‘Social death for trans and queer people’

How Canada’s conversion therapy bill fails to protect trans Canadians

This article discusses discrimination and medical prejudice against LGBTQ2S+ peopleIt may be triggering to some readers. If you require support, resources will be listed at the bottom of this article.

In Oct. 2020, the Canadian federal government reintroduced a bill to ban conversion therapy across Canada. Bill C-6 seeks to introduce conversion therapy practices into the criminal code, banning them from being practised without consent, particularly on minors.

The bill defines conversion therapy as “practices, treatment, or services designed to change an individual’s sexual orientation to heterosexual or gender identity to cisgender or to reduce non-heterosexual sexual attraction or sexual behaviour.”

These practices most commonly occur in the healthcare system and religious institutions.

LGBTQ2S+ advocates have been calling for a conversion therapy ban for decades. After homosexuality was removed from the Canadian Criminal Code in 1969, religious and medical groups opposing LGBTQ2S+ expression began forming. In response, Canadians rallied on Parliament Hill in 1971 during the country’s first Gay Rights protest to demand federal protection.

In the following years, LGBTQ2S+ identities were written into the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, annual Pride celebrations were formed, and same-sex couples were given the right to legally marry. All the while, conversion therapy organizations continued to operate without consequence.

Since 2015, Ontario, Nova Scotia, and P.E.I. have put forward legislation banning conversion therapy practices in the healthcare system. In 2020, Yukon and Québec also introduced bills to ban conversion therapy in their provinces. Some Canadian cities like Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton have their own municipal bans as well.

In Feb. 2019, NDP MP Sheri Benson brought a petition with 18,200 signatures to federal parliament asking for a federal ban to protect minors from conversion therapy practices.

The petition argued that conversion therapy should be banned on the grounds that it is a discriminatory practice opposed by organizations such as the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA). The CPA released a public statement in 2015 declaring conversion therapy to have a false, anti-LGBTQ2S+ premise of changing gender or sexual orientation and causing devastating psychological effects.

After Benson’s petition was received, a bill proposing a federal ban was first introduced in the House of Commons in March 2020. However, both conversion therapy survivors and trans activists—as well as Christian organizations—voiced their concerns about the content of the bill. The bill was reintroduced this past Oct. 2020 with some revisions, but with no significant response to many of those concerns.

Currently, the bill is being debated in committee hearings where social justice lawyers, survivors, and LGBTQ2S+ advocates are asking for a broader, more trans-inclusive definition of conversion therapy which acknowledges that no one of any age can consent to abusive practices.

Meanwhile, advocates from Christian organizations are asking for a narrower definition in the name of religious freedom.

The Pigeon spoke to a conversion therapy survivor and other LGBTQ2S+ researchers and advocates about the holes in the federal ban, conflicts with religious freedom, and what Canada’s governments, institutions, and communities must do to better support equality and well-being for its LGBTQ2S+ citizens.

Photo provided by: Travis Salway

Travis Salway is a professor at Simon Fraser University and a queer health researcher with the Community-Based Research Centre (CBRC) and the Centre for Gender and Sexual Health Equity (CGSHE). In an interview with The Pigeon, Salway said the defining feature of conversion therapy isn’t the belief that you can change someone’s sexuality, gender identity, or gender expression—it’s the belief that LGBTQ2S+ identities are incompatible with happy and healthy outcomes.

A CBRC survey conducted from 2019 to 2020 concluded that an estimated 47,000 Canadian men have experienced a form of conversion therapy. It also found that one in five LGBTQ2S+ men have been subjected to a broader definition of conversion therapy, which activists call Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity or Gender Expression Change Efforts, or SOGIECE.

Salway said when the definition of conversion therapy is kept too narrow—as he believes it is in the current bill—harmful practices that should be considered under the umbrella of SOGIECE go undeterred.

“If the definition is too narrow, then we miss conversion practises that happen where the practitioner would say ‘our goal is simply to help through some kind of behavioural coaching,’” Salway said. He compares these practices to addiction treatment programs but with LGBTQ2S+ expression, identity, and/or desire as the addiction.

Salway argues that the term “conversion therapy” itself is misleading.

He believes the best place to start is with a definition of these homophobic and transphobic practices as a set of techniques premised on the idea that people should be heterosexual and cisgender.

Alternatively, religious groups are concerned that the bill’s definition of conversion therapy is already too broad.

Conservative politicians, such as MP Derek Sloan, and organizations such as the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Canadian Centre for Christian Charities, and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada have spoken out against the bill.

They say they’re concerned the bill would criminalize Catholic ministries and groups, religious leaders, or pastors who “encourage individuals with same-sex attraction to live chastely and in conformity with the teachings of the Gospel.”

The statement from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said they would like a provision added to the bill for “legitimate, differing viewpoints on human sexuality arising from religious beliefs, philosophical debate, or scientific and medical study.”

“Conscientious dissent in such matters, including teaching or public presentations; or the possibility that conversations within families, including private conversations between parents and their children on matters of human sexuality, could be deemed public and subject to prosecution, thus restricting the right of parents to raise their children in accordance with their religious and ethical convictions,” the statement read.

The government has clearly stated, albeit outside of the bill itself, that the ban “would not apply to those who provide support to persons questioning their sexual orientation, sexual feelings or gender identity (such as teachers, school counsellors, pastoral counsellors, faith leaders, doctors, mental health professionals, friends or family members).”

Salway said a bill for criminalization is too blunt an instrument to be applied to the situations Christian organizations have expressed concern over.

“I’m not convinced that [religious leaders or parents] are going to be held criminally liable for having homophobic or transphobic conversations,” Salway said.

“When organisations like [the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops] raise a question of, ‘Are our abilities to have private conversations about sexuality and gender identity being constrained?’ I think what they’re really saying is, ‘Can we continue to dissuade our believers in our faith from adopting LGBTQ2 identities?’”

Salway said the latter is a very different question. “That’s a question not specifically about our criminal code, but […] about our general Canadian values and what kind of society we want to have.”

Eradicating SOGIECE in Canada will take more than a national ban.

“We need to understand why there is a demand for these services to begin with. And the answer to that question comes from looking at the institutions where they took place. We know in Canada, we’re really looking at health care settings and religious settings,” Salway said.

“How do we develop mechanisms for deterrence?”

Ultimately, Salway said it’s about structural change.

“It’s about regulation in the case of health professionals and education in the case of faith-based institutions with those leaders who have a misguided notion that it’s still okay to promote homophobia and transphobia.”

Salway is also encouraged by the number of survivors speaking out about their experiences in recent months.

“We need more of that, so that people understand that conversion therapy isn’t something that happened 50 years ago […] but that it’s actually happening here and now. I think increasing the visibility is what we need to actually move the hearts and minds of Canadians.”

At present, religious organizations like Journey Canada still run programs promising a “shift in sexual orientation” and “an awakening of heterosexual attraction.”

Their website claims they don’t seek to reduce same-sex attraction but instead simply advise that “it is possible to continue to experience same-sex attraction throughout life but to freely choose not to give effect to it.”

Journey Canada’s public statements on faith and sexuality claim, “Each of us is loved by God unconditionally, regardless of sexual orientation or behaviour” and that sex “is reserved for marriage, which is undertaken by one man and one woman together.”

Another faith-based organization that offers homophobic programming is Exodus Global Alliance, formerly known as Exodus International, which has been operating conversion therapy programs in countries including Canada since the 1970s.

Exodus publicly apologized for their actions in 2013 and supposedly shut down. However, they seem to have simply undergone a rebrand that included softening their public-facing language and releasing statements more similar to Journey Canada and other Christian organizations.

Exodus’s current website, as updated in 2020, declares their mission as “Proclaiming that faith in Christ and a transformed life through the power of Jesus Christ is possible for people who experience same-sex attractions or are involved in homosexuality; Equipping Christians and churches to uphold the Biblical view of sexuality while responding with compassion and grace to those impacted by homosexuality; [And] serving people impacted by homosexuality through Christian fellowship and discipleship.”

The current federal bill seeks to criminalize not only efforts to change sexual orientation or gender identity, but efforts to “reduce non-heterosexual sexual attraction or sexual behaviour” as well, which would seem to apply to the practices of Journey Canada and Exodus based on their own descriptions.

Photo provided by: Erica Muse

One of the major flaws in the bill identified by survivors and LGBTQ2S+ advocates is the statement that the offences outlined in the ban would “not include services relating to an individual’s gender transition or an individual’s exploration of their identity or its development.”

This stipulation would allow the transphobic therapy practices survivors like Erika Muse endured to continue without criminalization.

When Muse sought gender-affirming healthcare at the age of sixteen, her only option was to go through the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s (CAMH) Youth Gender Clinic in Toronto. In order to be approved by CAMH for access to hormones and surgery, Muse had to undergo psychotherapy at the clinic.

At her first appointment, Muse made it very clear to the psychologist, Kenneth Zucker, that she was there to access services to medically transition.

Instead of helping her to process her transition, Zucker subjected Muse to years of what Muse describes as “destructive talk therapy” and continually denied her access to gender-affirming medical care.

Zucker specifically targeted Muse’s gender identity and expression, trying to therapize her into being a man instead of the woman she knew she was. He blamed her gender on her lack of a father and complimented her body as it underwent male puberty. Her body became further from the person she was because Zucker was standing between her and the services she had come to the clinic to receive years before and still wanted.

Zucker was the Psychologist-in-Chief at CAMH. He was later fired before CAMH closed because of his style of therapy. When defending himself to Toronto City News in 2018, Zucker denied that his practices are conversion therapy.

He described his methods as attempts to make a child feel more “comfortable with their sex and gender identity assigned at birth,” which included encouraging them not to “cross-dress” and to make same-sex friends.

He also said, “I’m supportive, when they’re older, of gender-confirming surgery.”

This isn’t what Muse experienced.

Muse was subjected to conversion therapy in a licensed psychologist’s office, at a public mental health hospital funded by the public health system in Ontario. The experience left her anxious, depressed, and suicidal, and still without the one thing she knew would help her: a medical transition.

Finally, when she was twenty-four, Muse began hormone therapy after speaking to a doctor unassociated with CAMH. The Pigeon spoke to Muse on the two-year anniversary of her sexual reassignment surgery.

Even after medically transitioning, what Muse endured at CAMH has forever changed her relationship to her gender and body.

“One of the very important things for trans-affirming care is when you start on hormones. The younger you start [accessing] trans-affirming health care, the better the results are,” Muse explained.

“I was denied this health care for some years, [so] the results that I got in terms of having a body that I feel more at home in were significantly reduced.”

Muse never wants another trans person to experience what she did.

Five years ago, she worked with Toronto MPP Cheri DiNovo on Ontario’s provincial conversion therapy ban. Muse’s involvement meant that the ban included specific language stating conversion therapy couldn’t be practised in the Ontario public health system and transphobic therapists couldn’t stand between trans people and healthcare.

CAMH’s Youth Gender Clinic was later reviewed and shut down in 2015.

However, trans conversion therapy continued elsewhere. According to a 2019 study by Trans Pulse Canada, 8 per cent among those aged 14-24 surveyed had undergone conversion therapy intending to influence them to be cisgender.

Muse’s public involvement in the Ontario ban connected her to researchers like Salway doing work on the needs of conversion therapy survivors. The introduction of a federal bill to ban conversion therapy last March took them all by surprise.

“Out of nowhere, the bill got introduced for March 9th. And it was like, “Okay, we’ve all got to get out there,’” Muse said.

On March 8, she was asked to give a speech at a press conference for the bill as a survivor. She couldn’t see the bill until it had been introduced to parliament, so she wrote the speech the night before and saw the bill the next day when it was presented.

When she read the bill and saw that it wouldn’t protect people from going through what she had experienced, she knew she couldn’t recite her speech as written.


“I got up there, thanked the community centre for funding me to come along, and I just threw my speech over to the side and said, ’This bill is horrible and isn’t going to do anything.’”

Besides explicitly sidestepping protections against the experience she had herself, Muse is concerned that the bill protects only gender identity and not gender expression.

Muse describes gender identity as a person’s internal sense of their gender, with gender expression being someone’s external expression of their gender through something like their hairstyle or interests which are culturally gendered.

As the bill currently stands, it wouldn’t protect youth from the therapies CAMH used on children who expressed their gender in non-traditional ways. She said many of the clinic’s patients were young children who were initially brought in because they expressed interests “unlike” the gender they were assigned at birth, like playing with dolls instead of trucks.

“Those kids weren’t necessarily verbally telling their parents that their gender identity was opposed to the gender they were assigned at birth, they were just expressing a gender identity opposite to the one expected of them through clothing or interests,” Muse said.

Months after the first bill was introduced, Muse is exhausted from trying to get the government to listen to her and other survivors.

“Maybe the bill is going to go forward, maybe it won’t,” Muse said.

“What’s been a really frustrating part about this […] is that I’m a survivor who’s now supposed to have her life, and this has been one of the more stressful times [in my life] because of how bad the government’s communication about this has been, and how little to no sympathy or support I’ve had.”

Even if Muse and other advocates’ voices are heard with this bill, Muse knows that criminalizing conversion therapy isn’t enough.

“It’s very hard to see how conversion therapy would be an offence that would actually get prosecuted because it’s difficult to imagine a crown attorney or anyone else saying, ‘Okay, this is something we can make a court case out of because we feel we have a good burden of proof.’”

“It’s much the same way as sexual assault offences which are often reduced to a ‘He said, she said’ thing.”

Only 11.5 per cent of sexual assault cases reported to police in Canada result in a conviction; 6.5 per cent of those result in the perpetrator being sentenced with jail time.

Beyond the bill, Muse is advocating for many other ways the federal government could support trans Canadians and conversion therapy survivors.

She specifically wants the government to start working with the bodies that provide professional accreditation so that if a medical practitioner does conversion therapy, they can have their license revoked. She would also like funding for a survivor support group for those who would like to seek healing.

Photo provided by: Florence Ashley

Florence Ashley, a transfeminine jurist and bioethicist, is currently a doctoral student at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law.

Like Salway and Muse, Ashley is critical of the popular conception of conversion therapy. They argue that conversion therapy is more aimed at decreasing the presence of openly trans, queer, and gender-nonconforming people in society, rather than somehow turning them into a healthy, cisgender, straight person.

“In many ways, it’s not really about the inner identity being wrong, but about the wrongness of having out queer and trans people in society,” they said in an interview with The Pigeon.

Ashley has observed that modern defenders of conversion therapy defend their homophobia and transphobia by saying they’re not trying to change sexual orientation, but rather just promoting celibacy so that people can live in respect of their God, making their focus the social aspect of sexuality rather than eradicating an internal identity.

“[Much of the research around conversion therapy] is far more concerned with how the person is going to have to evolve in society and whether the person is going to be accepted or not in society. And in that sense, the goal is to reach ‘social death’ for trans people and queer people.”

Social death, in this context, refers to the loss of social identity and social community together with losses associated with the outward physical or cultural expression of transness or queerness.

Ashley’s lived experience as a transfeminine person, combined with their education in law and bioethics, has allowed them to thoroughly critique the federal bill.

Ashley shares Muse’s concerns with the bill’s ability to protect LGBTQ2S+ Canadians, regardless of whether it ends up including conversion therapy related to transitioning or not.

“Laws have to be enforced, and one of the problems is that often times you have a reluctance to enforce,” they said.

“What is this law going to do in terms of encouraging mutual accountability, self-accountability, and essentially removing the need for enforcement?”

Ashley believes the best laws are often those which are crafted with the intention of not even getting enforcement.

“[These laws] telegraph what is illegal sufficiently clearly, so that people can set up regimes of mutual accountability and never get to the actual doing of conversion therapy,” Ashley said.

That’s not something they believe the federal bill does.

According to Ashley, the usefulness of a bill like this often lies in its purpose as a social indicator of what is acceptable and unacceptable, rather than as an outline of which actions will result in persecution. Because of this, they worry that what the bill doesn’t specifically address could be seen as permissible.

Ashley has the same worries with hate crime legislation in general and has done scholarly work on this issue.

They said hate crime legislation builds off the idea that an action being classified as a hate crime is sufficiently discouraging. However, they said this relies on flawed assumptions.

“For deterrents to work, it depends [on if] people are responding in a rational way to the incentives that are set in place.”

“For example, [there’s the idea that] if you have a longer threat of prison, then it’s going to raise the threshold for you to commit a hate crime. You’re like, ‘Oh, well, I’m going to go to prison for six years instead of four so maybe I won’t do it because that’s too much.’ But no one thinks that way.”

As an activist reflecting on the social movements of recent months, Ashley said advocating for imprisonment has become complicated.

“I think we need to have a serious conversation in our communities as to whether criminal law is really what’s going to be best for society in general and for survivors of conversion therapy in particular.”

“While I understand that there’s a certain convenience with criminal law in being pan-Canadian and thus not relying on a patchwork of provincial legislation and municipal legislation, I think there is a need to have a serious conversation about our comfort levels with promoting and accepting criminal approaches when, in other spheres of our lives, we’re saying Black Lives Matter, no to the carceral state, abolish policing, and then considering legislation that would actually give the police more power.”

On Dec. 1, 2020, Kenneth Zucker, the psychologist who treated Muse, spoke as an invited witness in the hearings for Bill C-6. Two days later, Muse spoke to the same committee, describing the way Zucker denied her trans-affirming healthcare in the form of both hormones and surgery until she was 22 years old. She asked the committee to amend Bill C-6 to protect others from the abuse she suffered.

The night before she spoke to the committee, she tweeted a promise to transphobes: “I am going to tear your f—ing bullshit apart.”

On the day of her hearing, Muse joined Salway and social justice lawyer Adrienne Smith to speak to the committee.

Muse argued that SOGIECE should be banned for all adults because even an adult cannot consent to abuse.

She also told the committee that Zucker had misrepresented himself and his beliefs.

“[Zucker] lied to you when he spoke to you on Tuesday. He practises conversion therapy to this day on people of all ages, he sees trans lives and trans-existence as something to be hated and stopped,” she said.

“Zucker attempted to change my gender identity both before and after I turned 18 and he never allowed for consideration, exploration, or development of my gender, but instead worked to stop me from being my true self as much as he could,” Muse added.

The committee meetings give each invited witness five minutes and move on to the next without comment.

In most meetings Muse has had with government officials, she hasn’t felt as though they see that they’re the ones who’ve done wrong and should be trying to understand her. Instead, they seem set in their beliefs and approach the meetings as though she has a point she must prove to them.

“It’s been hurtful because they’re saying they’re doing this on behalf of survivors,” Muse said.

“They don’t even know who that is.”

If you require resources or assistance surrounding mental illnesses, please visit the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s website. For emergency resources specific to LGBTQ2S+ individuals, please visit the Queer Events’ website.

Like this article?

We’ve got even better things in store, with the help of our incredible donors.

Our donors make what we do possible. By making a monthly contribution to The Pigeon, you would be directly helping us to further our cross-Canadian coverage. We devote a portion of our earning specifically towards paying marginalized contributors, like we did in our recent Tracing Threads project. Other ways we spend donor contributions include upgrading our website, reaching out to new readers, and paying research expenses.

Can you become a monthly donor for as little as $10 a month today?

With your financial help, we can continue to share unique stories, prioritize marginalized voices, and create positive change in the Canadian media landscape.

Maia Herriot
Maia Herriot is a Mount Allison graduate who doesn’t want to be a journalist but does make a habit of hanging around places where it’s cool to care and ask questions. She is based in Saskatchewan where she spends most of her time with five troublemaker chickens.