some over others.

For example, the Canadian Psychological Association admits:

The Canadian Psychological Association also recognizes that individuals differ in the fluidity of their sexual attractions across the lifespan (Rust, 1993; Spitzer, 2003; Diamond, 2007), but does not view such naturally occurring fluidity as supporting arguments in favour of conversion or reparative therapies. (8)

The last line is interesting because they do not explain how their views can be consistent. If sexual fluidity can happen across one’s own lifespan, then how can someone who experiences “naturally occurring [sexual] fluidity” not benefit from counselling that helps them live out the sexual orientation that they prefer? If a Canadian, for moral or religious reasons, prefers to act on heterosexual feelings, shouldn’t they be able to choose a counsellor who shares their values? As Dr. Rosik explains,

A broadly defined conversion therapy ban would mean that people of faith would not be able to practice as professional counsellors without giving up their religious beliefs.

Although this research is addressing spontaneous changes in same-sex attractions and behaviors rather than change facilitated by professional therapy, the discovery of sexual orientation fluidity to such an extent certainly makes more plausible claims that professional psychological care has contributed to such change for some people. To quote one research group, “People with changing sexual attractions may be reassured to know that these are common rather than atypical” (Dickson et al., 2013, p. 762).

With such changes in same-sex attractions and behaviors occurring all around us, is it reasonable to maintain that the only place where such change can never happen is in the therapist’s office? (9)

There are many examples of people whose lives have been spiritually transformed and who have chosen not to act on their same-sex attractions or who’ve experienced a change in those attractions.

Michael Glatze, was a former gay magazine writer who converted to Christianity and is now married to a woman. His life was documented in the film, I Am Michael. He says:

Coming out of homosexuality has been the most liberating thing I have ever felt. I said before, seven years ago, that it was like coming out of a cave and breathing fresh air. Today I can say, being married, that it’s entirely an inversion of homosexuality … It doesn’t feel as though I’ve lost any of my sexuality, it just is working in the right alignment … I feel aligned with my mind, my body, my spirit, my sexuality, with creation… and that alignment is evidenced through the fact that my relationship with my wife is so real, so natural… (10)

Walt Heyer, who lived as a transgender woman for eight years, is now living as a man and runs a Christian website called sexchangeregret.com. On the site, he says, 

My name is Walt Heyer and in April of 1983 I had gender reassignment surgery. At first I was giddy for the fresh start. But hormones and sex change genital surgery couldn’t solve the underlying issues driving my gender dysphoria. I detransitioned more than 25 years ago. I learned the truth: Hormones and surgery may alter appearances, but nothing changes the immutable fact of your sex. I met a wonderful woman who didn’t care about the changes to my body, and we’ve been married for over 20 years. Now we help others whose lives have been derailed by sex change. (11)

Neither Michael nor Walter would support fraudulent practices to coerce anyone into counselling. However, their experiences show that it is possible to alter one’s homosexual or transgender behaviour and identity, if one so chooses.  


c) Targeting Religious Beliefs

A conversion therapy ban would unduly target people of faith who view marriage between a husband and wife as the only acceptable place for sexual activity. This view is shared by most religious groups and has been taught for thousands of years. In fact, it has formed a core teaching of marriage in the Judeo-Christian world for 4000 years. Across the world a majority of other faiths teach this same point of view and have done so throughout history.

As discussed, a broadly defined conversion therapy ban would mean that people of faith would not be able to practice as professional counsellors without giving up their religious beliefs. To some this may seem trivial, but it must be recognized that this is exactly the kind of discrimination that is opposed by Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Those who believe such a ban is necessary, argue that a person who believes homosexuality is sinful or harmful should be disqualified from pursuing a counselling career. Why? Because, they say, the Christian or religious counsellor is incapable of being unbiased—or worse, incapable of caring for gay patients. 

Such arguments fail to recognize that this assumption is itself discriminatory and not based on reason. Simple disagreement with a patient’s behaviour or beliefs does not constitute hate, nor does disagreement inevitably lead to harmful practices. Otherwise, counsellors in the opposite situation, where they support same-sex sexual activity and their patient does not, should also be considered incapable of counselling them because of their disagreement. This belief also assumes counsellors cannot be neutral in their practice while holding onto their personal beliefs.

More importantly, patients who choose to go to a counsellor of the same faith, do so because they want a guide who will uphold their values, including their sexual ethics. If patients with unwanted same-sex attractions choose to go to a counsellor who agrees with their beliefs, then wouldn’t the best practice be to let those patients go through the counselling they desire? If it is wrong to coerce a patient to undergo unwanted counselling to change their sexual orientation from gay to straight, wouldn’t it be just as wrong to coerce a patient to undergo unwanted counselling to force them to remain gay? Coercion in either direction would not help the patient in the long run.

In practice, counsellors provide a holistic approach to their clients where they examine every part of their lives; clients are taken far beyond the issues they present in their sessions. This is because there may be connections from one area of life to another that a patient has failed to see. Too broad a conversion therapy ban would leave counsellors afraid to cover key issues of sexuality with their patients. Aware they could risk their licenses by simply exploring sexual issues, they could be tempted to remain silent and not provide the help needed.

As the College of Registered Psychotherapists stated in an open letter to then Ontario Minister of Health Eric Hoskins, “We question, however, whether a legislative mechanism is required to address this matter. We have concerns about a possible ‘chill’ effect if professionals are reluctant, as a result of legislative change, to explore issues of gender identity and/or sexual orientation with their clients—for fear of misunderstandings and possible legal repercussions.”(12)

Besides, creating by-laws to prevent counselling for consenting adults, leads to the absurd situation that two consenting adults can engage in any sexual activity they choose but those same adults could not talk about those sexual practices within a counselling relationship.

A broad ban on conversion therapy could also target religious practices such as prayer. If every practice meant to change someone’s sexual orientation is banned, even prayer would have to be regulated by city officials. If “praying the gay away” is considered a harmful practice akin to shock therapy, as some activists claim, then any prayer against homosexuality could potentially be seen as violating the bylaw. Edmonton’s municipal government would have to regulate the practices of religious Canadians in order to enforce the bylaw, something the Canadian Charter specifically forbids.

Christians view sexuality and gender identity as gifts from a gracious God. However, Christians also believe there is no greater identity than the believer’s identity in Christ. All other identities, including biological traits such as race, sex, cultural practices or sexual orientation, must come secondary to being identified as a follower of Christ. This means, Christians are motivated to pray against any identity that becomes a distraction to their primary identity. For example, Christians believe we ought to ask God to forgive us if we make wealth, social status or family more important than God. Other faith groups hold to similar principles.

Which raises this question: is this the kind of theological discussion that should occupy the time and attention of city bylaw officers? Should bylaw officers become arbiters of religious practices? Should they, for example, be determiners of how Canadians pray? Without a more closely targeted ban, these questions remain unanswered, and Canadians’ religious liberties potentially remain under scrutiny by city bylaw officers. 


d) Results of Banning “Conversion Therapy”

A “conversion therapy” ban would have devastating effects, not just for consenting adults, but also for children. Obviously, older children wanting to see a Christian counsellor would no longer be able to do so, unless the counsellor is willing to compromise his, or her faith. But younger children undergoing gender dysphoria would not be able to receive the help they need either.

Dr. Kenneth Zucker, who headed up the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s Family Gender Identity Clinic in Toronto for more than 30 years, was ousted in December, 2015—forced out, because many attacked how he helped underage kids understand their gender identity. He said,

I think the term conversion therapy is incredibly inflammatory. . .. I think it’s been inappropriately expropriated from the original use of the term, where it was directed at very conservative, religiously motivated clinicians or pastoral counsellors who were seeing, primarily, homosexual men who didn’t want to be gay. There were lots of problems in trying to offer treatment to change an adult’s sexual orientation—we know that’s a very dubious proposition. But to apply [the term] to [treating] a three-year-old child with gender dysphoria, in my opinion, is an absurd comparison. (13)

One of Dr. Zucker’s many supporters is Alice Dreger, a former professor at Northwestern University, and an expert on transgender issues. She observed that 

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The activists didn’t like Zucker because he never did subscribe to the “true transgender” model of identity, wherein you simply accept what any child (no matter how young) says about his or her gender. The transgender activists who called for his ouster insisted that Zucker was doing “reparative therapy,” trying to talk children out of being transgender when they “really” were. I don’t doubt that these particular transgender adults look back and see that, from very early on, they had been assigned a gender that didn’t make sense for them. The mistake they make is then to assume that every child who expresses doubt about his or her birth gender assignment should simply be “affirmed” by parents and clinicians in their “new” gender.

This is an unbelievably simplistic understanding of what’s going on with these children. Yes, some of them will grow up to be transgender; Zucker and others have documented that, over and over again. But if history is a guide, the majority will not. (14)

PhD psychologist Deborah Soh adds:

[The] exponential growth [in transgendered kids] cannot be due solely to greater awareness about gender diversity. The number of American adults who identify as transgender has doubled in the last ten years to 6 in 1000. The fact that the numbers pertaining to children are showing a tenfold increase or higher in a shorter span of time speaks to other factors being at play.

From a scientific standpoint, transitioning can be beneficial to some adults and children who are post-puberty, but clinicians in the field aren’t able to do their jobs properly anymore, due to the current political climate. Without a proper psychological assessment, many children who are suffering from other mental health conditions—like autism, borderline personality disorder, and trauma, as well as suicidal ideation—are transitioning instead of getting the appropriate support they need. (15)

This help isn’t being offered, Dr. Soh suggests, because of the laws banning “conversion therapy.” As a consequence, many counsellors are beginning to refuse to counsel gender dysphoric children at all. 

Therapy that seeks to help gender dysphoric children grow comfortable in their birth sex (known in the research literature as the “therapeutic approach”) has been conflated with conversion therapy, but this is inaccurate. All of the available research following gender dysphoric children longitudinally shows that the majority desist; they outgrow their feelings of dysphoria by puberty and grow up to be gay in adulthood, not transgender.

Children will say they “are” the opposite sex because that’s the only language they have to express to adults that they want to do things the opposite sex does. Cross-sex behavior has also been shown to be a strong predictor of homosexuality in men. Previous research tells us that even children who are severe in their feelings of dysphoria will desist.


Conclusion

In order to address the needs of all Edmontonions, I urge you to ensure that your ban on conversion therapy be narrowly focused on coercive and professionally discredited practices. If a bylaw must be passed, it should rightly ban anyone who wants to harm people as a professional counsellor. But it should not be defined so broadly that Canadians, gay or straight, feel they no longer have the freedom to talk as they wish to the counsellor of their choice. The right of Canadians to choose their healthcare must be recognized in any motion that deals with conversion therapy.


1 Banning Therapy, Banning Liberty, Dr. David van Gend https://davepellowe.com/banning-therapy-banning-liberty/, Mar 13, 2019.
2 van Gend, 2019.
3 van Gend, 2019.
4 van Gend, 2019.
5 Teens these days are queer, AF new study says, by Zing Tsjeng, https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/kb4dvz/teens-these-days-are-queer-af-new-study-says, March 10, 2016.
6 Psychologist says same-sex attracted teens can change, Dr. Christopher Rosik, https://stream.org/interview-psychologist-says-gay-teens-can-change/, July 19, 2015.
7 Rosik, 2015.
8 CPA Policy Statement on Conversion/Reparative Therapy for Sexual Orientation, https://cpa.ca/docs/File/Position/SOGII%20Policy%20Statement%20-%20LGB%20Conversion%20Therapy%20FINALAPPROVED2015.pdf.
9 Rosik, 2015.
10 van Gend, 2019.
11 Sexchangeregret.com
12 “Reparative therapy bans rushed into law in MB and ON: Serious implications,” https://arpacanada.ca/news/2015/06/11/reparative-therapy-bans-rushed-into-law-in-mb-and-on-serious-implications-2/, June 11, 2015.
13 Doctor fired from gender identity clinic says he feels ‘vindicated’ after CAMH apology, settlement, Molly Hayes, Globe and Mail, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/toronto/article-doctor-fired-from-gender-identity-clinic-says-he-feels-vindicated/, OCTOBER 7, 2018.
14 Gender Mad, Alice Dreger, https://alicedreger.com/gendermad, Dec 19, 2015.
15 Number of teens seeking treatment for gender dysphoria has increased tenfold since 2010, Lucas Holtvluwer,https://www.thepostmillennial.com/number-of-teens-seeking-treatment-for-gender-dysphoria-has-increased-tenfold-since-2010/, February 2019.
16 The Unspoken Homophobia Propelling the Transgender Movement in Children, Dr. Deborah Soh, https://quillette.com/2018/10/23/the-unspoken-homophobia-propelling-the-transgender-movement-in-children/, October 23, 2018.