Sask. advocates blast 'pray the gay away' methods aimed at 'converting' LGBT people

Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia have banned so-called conversion therapies, which are defined as practices that attempt to change someone's sexual orientation from lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or trans to heterosexual. Advocates in Saskatchewan are calling on the province to ban such methods.

Calls on provincial government to ban 'conversion therapy'

The Saskatchewan Government says it's against any practice that attempts to change someone's sexual orientation from lesbian, gay, bi, or trans to straight, but has not made any decision when it comes to introducing legislation. (Vadim Ghirda/The Associated Press)

Advocates in Saskatchewan are calling on the province to ban therapies meant to make people reject LGBT identities.

Conversion or reparative therapies are defined as any practice, from counselling to prayer, that tries to change someone's sexual orientation to heterosexual. These methods are discredited and opposed by the Canadian Psychological Association as lacking scientific proof and resulting in low self-esteem, anxiety and depression. 

Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia already have laws banning such therapies and an Alberta MLA recently announced they were writing a private members bill to do the same in that province.

Sask. government undecided on a ban

A spokesperson said the Saskatchewan government does not pay for any such 'therapies' and is against them, but has not decided on whether to put that into legislation.

Saskatchewan's College of Physicians and Surgeons has not received any complaints about doctors taking part in such practices.

Laura Budd, a trans-rights advocate who works for Moose Jaw Pride, said you likely won't find conversion therapies advertised — as those who do it fly under the radar — but noted that they still take place and have happened here in Saskatchewan.

Budd estimated between 20 to 30 people have come forward in the last three years with experiences of what she calls "conversion-type therapies."

She said people report their families or faith community encouraging them to seek help or pray for their sexual orientation because it is not acceptable to their tradition.

Laura Budd says somewhere between 20 to 30 people have come forward with experiences of undergoing conversion therapy or a similar kind of practice or pressure. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC)

'It was happening here'

"It was happening here, either in their own homes, within their faith community or sent away to a camp that was, where they were encouraged to join specific groups to help them not be the way they are."

Budd said telling people to change their gender or sexual identity can have a profound negative impact on their psyche.

Jonathan Brower grew up in an evangelical church and lives in Ontario. He says he spent 14 years trying to not be gay and participated three times in programs run by an organization where he says he underwent conversion therapy.

He now speaks out against such practices. He said there are still evangelical Christian ministries that use language bathed in love and healing while trying to suppress people's sexual orientation.

Both Brower and Budd consider the activities of one Saskatchewan ministry to fall under this category, although its founder says that is not the case.

Wilna van Beek is the founder of a ministry in Saskatchewan that offers support to LGBT people and their families. She says she's against practices that force people to change their sexual orientation, but some still have concerns about her work. (Heather Fritz Photography/Facebook)

Wilna van Beek, founder of the God Gazers Bridge Builder Ministry in Saskatchewan, said she used to live as "a homosexual." She now lives a celibate life.

She said she underwent conversion therapy at a hospital in South Africa in 1980s at the request of her mother. 

Not focusing on trying to 'fix' anyone, leader says

"It was the most challenging and most devastating experience that I've ever had in my life."

She said the conversion therapy did not work on her and she disavows the practice.

Her ministry runs support groups around the province for people who identify as LGBT and their families. She is admanant her goal is not to fix or change anybody.

The ministry does not promote "pray the gay away" because, as van Beek believes, "... some of us will journey with the same-sex attraction until the day that we die."

Instead, the message of her ministry is to encourage people to focus on Jesus through prayer and scripture readings, instead of their sexuality, according to her website.

"What we teach people is the word of God and that when you choose to practise a homosexual lifestyle, that is not Biblical," she said.

"But if they choose to live it that's their choice and we will still love them and we will still accept them and we will still want to journey with them."

She encourages people who are LGBT to follow the same path of celibacy she does.

"I made a choice to walk away from this lifestyle and follow Jesus wholeheartedly. That is what I believe and I know many people do not agree with this, but that is what I believe."

'Soft-selling conversion therapy'

Budd said approaches like this are "soft-selling conversion therapy."

"It's not a switch within a person.It's not something that you can pray away or try to not feel it."

Charles McVety, evangelical Christian and president of the Canadian Christian College, previously told CBC it is wrong to say children cannot be counselled about their non-heterosexual sexual identity and orientation. 

Ministries that encourage LGBT people to remain celibate or single still come from a place that sees homosexuality as wrong and a sin, according to Russell Mitchell-Walker, minister of Regina's Eastside United Church.

Mitchell-Walker is openly gay. His congregation formally welcomes people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.

He said he knew one teen who identified as queer and later turned away from their sexuality under pressure from a church.

"I think what's happened for that person is that they're just burying it and ignoring it and it's not going to go away."

Mormon church says it does not promote 'conversion' therapy

A spokesperson for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint says the church does not advocate for "conversion therapy," but promotes tolerance of people who are LGBT. 

Dr. Sara Dungavell is the province's only recognized doctor who can provide referrals for out-of-province gender reassignment surgery. The referral is necessary for the patient to receive provincial funding. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Psychiatrist Dr. Sara Dungavell sees her job as making people the best version of themselves.

"What I've seen with people who aren't necessarily comfortable living as their true selves is that it's not necessarily a choice they've made on their own, it's a choice that their community pushed them into, they're afraid their going to lose too much if they live as their authentic self," she said.

"It can be quite terrifying for someone to be told that if they're true to themselves they'll be rejected by God."

She said if someone came to her struggling to reconcile their sexual orientation and their faith and were going to choose to be celibate, she would help them explore the pros and cons of their view.

She said she would ultimately support whatever decision they made.

Petition and potential ban would send a message

Saskatoon MP Sheri Benson, who is a lesbian, is sponsoring a petition on behalf of activists in Alberta for Ottawa to ban "conversion therapies" for minors across Canada. 

It has garnered more than 10,000 signatures, with more than 250 coming from Saskatchewan.

Benson said the petition is a way to raise awareness about the issue on a national stage, which could result in people reaching out for support.

Budd agreed and said a provincial law would shed a light on activities that are still occurring under the radar and send the message it is not OK, similar to the societal shift happening on sexual assault.

"When you have those hard descriptors you can actually look at that and go, 'Oh that happened to me. I don't want it to happen to someone else and people come forward,' "

-With files from the CBC's Kathleen Harris

About the Author

Stephanie Taylor

Reporter, CBC Saskatchewan

Stephanie Taylor is a reporter based in Saskatchewan. Before joining CBC News in Regina, she covered municipal politics in her hometown of Winnipeg and in Halifax. Reach her at stephanie.taylor@cbc.ca