In a major victory for sexual minority advocates, Canada last week banned conversion therapy, a widely discredited practice that aims to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
The law makes it a crime to subject anyone in Canada to conversion therapy, profit from the practice or take a Canadian outside the country to undergo conversion therapy elsewhere.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took to Twitter to hail the ban of what he called “a despicable and degrading practice.”
University of Ottawa student Jonathan Di Carlo calls himself a conversion therapy survivor, having undergone sessions “primarily in religious settings” for more than a decade starting at age 13.
“They included attempted demon exorcisms in front of people, forced one-on-one counseling where a pastor with no formal psychotherapy training convinced me that homosexuality was caused by an absentee father or that it was caused by being raped at a young age by someone of the same sex such as a father or uncle,” Di Carlo told VOA. “Then I was told to ‘fast,’ a biblical practice where a person doesn’t eat or drink except for water. … I did 40 days [of consuming] only water, twice.”
Conversion therapy has been rejected by an array of Western medical groups, including the American Medical Association, which linked the practice to “significant long-term harm” including depression, anxiety and possibly suicidal behaviors.
Last year, a report submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council found that conversion therapy is practiced in 68 countries and that victims may be subjected to “heinous physical and psychological violence.” The report added, “Attempts to pathologize and erase the identity of individuals, negate their existence as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or gender diverse and provoke self-loathing have profound consequences on their physical and psychological integrity and well-being.”
Di Carlo says he knows the consequences firsthand.
“The torture of conversion therapy only made me more depressed with a lot of thoughts of suicide,” Di Carlo told VOA. “I self-medicated with alcohol for several years under the pressure of wanting to be straight but God not making me straight.”
Today, the student wells with a different emotion: pride.
“I think the fact that Canada made this move makes the nation stand out,” Di Carlo said. “It says that we have an approach to human rights that few other longstanding democracies have. It says that Canada acknowledges that this practice has no basis in science. It is criminal and it is torture.”
Canada is already seen as a popular destination for LGTBQ individuals persecuted around the world, hosting a charity aimed at encouraging this migration named the Rainbow Railroad.
LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, questioning. In Canada, “2” is often added to the end of the initials, recognizing some Indigenous people who identify as having both a masculine and feminine spirit.
Some Canadian faith-based groups argued against the ban on the basis of religious freedom. Additionally, an opinion piece appearing in The Globe and Mail newspaper framed the issue as a matter of personal liberty, asking, “should consenting adults be allowed to access services that are harmful to them?”
Canada joins four countries that have legally banned conversion therapy on a national level: Brazil, Ecuador, Germany and Malta. Germany bans the practice for minors or the coerced. It is banned in some U.S. states but not others.
Some worry that, even where it is banned, conversion therapy will continue.
Sexual minority rights advocate Fae Johnstone of Halifax-based Wisdom2Action worries that Canada’s ban won’t “fully eradicate the practice.”
Johnstone noted, “A lot of practitioners don’t describe themselves as conversion therapists.” She added that conversion therapy likely will continue as an underground practice.
For now, however, ban supporters are taking a victory lap.
“Survivors have been fighting for this day for decades, so seeing that advocacy, that struggle and that resilience finally payoff is overwhelming in the best way,” Nicholas Schiavo, founder of No Conversion Canada, told VOA. “This legislation sends a clear message to LGBTQ2 people both here in Canada and around the world that Canada remains a human rights leader and will step up to protect the most vulnerable in our communities.”