“You know, nothing makes God happier than when two people, any two people, come together in love. Friends, family, we're gathered here today to join Carol and Susan in holy matrimony.”
Twenty-six years ago now, 14-year-old me watched Ross Geller walk his ex-wife down the aisle to be married to her lesbian partner. At the time, it was quite the thing, one of the first mainstream television portrayals of a non-straight wedding. This episode of Friends was censored in parts of the U.S. and was aired nearly 10 years before same-sex marriage was legalized in Canada.
For 40-year-old me to be standing here debating this bill, it makes me ask why, but it is necessary. I cannot believe that we need to debate the bill, yet here we are. Even though our society has made progress in removing barriers to equality of opportunity for the LGBTQ+ community, which I will refer to as “the community” throughout my speech, these Canadians still face significant discrimination and marginalization. The topic of the bill is one facet that reflects and contributes to this marginalization.
Today I want to describe what the bill would do, why it is important and why it should be supported, and clarify confusion on some issues that have arisen around its form and structure.
First, I want to discuss what so-called conversion therapy is. In the words of my dear friend and brother from a different mother, Brian Hearn, “it isn't therapy, It's abuse, it's torture.” Brian is right. It is abuse and it is a violation of basic human rights.
According to the Canadian Psychological Association, conversion therapy refers to “any formal therapeutic attempt to change the sexual orientation of bisexual, gay and lesbian individuals to heterosexual.” This definition has generally been updated to include methods that aim to change the gender identity or gender expression of an individual. This practice is rooted in the false and outdated assumption that homosexuality and other forms of gender and sexual diversity are mental disorders that can be “cured”. This is a position that medical practitioners around the world have rejected for some years.
Many leaders from conversion therapy organizations, sometimes called the ex-gay movement, have since denounced the practice as clearly harmful and many of their leaders have even come out as LGBTQ+ themselves.
There is no scientific evidence that these practices have medical merit. In fact, it is the opposite. The Canadian Psychiatric Association, for example, has called the practices “pseudoscientific.” While some people's understanding of their own sexual identity might change over time, there is no evidence that their sexual orientation, who they are sexually attracted to, changed.
The scientific and medical communities have confirmed what every member of the community already knows; that we are born loving who we are, loving who we love and that there is nothing to fix. That is where the bill comes in.
The bill would make illegal, via amendment to the Criminal Code, the following: forcing someone to undergo conversion therapy against his or her will; causing a child to undergo conversion therapy; doing anything to remove a child from Canada with the intent that the child would undergo conversion therapy outside of Canada; advertising an offer to provide conversion therapy; and receiving financial or other material benefit for from provision of conversion therapy.
Some may ask why the bill is necessary. First, there is overwhelming consensus by scientific and medical practitioners and organizations in Canada and around the world that conversion therapy is unequivocally harmful. From one Canadian survey of survivors of conversion therapy, 30% had attempted suicide following their intervention. All survivors who responded experienced harmful psychological effects, “ranging from mild distress to severe anxiety, self-hatred, and suicide attempts.”
The Canadian Psychological Association also notes distress, depression, a feeling of personal failure, difficulty sustaining relationships and sexual dysfunction as consequences of conversion therapy. Many survivors noted that recovering from this trauma was akin to recovering from any other trauma. It took years, to a whole lifetime, to deal with the pain and suffering caused by so-called conversion therapy.
Some so-called conversion therapy advocates, especially those in the United States, have claimed that conversion therapy might have positive effects for a small minority of participants. This is also categorically false.
In 2009, the American Psychological Association said of such so-called research, “nonexperimental studies often find positive effects that do not hold up under the rigor of experimentation.” It is important to note this, because these false beliefs are often held up as a reason for why the bill is not necessary.
For those who think it does not happen in Canada, think again.
Estimates range between 20,000 and 47,000 Canadians having been exposed to this vile practice. With a 30% suicide rate, think of how many Canadians have attempted to take their life because of this torture. On top of this, the systemic marginalization LGBTQ2 Canadians already face in general makes it even worse. They are more likely to experience poverty, homelessness and physical violence.
With respect to mental health, the stigma and discrimination against the community's youth produces what many researchers call minority stress, which leaves LGBTQ2 people at a higher risk of health issues.
For example, youth from the community face 14 times the risk of suicide and substance abuse than their heterosexual and cisgender peers. They also face double the risk of PTSD than their heterosexual or cisgender counterparts. A 2013 study of trans people in Ontario 15 and older found that 77% had seriously considered suicide before and 43% had attempted suicide. Among the most vulnerable to suicide were trans youth, aged 16 to 24. Importantly, the study found that suicide risk for trans individuals decreased with social, societal and parental support.
We must also discuss the economic marginalization of members of the community. Among 40,000 young Canadians who are homeless each year, studies estimate between 25% and 40% are LGBTQ2. That is between 10,000 and 16,000 homeless people in Canada. One Ontario study also found that half of all trans Ontarians lived on less than $15,000 a year.
Then there are the overt acts of violence and discrimination against the community. Between 2014 and 2018, hundreds of hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation were reported to police, constituting 10% of all hate crimes during this period. We do not even know about hate crimes on the basis of gender identity and expression during this period because there was no category for it. As such, we do not even have statistics to describe the extent of violence against trans Canadians, which we know is large, given anecdotal reports. However, other reports paint a troubling picture. A 2011 Egale Canada reported that 74% of trans students faced verbal harassment and 37% experienced physical harassment.
The Canadian Mental Health Association has shown that positive mental health and well-being for members of the community more broadly is associated with family and friend support, supportive work environments, low levels of internalized homophobia and positive responses to coming out, which is why the bill is important.
To put this more bluntly, rejection from parents, family members, religious communities, workplaces and more that members of the community face present a clear and direct threat to their equality and dignity. People end up on the street if their families reject them for being gay or trans. They end up selling their bodies if they are on the streets with no option. They end up facing violence if people hate who they are. All this is to say that banning conversion therapy will not suddenly end homophobia and transphobia in Canada, but it can make things better and it can stop stigma. This bill is a very good step in the right direction.
Now I will clarify some confusion on certain issues with regard to the bill.
Some have expressed concerns that the bill could prevent a trans person from “detransitioning”.
First, this is a phenomenon that rarely happens. A U.S.-based survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that only 0.4% of respondents detransitioned after realizing transitioning was not what they wanted. The rest who reported detransitioning, 7.6% of the 28,000 people surveyed, reported the reason for that as another reason, most often because of pressure from parents.
Second, this argument is predicated on the belief that it is easy to transition. This is patently false and painfully laughable for the many trans Canadians who are in the midst of transition today.
Wait times for gender-affirming interventions are long processes with many required medical steps and interventions. It takes time for assessments, time for referrals and time on the waiting list. The idea that trans persons are able to medically transition without any time to reflect and, as a result, they might be coerced into it is patently bunk, as is the assumption that medical transition can happen without medical supervision.
I also want to be clear that not every trans person wishes to undergo a medical transition. However, for those who do, medical transition can involve multiple courses of actions that are discussed and guided by medical professionals. These include hormone therapy, genital or chest surgeries or other gender confirming surgeries.
If we take the case of genital surgery in Ontario, a person needs two assessments recommending surgery from a doctor, nurse, nurse practitioner, social worker or psychologist and both of these assessments must confirm persistent gender dysphoria, not transitional gender dysphoria. Therefore, it must be clear that this has been happening over a period of time and the person must have taken 12 months of hormone therapy already. This just does not happen overnight or on a lark.
My friend Hannah Hodson, here in Ontario, wanted me to share her experience. She first started speaking to a therapist, then met with many doctors and it took her over a year to first get her first hormone prescription. At the time, she was a 32-year-old adult living in the easiest province in Canada to do it, because Ontario operates on informed consent for adults. That is not the case in many other parts of our country.
The assertion that it is easy for a child to transition in Canada or that medical transition happens without rigorous oversight is also bunk. For children in Canada, they and their parents would first have to start by speaking to a medical professional and likely a gender therapist. For children transitioning, changes are usually 100% social; that is, how they act, how they dress. It is only under the strict oversight of medical professionals that someone could access even reversible interventions like puberty blockers. In terms of gender-affirming surgeries, by way of medical practice standards in Canada, they do not really happen before age 18 anyway.
These assumptions are also rooted in the basis of an overly simplified and scientifically rejected perception of gender as solely relating to sex or genitals. The concept of gender identity is about relating to the world, not just genitalia. Many trans people choose to live without those surgeries and it does not make them any less than who they are. However, for many people, that gender-affirming care is what they need to live as a fully functioning member of society.
Back to my friend Hannah, she said, “I always joke that there is no way I would willingly do this if it wasn’t who I am. I was living as a straight presenting white man, I had won the jackpot.” The decision to transition is not made on a lark because an out trans person still faces enormous challenges even in Canada. Trans people face incredible rates of abuse and harassment. According to a 2011 Egale survey, 74% of trans students report verbal harassment and 37% report physical harassment.
Hannah can maybe now go to 35 countries safely, maybe. In Ontario, even today, people send her threats or call her a freak when she is walking down the street, and she lives in one of the most accepting cities in Canada. If anyone ever does this to Hannah, she should tell them to come talk to me.
Another recent study showed that 45% of trans people in a survey sampled have committed suicide. However, there is hope. With strong family support, that rate drops by 93%. Therefore, to fully refute the notion that somehow the bill hurts trans persons in any way, it is the opposite. It will reduce the stigma they face and stop a form of violence against them.
It has also been suggested that the bill may criminalize private conversations, particularly between a parent and a child or a religious leader and a parishioner. I believe this to be false after reading the bill.
First, uncoerced conversations, including those with minors, are already protected by freedom of expression under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The bill would further protect this right by defining conversion therapy directly in the bill as “a practice, treatment or service designed to change a person’s sexual orientation to heterosexual or gender identity to cisgender, or to repress or reduce non-heterosexual attraction or sexual behaviour.”
Upon reading the bill, I believe that the phrasing “designed to” makes it crystal clear that the bill does not criminalize formal conversations between faith leaders or family members. If there are concerns regarding freedom of expression, people should rejoice. The bill would protect the values of freedom of expression, the right to expression of self and truth as it pertains to sexual orientation and gender identity, which are necessary given all the evidence of discrimination against the community that I have already presented.
It also has been suggested that the bill has the potential to criminalize prayer or religious belief. I also believe this to be a false assertion. Freedom of religious expression is an underpinning of Canada’s pluralism, which I strongly support. There is, however, a clear difference between a religious belief and a sustained effort made by somebody in a coercive setting to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. In the same way, there is a difference between a general prayer and this practice as well. I believe the bill already clearly outlines these differences, for the following reason.
Most members seem to agree that banning conversion therapy is a pressing and substantive objective. Protecting the health and well-being of LGBTQ2 Canadians from clear harm is of urgent concern. As such, this bill is proportional to any potential burdens on, for example, religious freedom claims.
This bill proposes limits that are rationally connected to the goal of protecting LGBTQ2 Canadians, but it does not arbitrarily infringe on religious freedom. It does not, for example, infringe on holding anti-LGBTQ2 beliefs, which I, for the record, do not have, and I do not believe anyone should have. It only prevents them from acting on them. In my view, the spirit and value of religious freedoms is to protect individuals so they may practise their faith. Many existing provisions in our Criminal Code, however, already limit what actions might be taken in the name of that. Religious freedom does not extend to harming others.
To be clear, this does not mean that Bill C-6 somehow infringes on parents' rights to talk to their children about sex and sexuality. It does not infringe on parents' rights to hold the belief that homosexuality is wrong, which is, again, a belief I fully reject. It does not infringe on those parents' rights to express that belief either. It does, as has been stated over and over, prevent any practice, treatment, or service, designed to change someone’s sexuality or gender identity. Bill C-6 draws the line at turning that belief into a practice designed to change fundamentally who someone is, and in so doing, prevents harm to their person.
Banning conversion therapy mitigates one fraction of the violence and marginalization directed at the community, but it does not stop hate crimes, bullying and harassment. Also, it does not fix all of the other issues that I outlined before.
For those who are worried that this could somehow be a slippery slope, I would also point members to the fact that many other jurisdictions and municipalities have also, within the tools available to them within their jurisdictional responsibilities, implemented similar measures. Churches are still operating, as are mosques and gurdwaras. Society is going on, but I feel those types of regulations have sent a message to the LGBTQ2 community that society is working on some of the systemic discriminations I outlined already.
I have spent a lot of time discussing my view as a legislator today, but I would like to take a minute and explain my view on this as a human being, so I will go back to my smart and effervescent friend Hannah. She wanted me to tell the House this on her behalf: “LGBTQ people are who they are. You can’t turn or fix us. There is nothing to fix. But you can choose to love and support us instead.”
That is really what I hope we can do as a country. No amount of legislation can change hearts and minds. Only an individual commitment to compassion, understanding and kindness will do that.
I remember standing on a windy patio in Banff in July 2019. In Alberta, members of Parliament can legally perform wedding ceremonies, and on that day I had the privilege of uniting two beautiful humans in marriage. They were surrounded by loving and excited friends and family members, and there was not a dry eye in the place, including mine, because their love for each other was so infectious we could not help but revel in it. For Spencer and Jeff Seabrook, that day was not about their sexual orientation. It was about a joyous celebration of their love for one another.
That is how I think it should be. In the same way, I have five people who I consider to be my family. The love they give me everyday, and I mean everyday, is not about the fact they are gay. It is about the fact they are amazing human beings who I deeply love in return. I do not want to fix them because they are already perfect.
Most days, it is more about them trying to improve me. They stood with me in my wedding party when I got married. They even bristled when former Prime Minister Harper tried to give them pointers on how to walk down the wedding runway, although Matt and I must admit he had a point. When two of those amazing people told me they were engaged, we celebrated with joy. I say to Dustin Franks, Miguel Arturo Possamai, Craig Sklenar, Craig Volkerink, Brian Hearn, Matt MacDonald and Garrett Ayers that this one is for them.
This morning Matt texted me and said, “Back when we were born, LGBTQ people were facing accusations that they were converting straight people gay. How ironic is it that 40 years later, you’re giving a speech in the House of Commons to prevent people from violating human rights and forcibly attempt to convert gays the other way. Get it together, people!” He has got a point.