Council committee unanimously approves conversion therapy ban bylaw

Calgary is one step closer to a ban on conversion therapy.

Proposed bylaw, which saw 121 members of the public call in, will go before council for final approval

At Calgary's Pride parade in 2019 there were lots of banners calling for conversion therapy to be banned. (Michaela Neuman Photography)

Calgary is one step closer to a ban on conversion therapy. 

Over the course of two days, 121 members of the public called in to a Calgary council committee hearing on a proposal to ban conversion therapy, many of them sharing deeply personal viewpoints, both for and against the controversial practice.

In the end, the proposal was approved at the committee level on Thursday after the public hearing and the proposed bylaw will go before council for final approval later this month.

"To those who have suffered from the effects and continue to live with the trauma of conversion therapy, I am so very, very sorry," Coun. Evan Woolley said. "My heart broke again and again to listen to you share these stories that have destroyed the foundation of a life I have always taken for granted.

"We are fighting to build a better world. And love is love."

Conversion therapy aims through counselling or religious teaching to change an individual's sexual orientation to heterosexual or gender identity to cisgender, which means a person who identifies with the sex assigned to them at birth. The practice is discredited by most major expert bodies as psychologically damaging.

City council voted unanimously in February to draft a bylaw that would ban any business from offering conversion therapy or face fines of up to $10,000.

In his closing remarks, meeting chair Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra said the public hearing had been "a very tough couple of days."

"People who are bullied had to be re-traumatized," he said. "It woke me up to the fact that we better ban conversion therapy, because the amount of people who came out to defend those practices is reprehensible in this day and age."

In addition to the more than 100 callers, the proposed bylaw has also received more than 1,500 written submissions.

Stories shared

One caller, Brandon Beavan, said he became "an empty shell" when he underwent conversion therapy.

"[The therapist] suggested that I enjoyed being abused because of my sexual attractions … I was told that if I followed the homosexual lifestyle I would have a short lifespan ... I was told I would never know what being loved truly felt like," he told committee.

Beavan was a member of a dismantled working group that had been studying how to end conversion therapy in the province. The informal working group was set up by the former NDP government and cancelled by the governing UCP.

Beavan said the conversion therapy practitioner he went to is still operating in Calgary.

Some who testified against the proposed bylaw shared concerns that the bylaw could infringe on freedom of religion.

Anne Gillies, an Ontario resident who also called in to oppose Edmonton's ban on conversion therapy, spoke about how she believes conversion therapy is the reason her son, who lived what she described as a "gay lifestyle," is now married to a woman.

She's the author of a book which looks at "how a determined minority is using social engineering to reconstruct our social and moral worlds by redefining gender, sexuality and the family," according to its online summary.

"It's about freedom of choice," another caller, Colleen Shantz, said, who added she is opposed to the bylaw in its current form.

Moves to ban the therapy elsewhere

It's estimated as many as 47,000 LGBTQ2S+ Canadians have undergone a form of conversion therapy, according to a study from the Community Based Research Centre which was presented to committee.

It's opposed by the Canadian Psychological Association and the World Health Organization, which has stated conversion therapy poses a "severe threat to the health and human rights of the affected persons."

Five provinces and eight other Alberta municipalities have taken steps to ban the practice.

Kristopher Wells, a professor at MacEwan University in Edmonton and the Canada Research Chair for the public understanding of sexual and gender minority youth, says conversion therapy has been scientifically discredited and is considered a form of abuse tantamount to torture.

"It's rooted in the belief that sexual orientation or gender identity is quote-unquote a choice. You'll often hear unfounded theories that a person's sexual orientation or gender identity is the result of childhood abuse or trauma. Certainly there is no scientific research that bears any validity to those claims."

The proposed bylaw will now go before council for final approval later in May.

The bylaw would not ban practices or therapies relating to a person's gender transition or to a non-judgmental exploration and acceptance of their identity or development.

With files from Sarah Rieger