“When I left treatment at age 31, I could hardly speak about any of it, let alone comprehend what had happened. My mind was frozen. The treatment left me highly anxious, then depressed, with nightmares and frequent flashbacks …”
So wrote Peter Gajdics in The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir, a harrowing look at his six-year ordeal at a B.C. centre for conversion therapy, a pseudo-scientific treatment that aims to change people’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Gajdics might have felt alone when he left treatment, but his ordeal is hardly unique as thousands of people across the country and around the world have detailed similar experiences with conversion therapy. And that makes it particularly disappointing that the B.C. NDP seems hesitant to ban the practice in the province.
In October, the B.C. Green party tabled Bill M-204, which would prohibit, among other things, the use of public health-care funds for the provision of conversion therapy. The NDP seems content to let the bill die, ostensibly because it is waiting to see what the federal government does about the matter.
Now, to be sure, the feds promised in the Throne Speech to act on conversion therapy, and it’s not clear what form the legislation will take. Yet it is likely to mirror Bill C-6, which died on the order paper when the September election was called, and which would have created a number of new criminal offences, including for providing conversion therapy to minors and to adults against their will.
It is pretty clear, then, that the feds intend to focus on criminal law measures, since that is within federal jurisdiction. Similarly, as the provinces have jurisdiction over the provision of publicly funded health services, five provinces — Ontario, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Yukon and Quebec — have implemented bans on conversion therapy without waiting for the federal government. And a smattering of cities, led by Vancouver in 2018, have used their jurisdiction over business licences to target conversion therapy in the cities.
If the B.C. NDP wants to follow someone, then, it ought to follow these jurisdictions rather than waiting for the feds to act. Indeed, as the research demonstrates, every day the province delays is another day it needlessly puts young British Columbian lives at risk.
According to a study led by Simon Fraser University social epidemiologist Travis Salway, 10 per cent of the more than 9,000 Canadian men surveyed between 2019 and 2020 reported having experienced conversion therapy practices (CTP). Those most likely to have undergone CTP were those identifying as non-binary or transgender (20 per cent and 19 per cent), and those of Arabian, Caribbean and Latin-American extraction (22 per cent, 21 per cent, 20 per cent).
Extrapolating from the sample, the study authors estimate that some 50,000 Canadian men have had exposure to CTP. And that exposure is anything but benign: Those experiencing CTP were more likely to feel isolated, and to engage in binge drinking and other drug use.
Kristopher Wells of Edmonton’s MacEwan University details some studies from the United States that have produced similar results. According to a 2018 San Francisco State University study of 245 individuals between 21 and 25, those experiencing both home-based and professional conversion therapy were more than three times as likely to report depression and to have attempted suicide as those without any CTP exposure.
Similarly, according to a statistical analysis of voluminous data collected in 2018 by the Trevor Project, a California-based LGBT suicide prevention organization, individuals between 13 and 24 who underwent CTP were more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide and more than three times as likely to attempt suicide repeatedly.
Based on these results, the authors concluded that young people with exposure to CTP “represent an extremely vulnerable population that would benefit from additional protections and support.” One can only hope that Premier John Horgan and his government are listening.
Supporters of CTP might argue that consenting adults can decide if it’s worth the risk. But conversion therapy is widely discredited by researchers.
An online literature review by researchers at Cornell University identified 47 studies on conversion therapy, 13 of which contained primary research. Of these 13, only one reported some sexual orientation change, and even that occurred among just one-third of study participants. Furthermore, that study relied exclusively on study participants’ self-reports, an inherently unreliable measure.
The Cornell researchers therefore conclude that “there is no credible evidence that sexual orientation can be changed through therapeutic intervention. Most accounts of such change are akin to instances of ‘faith healing’.”
To protect some of the most vulnerable individuals among us — youth and young adults, especially members of ethnic minority groups — from such “faith healing,” all three levels of government must act independently, and together. As long as one government fails to do so, as long as the B.C. NDP waits for someone else to do something, the youth of B.C. remain unprotected, unsafe and unseen.
And on that point, the last word goes to Peter Gajdics, who observed when he left treatment: “I was back in the world but not of the world. That I could be out in public, shell-shocked, and not have anyone notice the hole that had been blasted through my gut proved to me I really was invisible.”
Peter McKnight’s column appears weekly in The Vancouver Sun. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.