Conversion therapy leads to lifelong trauma

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Person standing on a sidewalk next to a large rainbow flag. Wikipedia Commons

Canada banned practice in 2020

“I had always found myself in an awkward position,” said Lia, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, referring to her family life, “It felt like there were two parts of me scratching against each other at all times. Part of me loved my family and my faith, but there was also the part that recognized [their] hypocrisy […] Why couldn’t my parents, my pastor, or ‘God’ just love and accept all of me?” Lia, a 28-year-old programmer originally from Pennsylvania, was born into a strict Pentecostal household. While describing her parents as, “essentially good people,” she noted from a young age their underlying contradictions. “We’d donate to charities, volunteer in the community, and help struggling families a lot,” she said. “[B]ut at the same time there was always this tension underlying friction with it all […] [an] unspoken act of judgment being passed on those [who my family and community] felt [were] unworthy.”

It may be hard to imagine given the current landscape of gender politics and general public acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, but just 13 years ago conversion therapy was an unquestioned and accepted part of reality for many young and religious people in Canada and the United States. In this context, to be attracted to the opposite sex or identify as anything besides your assigned gender was, and still is, treated as a mental illness and result of grievous personal sins or wrongdoings. According to The Trevor Project, an organization dedicated to LGBTQ+ rights and suicide prevention, and lgbtmap.org, while most economically developed countries, including Canada, have since passed legislation banning or restricting the practice, 30 U.S. states, China, and parts of Europe have no regulations against conversion therapy. In Canada, the federal government introduced legislation to ban conversion therapy for minors in October 2020. And while a majority (305) voted in favour, Saskatchewan MP Jeremy Patzer was one of seven MPs who voted against. The legislation bans conversion therapy for minors and for people who might be forced against their will, so groups can still attempt the harmful psychological practice on consenting adults.

Halfway through our interview, Lia recalled her first attraction to girls, “It just felt normal to me. Honestly, I didn’t think much about it until a few years later. It just was.” At fifteen, Lia came out to her parents, who, after consulting with their pastor, sent her to a conversion therapy camp in Indiana. “It was bizarre,” she said when describing the camp counsellors, “Some you could tell were just straight-up homophobes or bigots, but there were a few who felt genuinely supportive. They really cared about your well-being, your thoughts and feelings on this or that […] they just happened to live in some fantasy world where being gay was tantamount to murder.”

Her descriptions of the camp ranged from humorously ironic anecdotes to moments of overbearing and frigidly cold abuse, “[I] was made to feel like some unholy contradiction [by the counsellors], which in hindsight was a complete inverse of reality.” Mental abuse tactics, such as isolation, verbal gaslighting, and passive ridicule, were daily routine. To Lia, however, the abuse went further. “[The abuse] was spiritual, too,” she said, rubbing her wooden cross necklace, “…[it] killed my faith, it warped my spirituality to something vile and twisted, and made me hate myself for ever believing. How could something proclaiming loving acceptance bring [someone like] me so much pain?”

Lia left the camp after several months and was able to maintain a heterosexual façade until she escaped her community at age 18. After working odd jobs for two years, Lia was able to study Comp-Sci at Brown University, and has since left the Pentecostal faith and now attends a Unitarian church. She was one of the lucky ones, however. “I’m still in contact with others [from the camp]. Most moved on through changing communities and continued therapy, but there’s at least one guy [who’s] still indoctrinated. He’s married and everything, but it’s so clear to tell that [he is] unhappy.”

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