Nfld. & Labrador

The fallout and the future of gay conversion therapy in N.L.

When conversion therapy didn't work, Gemma Hickey, who didn't want to be gay, tried suicide.

Provincial and federal governments are working to restrict the practice

Gemma Hickey, an LGBTQ advocate, went through gay conversion therapy about 30 years ago in St. John's. (Katie Breen/CBC)

When conversion therapy didn't work, Gemma Hickey tried suicide. 

They didn't want to be gay.

Hickey, who uses uses "they" instead of a gender-specific pronoun like "she" or "he," went to counselling sessions, did the prescribed readings, prayed, but nothing stuck. 

It was the early 1990s. Hickey was in high school. Gay marriage wasn't legal. Homosexuality was frowned on by society and, especially, by the church.

After some time in the therapy, I attempted suicide.- Gemma Hickey

Back then, Hickey felt evil and diseased. And when therapy wasn't fixing their sexual orientation, they felt incurable. 

"For me, I felt that at my very core there was something fundamentally flawed," they said. "And this was reaffirmed by this therapist and the types of materials that she would introduce into our sessions."

'A premature sexuality'

Hickey's said the therapist claimed "homosexuality was a premature sexuality." That they were attracted to girls because they aspired to be like them. That they'd mature out of it and become heterosexual.

"I internalized a lot of my own homophobia … That made me think that everyone outside of me wouldn't understand what I was going through, so it was very isolating," Hickey said.

"After some time in the therapy, I attempted suicide."

The Canadian Psychological Association denounced conversion therapy in 2015.

Lisa Moores, the president of the Association of Psychology Newfoundland and Labrador, says there's nothing wrong with being gay and, therefore, nothing for conversion therapy to fix. (Katie Breen/CBC)

"It absolutely doesn't work," said Lisa Moores, president of the provincial association. 

Moores called it destructive to a person's psychological health and human rights, and said it can shake a person's sense of identity and contribute to anxiety and depression.

Despite that, conversion therapy is legal in Newfoundland and Labrador, but provincial Justice Minister Andrew Parsons says the government is making progress on changing that.

Making change

The issue spans multiple departments — Justice, Health, and Children, Seniors and Social Development — said Parsons, and each area is researching changes to legislation. He hopes the government can have some kind of solution in place by next spring.

But, he said, "it's not just something entirely within provincial jurisdiction."

Andrew Parsons, Newfoundland and Labrador's justice minister, is intent on banning gay conversion therapy provincewide and says the federal government should create a nationwide ban as well. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Last month, Parsons received a letter from the federal ministers of Health and Justice that said Ottawa is considering changes to the Criminal Code and urging him to "end the shameful practice of conversion therapy."

According to Parsons, the letter said kidnapping, forcible confinement, and assault may apply when a person is forcibly compelled to undergo conversion therapy, and fraud charges may also be relevant. 

The letter asks Newfoundland and Labrador to join Ontario, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Manitoba in restricting the practice on a provincial level. 

It's not clear how common conversion therapy is in the province. Hickey went through it in St. John's, but that was almost 30 years ago. 

Parsons said he's heard, anecdotally, that people are sent out of province for it. 

"I don't think it has any place anywhere," he said. 

"I think it's something that has to be recognized across the country, which is why I do think the federal government is taking the aggressive steps that they're taking."

We ban things that we accept are harmful to people.- Lisa Moores

"We echo their sentiment on this."

To Hickey, a ban would ensure people have the freedom to be who they are.

"We ban things that we accept are harmful to people," said Moores. 

Hickey is now thriving as an LGBTQ activist and just got married a couple of weeks ago. 

"I'm one of the lucky ones. And I haven't had an easy life. But, thankfully, I'm not another statistic, and I want to tell every youth out there that they don't have to be either," said Hickey. 

"If there's anything left of the therapy within me, it's to ensure that other young people don't feel the same way that I did at that time of my life."

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Katie Breen

Video producer

Katie Breen makes video content for CBC in St. John's. She's been working in news for 10 years. You can reach her at