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An gay pride flag waiving high in the air in Ontario, Canada. Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images

How a survivor of ‘conversion therapy’ became the driving force behind Canada’s first ever ban

Peter Gajdics’ psychiatrist relied on a number of strategies to “cure” his patients of same-sex attraction. He prescribed Gajdics a cocktail of psychiatric drugs at dangerously high doses and directed him to bottle up his feces to sniff whenever he felt attracted to a man. The doctor believed that it was events from Gajdics’ childhood that explained his “homosexual tendencies.”

After hearing personal testimonies from Gajdics and other survivors, the Vancouver City Council passed a motion Wednesday to ban “conversion therapy,” the widely discredited practice intended to “cure” an LGBTQ individual’s sexual orientation through a range of methods, including religious rituals, behavioural modification, lobotomy and electroshock therapy. The unanimous City Council vote made Vancouver the first city in Canada to approve such a ban.

Gajdics, now 53, was the driving force behind the new legislation.

In January 2017, Gajdics wrote an email to Vancouver’s City Council making his case for a ban against conversion therapy by introducing his new book, “The Inheritance of Shame,” offering to share his story with officials who would hear it.

“Conversion therapy is not therapy, it’s just torture, abuse, and people still need to be educated,” Gajdics said.

What does the new law say?

The motion, as brought to the city council by an advisory committee that advocates for LGBTQ-rights issues, originally proposed that business licenses be withheld from any practitioners and groups engaging in therapy to transform a minor’s “sexuality or gender identity into alignment with the heterosexual and cisgender majority.” Before Wednesday’s vote, Vancouver bylaws gave lawmakers power to deny a business license only after a council-wide vote.

Still, the final motion can’t prohibit non-licensed groups from offering conversion therapy. While businesses in Vancouver are regulated by city council bylaws, the amendment will not impact a pastor or individual church-based counseling, which don’t require business licensing.

It’s also common for conversion therapy to be referred to using different names to avoid outside scrutiny. Journey Canada, which offers the practice to adults and is headquartered in Vancouver, claims that by the end of their “Christian discipleship” program “sexual or relational issues may remain, in one sense, ‘unchanged,’ but will have moved from being a dominant feature of their lives.”

What led to the conversion therapy ban in Canada?

Ontario passed a legal statute to protect minors from being subject to conversion therapy in 2015, prohibiting practitioners from using public health insurance to cover the medical cost. That same year, the province of Manitoba adopted a regulation issued by its ministry of health, stating “it is the position of the Manitoba government that conversion therapy can have no place in the province’s public health-care system.”

Conversion therapy is often not advertised by businesses performing such procedures, making it difficult to flag illegal operations without infringing on privacy.

“I don’t think people here realize that these things occur,” Gajdics said. “There’s been a lot of disappointment around these issues in Canada. In the United States, generally, there’s more focus on speaking out.”

Conversion therapy happens in the U.S. too. But some states have already banned the practice.

While Vancouver is the first city in Canada to deny a business license to an organization or entity advertising conversion therapy, and for any age, 12 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have laws banning mental health practitioners from attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of children under 18.

Legislative intervention as it relates to conversion therapy has increased in the last year. According to a USA Today analysis, in 2018, nearly 50 bills were introduced in 24 states that targeted conversion therapy. And all states on the West Coast have a ban on licensed therapists practicing conversion therapy on minors.

In a 2013 signing for a ban on conversion therapy in New Jersey, then Gov. Chris Christie noted that exposing children “without clear evidence of the benefits that outweigh these serious risks is not appropriate.”

California was also the first state to outright ban conversion therapy for its minors in 2012. Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell), who is openly gay, hopes to expand that ban to include all adults. Low’s voice cracked speaking on the Assembly floor, advocating for his bill.

“There’s nothing wrong with me,” Low said to his colleagues.

The story of Leelah Alcorn shed light on conversion therapy

A notable push for legislation against conversion therapy started three years ago, after the death of trans teen Leelah Alcorn.

Ohio teenager Leelah Alcorn posted this photo to Tumblr along with a suicide note in 2015.

Ohio teenager Leelah Alcorn posted this photo to Tumblr along with a suicide note in 2015.

The Cincinnati teen stepped in front of a truck after being forced into conversion therapy by her parents desperate to change her gender identity. In April 2015, after her suicide, President Barack Obama gave his support for statewide bans of conversion therapy.

Cheri DiNovo, a Canadian lawmaker who introduced a conversion therapy ban that same year in Canada, cited the 17-year-old’s suicide note on her blog. DiNovo dedicated the proposal to Alcorn, adding that the teen’s final words were, “Fix society. Please.”

Professional mental health organizations, including the American Association For Marriage Therapy, American School Health Association, American Psychiatric Association, Mental Health America and the National Association of Social Workers have all supported anti-conversion regulations in the U.S. Danielle Smith, executive director of the Ohio chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, testified to the Columbus City Council in support of a ban protecting minors in February 2017. After reading Alcorn’s note online, Smith found dozens of licensed practitioners across Ohio performing conversion therapy.

“Any licensed professional that is performing conversion therapy knows they are in violation of their license and professional code of ethics,” Smith said. “The entire purpose of a license is to protect the public from harmful practice, and certainly conversion therapy falls within that definition.”

In 1997, the American Psychiatric Association took the position that “there is no published scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of ‘reparative therapy’ as a treatment to change one’s sexual orientation.”

In the U.S., an estimated 20,000 youth will undergo conversion therapy from a licensed health care professional before the age of 18, according to a new Williams Institute study at UCLA School of Law. What’s more, 68 percent of the LGBT population live in a state with no law banning the therapy for minors.

“Personally, I’d like to see a #MeToo moment for LGBT people who’ve endured some form of conversion therapy,” Gajdics said. “We deserve to be heard globally.”

What’s next?

The Vancouver bylaw will go into effect “relatively soon,” Councillor Tim Stevenson said.

“I hope that this will shine a light in those dark places, those places where this continues within some religious organizations. One has to know this has been going on a long time,” Stevenson said.

But the fight is far from over, Gajdics said.

“It still happens, obviously. some do still think you can cure people,” he said. “I’m lucky to be alive.”