The controversial practice of conversion therapy for minors, which aims to change sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual, could be banned if the B.C. Green Party gains support for a bill introduced in the legislature on Monday.
The legislation would send a message that conversion therapy is homophobic and transphobic and has no place in B.C. society, said Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver.
“While many of us aren’t aware that the issue of conversion therapy is going on, it very much is going on in British Columbia as we speak,” Weaver said. “This is an issue whereby a very clear signal from government will ensure that this practice no longer occurs in British Columbia.”
The bill would not prohibit conversion therapy for adults, Weaver said, because adults have freedom of choice. However, medical professionals would be prevented from billing the Medical Services Plan for counselling related to changing a person’s sexual or gender identity.
Peter Gajdics, a Vancouver-based writer, said he underwent six years of harmful conversion therapy by a Victoria psychiatrist starting in 1989, the year after he was rejected by his parents for coming out as gay. Then 24 and living in Victoria, Gajdics said he was given excessive doses of medication and made to engage in primal scream therapy and aversion therapy, in which he was exposed to stimuli while experiencing physical discomfort.
Two years after the therapy was complete, Gajdics filed a complaint with the College of Physicians and Surgeons, but the psychiatrist was not disciplined.
Gajdics said it’s difficult to gauge to what extent conversion therapy is happening in B.C., because religious groups or psychiatrists will use a different name, or bill for other medical issues, such as depression. “This is a practice that’s happening behind closed doors.”
The Ministry of Health said in a statement that the “abusive practice” of conversion therapy has never been covered under the Medical Services Plan. If a health professional tried to use a different billing code, that would be considered fraudulent and the practitioner could face discipline.
The College of Physicians and Surgeons said in a statement that it has not received any recent complaints about medical professionals practising gay-conversion therapy.
The Canadian Medical Association’s code of ethics and professionalism prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the college said in a statement. The college agrees with the position of the American Psychiatric Association that attempting to change sexual orientation is unethical, unscientific and potentially harmful.
NDP MLA Spencer Chandra-Herbert supported the bill, saying it would enshrine into law B.C.’s current stance on the issue. He said diversity in gender and sexual orientation is “something we celebrate — it’s not something we eradicate or eliminate.”
Aaron Devor, University of Victoria’s chair in transgender studies, said gay conversion therapy has been used by conservative religious groups for decades and more recently, it’s been used against people who are transgender or gender non-conforming.
Devor applauds the bill, saying it attempts to “protect children from intervention at an age where they can’t speak for themselves. It broadcasts a message that says we as a society do not approve of this behaviour.”
Weaver said he hopes to gain cross-party support for the bill.
If the bill passes, B.C. would follow Ontario, Nova Scotia and Manitoba in restricting conversion therapy. In Alberta, the previous NDP government was exploring legislation to ban gay-conversion therapy, but Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party government has ended that effort. Weaver called Kenney’s actions “regressive” and “the wrong direction for Canadian society.”