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  • Cerys Turner

Canada, conversion therapy and the LGBT+ community

In 1968, Canadian Justice Minister and soon-to-be PM, Pierre Trudeau, uttered the infamous line ‘the state has no place in the bedroom’s of the nation’ in a show of support for decriminalising sexuality. However, fifty-two years later, his son and current PM Justin Trudeau agrees that it should have some say in the goings-on of the psychologists chair.

In a monumental move forward in Canada’s LGBT+ rights movement, Justin Trudeau’s government has proposed to criminalise the controversial practise of ‘conversion therapy’. This is just one part of what appears to be a sweeping move towards the left, and what may be the beginning of a series of liberal measures taken in order to pick apart the knot of insecurity, obscurity and prejudice Canada and the rest of the Western world have created for the gay and transgender community.

As the Canadian government has defined it, conversion therapy aims to change an non-heterosexual individual’s sexual orientation to heterosexual, to repress or reduce their attraction and sexual behaviours, or to change their gender identity to match the sex they were assigned at birth. Although sometimes victims can willingly pursue the treatment, at its core it is based on a system of coercion and manipulation of individuals from society’s most vulnerable groups; all under the pretence of recourse.

Not to be confused with aversion therapy – in this case, a treatment designed to render a ‘deviant’ sexual habit or behaviour repulsive to someone who partakes in it - conversion therapy has endured in some form or another as long as a moral concept of sexuality has been in existence. It includes a variety of approaches, but most commonly focused on on talk therapy, medication and CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy).

Although now more associated with religious faith groups - such as the American Hope for Wholeness Network, which made headlines recently when it’s leader McKrae Game revealed himself to in fact be gay –, conversion therapy historically bases itself instead in psychology. At the forefront were purveying psychologists, Irving Bieber and Charles Socarides, whose rhetoric pioneered the relationship between psychotherapy and the state, which saw ‘counselling services’ pop up around both Canada and the United States. In more recent years, the practise has gone underground, with an increasing number of medical professionals deeming it too unethical to partake in.

Conversion therapy doesn’t always necessarily aim to ‘shame’ it’s victim into believing their sexuality is erroneous; instead, and often far more effectively, it provides them with a deep-rooted and childhood-related cause for their sexual attraction. It endorses the idea that not being heterosexual is intrinsic with their mental health issues; only through realigning their sexual attraction and behaviour to the culturally-accepted norm of liking the opposite sex can they begin to feel ‘whole’ again.

The news that the Canadian government has proposed to ban conversion therapy is in equal parts a celebration for LGBT+ and humanitarian rights in general, but it also raises the question – how is this progress only now coming about? While the neighbouring, and arguably more conservative, USA has banned the practise in twenty states, with the legislation pending in another fifteen, Canada is only now just catching up.

On one hand, the Canadian government’s decision can, and should, be heralded as the admirable commitment to LGBT+ rights that it is. If passed, it will mark another step in the direction of more progressive legislation, which we can only hope will begin to be reflected in society itself.

It also marks a clear progression in Canada’s march towards better rights for all. In 1969, on course with the Stonewall riots and other seminal events in the gay rights movement, homosexuality was decriminalised in Canada. This tolerant attitude encompassed the ensuing decades; from the release of the ‘Equality of All’ report in 1988 to gay men and women being allowed to serve in the military from 1992, to the United Church of Canada’s endorsing same sex marriages in 2003, suggested that the nation was at the forefront of gay rights in global spheres.

However, despite its attempts at amelioration, Canada is still far behind many of its Western peers. Although life as a gay individual in the nation is incomparable to the likes of Russia or Turkey, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t pervasive and institutional issues present. Historically, Canada’s law has vacillated between more liberal laws such as B-C38 (legalising same-sex marriage) in 2005 and motions attempting a swing back to conservatism. Is the legislation going far enough in protecting the LGBT+ community?

If we return to the proposition of the law, why has it taken Canada so long to reach this point? Moreover, should we really be championing a country on finally removing legislation that has destroyed so many lives and disfigured thousands of sexual identities - especially when it is still issuing apologies for past injustices against the queer community? The new legislation also has its flaws; it fails to criminalise private conversations between those struggling with their sexuality and others seeking to support them, essentially creating a legal loophole in which coercion can still take place behind the safety of closed doors.

Will Canada’s liberal stance actually have any global reverberations? Countries such as the United Kingdom legalising gay marriage in the Marriage Act of 2013, and Denmark’s recognition of same-sex couples way back at the turn of the century has had little to no real-life affect outside the Occidental spheres. Many African countries still outlaw same-sex copulation- like Nigeria, which with it’s stringent commitment to Sharia law led Forbes to rank as the most dangerous place in the world for LGBT+ travellers- and in Brunei, partaking in same-sex relations offers harsh corporeal punishment and even ten years jail time.

In light of such shocking human right’s abuses, Canada’s new legislation is reassuring. Yet, it is also a development that raises as many questions as it offers satisfactory solutions. Although we should encourage such progress, especially remembering the fight it took to get here and how many others are still struggling for justice, before lauding them we must first remember that Canada and the rest of the world still have many more knots to untangle.

Image: Daniel James on Unsplash

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