Speaking on condition of anonymity, she says efforts to forcibly change her sexual orientation began about thirty years ago at the altar of an Evangelical Christian church in small-town Saskatchewan.
“My parents were born-again Christians at that time and I told them I was gay,” she said, telling Global News she was 19-years-old at the time.
“My dad said ‘get out of the house’, and my mom called the preacher, and my brother hit me. And then we went to church on the Sunday and I was brought up in front of the whole congregation and they started praying to get the demons out of me.”
Our contact said that experience kicked off decades of trauma that endure to this day.
“They were saying I was demon-possessed and going to hell. ‘Get this demon out of her, I command you in Jesus’ name to leave her. You have no right over her.’ Their hands are up and they’re speaking in tongues, you know. It was just wild.”
She was forced into meetings at the church during which she was shown pictures of men and told that they were what she should be attracted to. She said that the church pastor even recommended shock therapy to her parents, which was noted in a 2019 UCLA study as one of several methods involving physical pain practiced historically as part of conversion therapy.
Our contact says she quickly began to feel like an outcast from her family and her faith. She detailed one occurrence where her mother showed up at her and her first girlfriend’s apartment and started chastising her over the intercom. She says eventually her family began to accept her identity, but that in recent years they reversed course after again becoming born-again Christians.
“It made me feel ashamed for very many years so I got into drinking and doing drugs a lot. It’s just terrible. You don’t feel like a human you know.”
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She said that she followed pressure and tried dating men, and when she expressed that that wasn’t working, she was told she was going to go to hell.
She says she kept religion at arm’s length for years but did eventually return to a different Saskatchewan church. But when leaders of that congregation found out that she was gay, she says she was again brought to the altar and prayed over.
She says that happened less than a decade ago.
“I thought, ‘well maybe I shouldn’t be gay.’ You know, I thought maybe I could try dating men, but it didn’t work. I felt very suicidal, I tried to kill myself several times,” she said, adding that she knows at least one person who went through conversion therapy and did later take his own life.
She said it wasn’t until she found a church in Regina that was openly accepting of LGBTQ2S people that she felt comfortable with her identity while being part of a faith community.
“It was nice to be accepted and not be an outcast, but I still feel like an outcast now,” she said. “I don’t think it’s right for someone to try to change you. If God doesn’t want me to be this way then why was I born this way? It’s not like I woke up one day and said, ‘oh I think I want to be a lesbian.’”
Dr. Kris Wells is the Canada Research Chair for the Public Understanding of Sexual and Gender Minority Youth and has done extensive research into conversion therapy and its history.
“All the way back there were things like shock therapy, lobotomy and chemical castration. More modern practices include talk therapy, gender coaching, isolation, fasting, aversion therapy and even things like exorcism,” he said.
He said conversion therapy is still being practiced today, albeit more subtly.
“Conversion therapy is still happening in Canada. It’s largely happening underground in some faith and cultural communities,” he said.
“It often comes in more subtle ways, where people are forced to read biblical scripture. We’ve heard of cases in Canada where young people have been required to drink anointing oil and have undergone exorcisms to rid them of these ‘gay demons.’”
He said that while techniques like shock therapy are likely a thing of the past, the techniques still practiced today are still pseudoscientific and damaging.
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“What is common to all conversion therapy practices is an anti-LGBTQ2S mentality. They sometimes believe there has been some kind of childhood trauma or abuse that has somehow caused people to choose to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. And of course, these are long-outdated and disproven stereotypes,” he said.
“There’s no credible research evidence anywhere in the world that shows you can change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression without doing great harm to that individual.”
The UCLA study estimated in 2019 that in the United States, even with 18 states having some kind of law that prohibits conversion therapy, “6,000 LGBT youth will receive conversion therapy from a licensed professional before they reach the age of 18 in the 32 states that currently do not ban the practice.”
“In addition, an estimated 57,000 LGBT youth across all states will receive conversion therapy from religious or spiritual advisors,” the study said.
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights defines conversion therapy as “an umbrella term used to describe interventions of a wide-ranging nature, all of which have in common the belief that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity can and should be changed.”
The Canadian Psychological Association, in 2015, released a position statement on the practice, saying, “it can result in negative outcomes such as distress, anxiety, depression, negative self-image, a feeling of personal failure, difficulty sustaining relationships, and sexual dysfunction.”
“Scientific research does not support the efficacy of conversion or reparative therapy,” their statement continues.
“There is no evidence that the negative effects of conversion or reparative therapy counterbalance any distress caused by the social stigma and prejudice these individuals may experience.”
Michael White is a Regina-based psychologist who previously worked with conversion therapy survivors at Camp fYrefly, an annual summer camp for LGBTQ2S youth.
He said he’s seen those effects first hand in youth he’s recently encountered.
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“It’s a notoriously destructive practice. The most destructive effect is suicide. We know there are young people who have attempted and, unfortunately, completed suicide because they feel torn.”
He said the messages conveyed by conversion therapy can make youth feel unworthy, flawed and inherently disordered.
“These are some of the terms that religious organizations will use. And when you are 12 or 13, or even as adults, it just beats down your self-esteem to the point that you don’t know where to turn.”
He said youth are often brought up to believe churches are meant to be places of support.
“I’ve seen the destruction firsthand — youth who feel alienated from their families and from religious support. And that can actually be a very sustaining and helpful support for people who value that spiritual relationship in their life. They feel cut off.”
Eastside United Church Minister Russell Mitchell-Walker, meanwhile, told Global News that there’s a movement within the Christian church community to promote acceptance of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions.
“In the United Church we have been embracing the last few years ‘PIE’, which is being publicly, intentionally, and explicitly welcoming of LGBTQ,” he said.
“Most people outside of the church would assume the church is still homophobic and not welcoming. The more we can be open and progressive and welcoming, and supportive of other social justice issues, the more people will realize that the church is not what they think it is.”
Last year, the Living Skies Regional Council, which represents Saskatchewan’s United Church of Canada communities, passed a resolution to see the organization advocate for the banning of conversion therapy in the province.
In late February, Saskatoon became the first Saskatchewan municipality to ban conversion therapy by bylaw. Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary have already done the same.
After Saskatoon took action, Mayor Sandra Masters and several city councillors expressed support for doing the same in Regina.
The latest from the city of Regina is that a report on the subject is being drawn up, and should show up on a Community Wellness Committee (CWC) agenda in the coming months.
“We’re looking for the most appropriate venue and working to have it on the agenda at some point this spring,” said Ward 3 Councillor and CWC Chair Andrew Stevens in late February.
Meanwhile, at the federal level, Bill C-6 passed its second reading in October by a vote of 305-7.
The bill would largely criminalize conversion therapy, particularly its use on minors or any unwilling person.
Some faith groups, such as the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, have voiced concern about the government bill.
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“The EFC is seeking assurances that religious instruction, parental guidance and supportive services for individuals wishing to order their sexual lives in accordance with their religious conscience, faith identity and personal convictions will not be captured,” the organization wrote in October.
But in a Justice Committee meeting following second reading, Diversity, Inclusion and Youth Minister Bardish Chagger said the bill won’t criminalize “exploratory conversations with kids, students, mentees”.
“This bill targets forced and coordinated efforts to change someone into something or someone they are not,” Chagger said on December 1.
Other faith networks, such as the Anglican Church of Canada, have been outspoken in support of Bill C-6.
Meanwhile, the Regina woman who shared her story said she did so in hopes she can help finalize legislation, such as Bill C-6 or municipal bylaws.
“Just about every day, I have flashbacks from that. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it, you know. When I see a young person struggling with their sexuality. And their parents are saying it’s wrong and you can’t play with dolls if you’re a boy and that — I just think it’s wrong,” she said.
“There’s some churches that accept you for who you are. And I think we should still have faith. Don’t ban the Christian church or anything like that, but I think they need to be educated. I think they need to have somebody who has gone through this to speak to them, and to tell them the truth — to tell them that they’re wrong and God loves us all.”
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