Can you “consent” to conversion therapy? Question looms over potential ban

In the second committee hearing of Bill C-6 – legislation to ban the practice known as conversion therapy across Canada – MPs and witnesses debated specific language in the potential law.

For instance, “consent” was a major sticking point. As written, the bill would criminalize efforts to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity for anyone under the age of 18, but only for adults who are being coerced or forced in some way. Erika Muse, a conversion therapy survivor turned advocate, spoke at the December 3 hearing against the idea that anyone could possibly consent to what amounts to abuse.

“You think you might be able to consent, but you don’t know what you’re getting into,” she told a committee of Liberal, Conservative, NDP and Bloc Québécois MPs. “People are being sold a lie that this is going to change their identity, and that’s been proven not possible.”

Some witnesses at the hearing did claim that therapy or counselling was needed to help them address an aspect of their same-sex behaviour – such as stopping it, in the case of faith-based abstinence, or controlling it, relating to sexual addiction or compulsivity. Consent, they argue, is present in both cases.

But Dr. Travis Salway, a social epidemiologist from Simon Fraser University and leading Canadian researcher on conversion therapy, warned that focusing too heavily on “change” allows the harmful practice to continue under a different mandate.

“Often the goal of these programs is not conversion, but to reject LGBTQ2 lives as incompatible with health and happiness,” he said, citing research he and others have done with conversion therapy survivors – half of whom would not have been protected by the legislation as it is currently written.

Instead, Dr. Salway argued that any programs propagating the notion that you can’t be queer or trans and happy should be addressed by the ban – regardless of participants’ desire to receive that message, or an explicit reference to “converting.” Within this framework someone could, in the examples listed above, find counselling to change or reduce their sexual behaviour – but not through a process that devalues LGBTQ2+ identities, which underpins conversion therapy.

Another witness, André Schutten of the Christian advocacy group, the Association for Reformed Political Action, attempted to make the case that bill C-6 would also prevent faith leaders from having conversations on these topics – which is in violation of Canadians’ rights and freedoms.

But Adrienne Smith, a Vancouver social justice lawyer, pointed out that Canada currently criminalizes many kinds of conversations – like threats or hate speech – as well as behaviours, like assault. They added that the complicated nature of consent as it relates to family, community and faith further distorts the idea that adults can consent to conversion therapy, joining Muse and Dr. Salway in calls for the legislation to focus on the harm done – regardless of age.

Other topics to emerge at the December 3 hearing: the need for accompanying provincial and municipal legislation, supports for conversion therapy survivors, and a consideration of Indigenous perspectives in enforcing the bill – since many homophobic and transphobic belief systems were forced onto Indigenous youth through colonialization and residential schools. Any unlearning within these communities must be led by Two-Spirit Indigenous people.

For continued coverage of Bill C-6 committee hearings, follow CBRC and subscribe to our mailing list. To submit a statement to the committee about this legislation, do so before Sunday, December 6 here.

The next hearing is taking place on Tuesday, December 8 at 11 AM (ET).

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Written by By Kevin Hurren, CBRC Contributor

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About CBRC

Community-Based Research Centre (CBRC) promotes the health of gay, bi, trans, Two-Spirit, and queer men (GBT2Q) through research and intervention development.
Can you “consent” to conversion therapy? Question looms over potential ban
Can you “consent” to conversion therapy? Question looms over potential ban
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