Conversion therapy wrong bait to attract conservative voters

Seven years ago, while I was researching my book on equal marriage, I interviewed a number of people who had been direct victims of homophobia. Several of them had as teenagers been exposed to what is known as “conversion therapy” — a pernicious misnomer in that it’s more oppression that conversion, and more abuse than therapy.

One of them, Jim, told me of when he’d come out to his evangelical Christian parents. They took him to a “conversion therapist” and after a few weeks he felt so emptied of value and virtue that he cut his wrists in an attempt to make the world disappear. He almost succeeded but, thank God, didn’t.

He showed me the slash marks from that horrific evening. His partner Steve — they’ve been together for 13 happy years now — said, “I find it hard to forgive the people who exploited Jim and his parents, because they were victims in all this too.”

I mention this because Conservative Party leadership contender Erin O’Toole has just asked social conservatives who might support rival candidates Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan to vote for him as their second choice when those two are almost certainly eliminated from the contest.

To solidify his socon credentials he then stated this week in a mostly French-language video that was “leaked” to the media that he had concerns about banning conversion therapy and that, “It’s very important to respect the conversation between a priest and the members of their flock.”

The language is deeply significant here. O’Toole has said in the past that he opposes the anti-scientific and inherently homophobic procedure, but by qualifying that position he’s successfully triggered that crucial minority of right-wing Christians who are party members to regard him as their next best choice. They likely form less than 20 per cent of those who will be voting for the new leader, but they were sufficient and essential in putting both Andrew Scheer federally, and Doug Ford in Ontario, over the line to victory.

By referring to a “priest” and his “flock” he’s also implying the seal of the confessional that exists within Roman Catholicism and is considered morally and perhaps even legally binding. Thing is, while some on the fringes of the Catholic Church support conversion therapy, it’s far more the concern of evangelical Christians.

Conversion therapy has not only been discredited by every scientific body worth the name, but also banned in many jurisdictions and countries, and according to the International Forensic Expert Group (IFEG) it violates the global ban on torture and ill treatment. Ontario, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island have banned it for minors, and Vancouver, Edmonton, and Calgary have passed municipal bylaws against it.

Shortly before the arrival of the corona pandemic the federal government tabled legislation to amend the Criminal Code to ban it too, with Minister of Justice and Attorney General David Lametti describing it as, “a cruel practice that can lead to lifelong trauma, particularly for young people. It sends a demeaning and degrading message.”

It does continue in Canada, however, with organizations and churches using alternative and euphemistic names such as sexual attraction fluidity exploration, reparative therapy, or deliverance sessions. It’s all largely the same: an irrational, dangerous, and absurd attempt to change people from their happy and natural state into some archaic version of what is considered acceptable to Christian fundamentalism. It should be emphasized that this is all the preserve of the fringe of the church and not at all part of the mainstream.

For those concerned that it’s an issue of personal freedom, nobody will be prevented from seeking advice or guidance from a conservative pastor or counsellor, but the concerted attempt to “convert” often vulnerable young people who are pressurized by their community or family will be prevented due to the colossal damage caused.

This latest ploy may help Erin O’Toole in his leadership campaign but even if it does so he’ll almost certainly have to reject the position in any federal election where serious questions will be asked. So it’s an example of dreadfully irresponsible and divisive politics at a time when the nation is crying out for unity and maturity. Surely Mr. O’Toole and his party can do better.

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