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Calgary bans conversion therapy

By Nikayla Goddard, March 5 2020—

Calgary City Council unanimously voted on Calgary bans conversion therapy Feb. 3 to draft a bylaw banning conversion therapy, following in the steps of Edmonton and St. Albert, who banned the practice on Dec. 10 and Dec. 18 respectively. 

Conversion therapy is a discredited practice where there are attempts made to change a person’s sexual identity, orientation or expression of gender to fit heterosexual and cisgender norms, often through means of harmful or extreme counselling and behavioural coaching. Businesses or individuals found advertising or offering these services can be fined up to $10,000, and it will be illegal to have these services registered as a business in the first place.

Councillor Evan Woolley, with Mayor Naheed Nenshi and councillors Druh Farrell, Gian-Carlo Carra, Jyoti Gondek and Peter Demong brought forward the notice of motion to the city council. The motion was unanimously passed, resulting in a sweep of positive remarks for this passing from UCalgary members. 

Aishwarya Harish and Greyson Mannella, program coordinators for Q: The SU Centre for Sexual and Gender Diversity, released a statement to the Gauntlet.

“We’re so thrilled to hear that this motion passed. Conversion therapy goes against the principles of self-acceptance and living unapologetically on which our community was built. We’re so grateful to Calgary City Council for taking steps to support our community, and we’re also thankful to the huge crowd of community members who showed up at City Hall on Monday to show support.”

Dr. Darren Lund is a professor at the Werklund School of Education, and was able to provide context on conversion therapy and its harmful effects, especially to youth. 

“I am very pleased that our municipality has joined several others in the province to ban this highly damaging and scientifically discredited program that has already harmed so many people,” Lund said. “This ban is an important formal mechanism to help those individuals whose families are trying to force them to try to change who they are. Conversion therapies are highly destructive and misguided attempts to shame young people into hating their own sexual orientations or gender identities, and have resulted in unfavourable outcomes for their recipients. Any public policies and increased awareness of this harmful practice are steps in the right direction for honouring all of our province’s young people, and protecting their individual rights and dignity. For educators, our daily contact with young people involves looking out for their best interests, and this ban will assist teachers in protecting the wellbeing of all of their students.”

In 1987, during Lund’s 16-year stint as a high school English teacher, he and a group of students formed the Students and Teachers Opposing Prejudice (STOP) program, which Lund says “undertook many innovative forms of student/teacher activism over the years. Students planned specific initiatives to tackle racism and discrimination in the school and community, and to promote human rights and social justice in Alberta, Canada, and globally. The STOP program won several awards in its two decades, and became a model for so much other student activism that followed.”

The STOP program resulted in the creation of Alberta’s first Gay/Straight Alliance (GSA) in 2000 to raise awareness in the school and community, as well as create a safe environment for all students. 

“Despite some community and parent resistance,” Lund said, “the GSA group provided an important sanctuary and gathering place for any students who wanted to learn more, and make the school more inclusive to all.”

From his perspective as a teacher, GSA organizer and university professor, Lund explained that the ban on conversion therapy is a great step forward considering how harmful and illegitimate the practice is. But despite this step forward, last year Alberta became the first jurisdiction in Canada to roll back the rights of LGBTQ+ students. Lund explained that the “UCP’s introduction and passing of Bill 8 removed important protections and rights of students to form GSA groups in their schools. These groups have been proved to reduce discrimination and foster better learning conditions for all students in schools where they exist.”

These rollbacks are fortunately reflective of the minority of Albertan beliefs, as Lund cites that over 70 per cent of Albertans support gay marriage. 

“However,” Lund added, “we also know that there are many people — some currently in positions of political power — whose narrow views and regressive policies on sexual orientation continue to make our LGBTQ+ community significantly more vulnerable in terms of risks to their mental health, to becoming a victim of harassment, bullying, or hate crimes, and to being targets of hate-motivated violence.”

Sean Bristowe, a member of Queers on Campus, explained how often the group experiences discrimination, and how harmful conversion therapy and the attitudes it perpetuates is. 

Bristowe remarked that people who avidly and publically support conversion therapy in their prejudiced practices “should be banned from public spaces if they choose to show up and harass queer folks and perpetuate these incredibly harmful messages.”

MLA Janis Irwin, Official Opposition Deputy Whip and Critic for Women and LGBTQ issues, also had a lot to say on both the good news and what yet needs to be done.

“I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of folks who’ve been either directly impacted by conversion therapy or who’ve had loved ones who have been,” Irwin said. “The stories are just devastating. So to hear that Calgary has followed the lead of a number of other municipalities is absolutely promising. But in the same breath, I have to say that it’s shameful that the UCP hasn’t committed to taking any action.”

She continued, “Clearly, Albertans are opposed to this practice and they are coming out in strong numbers to support a ban, yet again, the UCP and Jason Kenney are not willing to speak out about it. That’s the disheartening part — we still have a lot of work to do.”

What can be done to keep moving things forward? Education. Lund says parents, teachers and political leaders, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, need to educate the general public and children in order to “better understand, enforce and bolster human rights laws in Alberta.”

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