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By Jennifer Hollinshead

Conversion Therapy in Canada - It’s Still Happening and What We Can Do About It

LGBTQIA2S+ rights are human rights, so we’re going to talk about one harmful aspect of the therapy world: conversion therapy.

Conversion Therapy in Canada - It’s Still Happening and What We Can Do About It
LGBTQIA2S+ rights are human rights, so we’re going to talk about one harmful aspect of the therapy world: conversion therapy.

In good news, Bill C-4 - banning conversion therapy in Canada - passed on Dec 1.

Despite this Bill being (rapidly!) passed - we must continue to fight for the rights of trans and gender diverse people. This bill was another step in the right direction, but, conversion therapy still happens in Canada. Mik and Jennifer from Peak are going to discuss! 

Conversion therapy (sometimes called reparative therapy) is a pseudoscientific process of attempting to change someone’s sexual orientation using psychological, physical or spiritual methods. Conversion therapy originated in main stream, “reputable” psychology, something that the field of psychology  doesn’t like to admit. Survivors of conversion therapy and the LGBTQIA2S+ community have been the biggest transformers and resisters of this harmful practice and we will continue to look to them for leadership.

In our society (and most around the world), binary gender roles and assumed heterosexuality are prescribed to people assigned male or female at birth, despite the fact that gender is individual and on a spectrum. Sexuality is also unique to each person, and attempting to change that (through bullying, harassment or “conversion therapy) is harmful and sometimes fatal.

If mental health professionals ignore how forces of colonization, patriarchy and capitalism impact our mental health and the mental health of our clients, we’re missing a huge contributor to human suffering. One of the goals of colonization was the division, erasure, and oppression of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities, and enforcement of binary gender presentations within heteronormativity and homophobia. 

As helpers and therapists, we need to follow the code of ethics we’ve agreed upon which has a main premise of do no harm. Countless studies over the years have shown the harms of conversion therapy to adults, youth, families and communities. The harms include, but are not limited to, suicide, self-harm, substance abuse, and mental health symptoms like depression or anxiety.
How can we move away from colonial, patriarchal ways of understanding gender and sexuality? Where to now? Let’s start with gender. 

Gender Affirming Care

The definition of gender affirming care (whether it be through counselling, surgery and/or medication) is designed to “reduce the discomfort and suffering that gender dysphoria can create.” Gender dysphoria refers to “discomfort or distress that is caused by a discrepancy between a person’s gender identity and that person’s sex assigned at birth (and the associated gender role and/or primary and secondary sex characteristics)” World Professional Association for Transgender Health SOC v7

The WPATH definition uses very medicalized language which is more appropriate for discussing medical gender affirming care. However, the focus on “alleviating” gender dysphoria as though it were a symptom of a disease can pathologies trans individuals without taking into account the cissexist context they exist in.
We think it’s more useful (and trauma informed) to focus less on dysphoria and distress, and more on:
  • Gender-affirming counselling as client centred – foregrounding self-determination & autonomy (bodily and otherwise)
  • Supporting the inherent joy & wellness that comes from experiencing congruence between your gender identity (internal) and gender expression (external) (including hormones & surgery).
  • Gender-affirming counsellors are actively interrogating transphobia and cissexism within themselves and help clients see how clients are internalizing transphobia and cissexism (ie. Questioning the gender binary as a static truth)
  • Gender affirming counselling as not only normalizing of gender diversity as just a part of human diversity, which has existed across cultures and throughout history, and which is a normal part of human diversity, but also celebrating the unique contributions that trans people have to society (for example, trans women of colour starting the Pride movement)

When supporting clients exploring their gender and sexuality, I think we’d be missing something if we didn’t include the importance of trauma-informed approaches in order to attend to both the trauma of ongoing microaggressions, and the Trauma of specific incidences (such as the trauma of being enrolled in these conversion therapy programs for example).

Gender affirming care has better outcomes for individuals, families and communities, including improved mental and physical health and improved social and occupational functioning. At Peak Resilience, we are motivated to provide gender affirming care and will continue to listen to our clients, communities and get clinical training in this area.