Two conversion therapy survivors want protections for LGBTQ youth
Trying to 'cure' homosexuality leads to humiliation, fear and self-loathing
For Thomas Argue, growing up in Victoria County in the 1990s was idyllic in some ways, humiliating and painful in others.
Argue, who is gay, was raised in Plaster Rock, where his family belonged to the Family Worship Centre, a strict Pentecostal organization.
Argue thinks his mother was the first to suspect he was gay.
"I grew up as a Pentecostal. I didn't know I was gay. I didn't know that's what you called it."
Argue said he was playing dress-up, wearing some of his mother's clothes.
When his mother entered the room, he got a spanking. Later, he said, it became obvious he was more feminine than most boys. It led to teasing and humiliation by other kids and eventually attracted the attention of church leaders.
"I was taught that if you don't repent you're gonna turn out to be a fruit, and being a fruit was a horrible, horrible, horrible image in my mind," said Argue, who is now 31.
"The last thing I wanted to be in life was a fruit."
As he grew older, church leaders, who also ran the school he attended, tried to change him, he said.
He was kept behind after school for special lessons in how to act more masculine.
"I didn't walk with my back straight enough," Argue said.
"Then they teach me how to talk, 'Well, no, your voice isn't low enough, you're effeminate.'
"They would teach me how to hold my arms up in church, and if my hands were tilted forward too much, they would snap my hands back and say, 'Tom you're too limp-wristed.'"
Humiliation, fear and self-loathing became normal to Argue.
Looking back, he believes he was traumatized by adults who tried to "cure" him of homosexuality.
Now, as an adult, he thinks there needs to be a law to protect kids and teens from people like his family, his former pastor or anyone who thinks being gay is a defect that needs to be fixed.
Thomas Argue's childhood experience is not unique, said Charles MacDougall of New Brunswick River of Pride.
"Community members have shared their stories about lived experiences here," MacDougall said.
Attempts to "cure" gay people still happen in the province, even though so-called "conversion therapy" is discouraged by medical experts.
The Canadian Psychological Association says it can lead to "distress, anxiety, depression, negative self-image, a feeling of personal failure, difficulty sustaining relationships, and sexual dysfunction."
MacDougall said those who peddle the practice don't call it conversion therapy but that's what it is.
"They'll talk a lot more about how it's important to be closer to God, by looking at scriptures, ideas of sexuality and of gender," said MacDougall.
"They'll try and use a little bit more positive language like that, and they won't necessarily talk about changing or suppressing or deleting somebody's identity. But that's definitely the goal."
Jonathan Mohr, a spokesperson for United Pentecostal Church International, the world's largest Pentecostal denomination, said the church doesn't have a policy on conversion therapy but believes "God placed restrictions on human sexuality."
"Human sexuality was given by God both as a means of human reproduction and as a means to help bond a male and a female," Mohr said.
Last summer, a religious group called Journey Canada tried to host a six-day gathering at Villa Madonna, a Catholic retreat in Rothesay.
The group believes some sexualities, including homosexuality, violate God's laws, and its retreat was billed as being for the "sexually broken."
While organizers denied conversion therapy was on the agenda, it did say in a statement that a majority of participants would "experience a reduction in the strength or power of same-sex attraction/orientation and increased hope, strength, desire, and ability to live in accordance with their personal beliefs regarding sexual ethics."
When LGBTQ groups called out the event as conversion therapy, it was cancelled and has never been rescheduled in New Brunswick. But Journey Canada has been busy elsewhere. According to an annual report in 2017, the group received more than $666,000 in donations and "ministered to" 9,100 people in 42 Canadian cities.
MacDougall said the service is still widely sought out and provided, especially in strict, conservative Christian communities.
Mitchell Goodine of Fredericton knows what it's like. He underwent conversion therapy counselling as a teenager.
Goodine grew up in Tilley, not far from Thomas Argue's home in Plaster Rock. They're actually cousins, although they're more acquaintances than close relations.
Goodine is also gay and grew up in a religious family that belonged to the United Pentecostal Church.
He knew being gay was against church teaching, and he heard gay jokes and slurs at home and school routinely.
He hid his sexuality from his family until his father discovered pornography in his internet browser history.
"Once I figured out that Dad figured out that there was a browser history, and that I didn't clear it, that's when things really started."
His parents paid for therapy through a company called Christine Crain and Associates Christian Counselling Services.
During three sessions in the basement of the Woodstock Baptist Church, the 16-year-old Goodine explained he was attracted to men. The therapist told him he needed to pray for God's help to change.
"That was just a choice, that was something that I was choosing to do," Goodine said in recalling the therapist's conclusions.
"She didn't say I got what [was coming to me] but we definitely came back to heavy focus on ... talking about how I was not natural, that it was so sinful ... and how it was like a dog puking and then going back and eating [the] puke again and again."
The therapist told Goodine to mentally put his gay feelings in a box and ask God to help pray the box closed. And she offered tips to avoid future temptation.
"Don't put myself in flamboyant situations," he said.
"Don't watch movies that I know are going to elicit thoughts. Don't put myself in positions that I know are going to tempt me. … Live a straight life. Find an acceptable woman who's going to satisfy me, which I haven't found yet."
After the third session he refused to go.
He told his parents he was cured. He suspects they knew otherwise.
"That was when we started to distance as a unit, from myself anyways," said Goodine.
"I can't speak for everybody in the family, but personally that's when I felt that things started to get a little colder."
Thirteen years later, at 29, Goodine is still trying working to thaw some of those family relations.
Push to ban practice
A move to have conversion therapy banned has been growing in recent years and has had some success.
Ontario has outright banned the practice, Manitoba has banned health professionals from offering it, and Nova Scotia has made it illegal for health professionals to offer it to minors. The City of Vancouver has banned businesses from offering it.
Last month, after years of saying it was a provincial issue, the federal government signalled that it's considering Criminal Code changes to combat conversion therapy.
In New Brunswick, River of Pride has called on the provincial government to legislate a ban against the practice, but Charles MacDougall thinks the governing Progressive Conservatives are reluctant.
"There needs to be more convincing on that end. They were not convinced of our ask."
CBC News could not get an interview with anyone in the provincial government to say whether it supports a ban.
Thomas Argue supports one, believing the attempts to make him straight amounted to "psychological torture." Children need laws to protect them from that kind of behaviour, he said.
"This is humanity," said Argue, who now lives outside Fredericton. "We have got to learn how to respect one another's differences.
"It should be a crime to preach against being gay in a church. It should be a crime to teach against being gay in a school."
Argue's mother declined to be interviewed, although she said she doesn't remember catching him playing dress-up when he was four and denies she spanked him. The Family Worship Centre in Plaster Rock, where Argue said most of his conversion therapy happened, also would not be interviewed.
CBC was unable to contact the therapist who conducted Mitchell Goodine's conversion therapy. But Dr. Christine Crane, the owner of the counselling service that person worked for, said that she was unaware of the experience he described and that she would not have approved.
Mitchell Goodine supports a ban too. He describes the attempts to convert him as insidious.
"It opened up a can of emotions," he said. "The biggest one was fear. And embarrassment. Shame. I was ashamed that I was still having these issues. I still wanted to be straight. I really did."
He thinks a law banning conversion therapy would mean no young person would have to feel that way.
"It's at least going to give the power back to someone to say 'That's not OK, and I know it's not OK and this is why it's not OK. We have laws to say it's not.'"