As a openly queer person and faith leader, I have participated in and shared articles about conversion therapy in Alberta for quite some time and decided that a summary list of conversion therapy methodologies, and some specific ideas for calls to action, is timely.
For those who aren’t aware:
“Conversion therapy is the pseudoscientific practice of trying to change an individual’s sexual orientation from homosexual or bisexual to heterosexual using psychological or spiritual interventions.”
Those who practice and promote it treat it like a spiritual disorder.
Trying to change someone’s sexual orientation, is abusive, dangerous, and simply does not and will never work.
Conversion therapy doesn’t always look like it does in the movies. Stories like ‘Boy Erased’ are true and important. But there are also many ways that people run these programs, because they are likely happening at churches down the street from you, in the form of workshops, prayer groups, conferences, pastoral counselling, referrals to non-affirming psychologists, and presence in schools and universities. The methodology used to involve a lot more physical interventions, such as castrations and shock therapy. The current approach is less physically involved, but just as damaging.
We know that conversion therapy happens all over the world, but we must remember that it happens in Calgary, across Alberta, and all across Canada. Many politicians, including Alberta’s current Finance Minister, are involved in churches who run these programs, but for the purposes of this article, I am mainly focusing on the conversion therapy organizations.
One of the largest perpetrators of conversion therapy programs is an organization called “Journey Canada.” They run retreats, partner with churches to run programs, send representatives to high schools, universities, Sunday schools, church services, youth groups, conferences, etc, and provide training to make more and more leaders of these programs. They are alive and well, even in the very cities and provinces that have banned this practice.
How can this happen?
First, organizations like Journey Canada go out of their way to say they don’t perform conversion therapy.
They don’t even say the word ‘gay’ — instead they use terms like “SSA” which stands for same-sex attraction, and often emphasize that they only work with people who experience unwanted same sex attraction. They try to frame this as an optional and healing experience for those who are struggling. They are experts at framing language and have learned from past mistakes and media coverage that any wording around changing someone’s orientation will come under scrutiny.
Therefore, their wording has become more sophisticated and coded over time. Yet, what they do not hide is that their beliefs around gay marriage, same sex relationships, and romantic or sexual intimacy between two people of the same sex. They teach that all of those relationships and expressions are sinful and go against the biblical view of relationships and marriage. See their ‘beliefs’ page here.
So — they say they don’t want to change anyone’s orientation, yet teach that heterosexuality is the only God-given and God-blessed orientation?
Those two ideas are diametrically opposed.
But that’s the key to their strategy, which in my perspective includes:
- Removing identity out of the conversation. They do not acknowledge that LGBTQ+ orientation, identity or expression exists. They negate that it is an essential and immutable characteristic. They teach that heterosexuality is the norm and is the only valid expression of romantic and sexual love.
- Focusing on behavioural correction. Their teachings further aim to separate people from themselves by focusing on changing behaviour, ignoring that orientation and behaviour are intertwined. They seek to at least make their participants feel like their behaviour is the issue, and that it can be changed.
- Some of their programs are run like addictions programs. They treat any non-heterosexual identity like an addiction that can be addressed through prayer, having a sponsor, reading, going through the programs, and being honest and confessing when you ‘sin and fall short’.
- They provide space for listening to people, often at the most vulnerable time in their lives. Many LGBTQ+ people with religious backgrounds grew up in environments where queerness was demonized or completely ignored. They struggled inwardly, but could never be open about their feelings and felt isolated. Journey Canada and churches who run programs like theirs, capitalize on this isolation by providing a space to talk. For some people, it’s the first time they’ve ever been able to talk about their feelings or desires. Then they use this space to continue to guide people away from any LGBTQ+ identity. It’s cruel.
- They blame childhood neglect, trauma, or dysfunctional family systems. They encourage participants to view their upbringings and trauma as reasoning of why a LGBTQ+ identity may be appealing to them. Let me say this again — they take real trauma, neglect, and pain, and link that to your sexual orientation as an effect. They negate all of the science and actual research that shows that this linkage is untrue and damaging. And so in an attempt to heal your past trauma, they try to get you to believe that you can only do so by addressing your ‘same sex attraction’.
- They link substance abuse or other addictions to being LGBTQ+. This is a classic. It’s no secret that if you’ve spent any part of your life being forced to hide who you are, have been punished for it, excluded or exiled from your family or community or church, that this would have a profound and negative affect on your overall well being. Some folks try to soothe this pain through substances or other avenues. But when Journey Canada and other programs and mental health practitioners cite addictions as results of sinful behaviour, they miss the point entirely. If society and religion at large was not so violently and spiritually abusive of LGBTQ+ people, addictions and mental health issues would drop significantly. Addictions are often the result of discrimination because you are LGBTQ+, but never because you are LGBTQ+.
- They offer a veil of love, compassion, solace, and community. They provide a space to talk to others who may be in similar situations, support to stay on track, remind you that God loves you and that anything is possible and offer lots of ongoing programs, training, and deeper ways to be involved. They capitalize on the main thing we all have in common — we all want to belong. And many folks who have had their sense of belonging threatened or completely pulled out from underneath them, are understandably interested in being in a community or program where they belong. This is one of the ultimate betrayals of these programs. They offer belonging, but it comes at a price of you leaving any hope of being full who you are and in a relationship with the person/people you’re actually attracted to, behind.
There are many more strategies and methodologies that vary based on the organization, denomination, and geography; this list is by no means comprehensive. I hope it hits the major parts of how they operate and how they try to get around language so they can continue.
What can we do?
Talking to many survivors of conversion therapy, and through my work in queer/faith intersections for almost a decade, has shown me that beyond the hard facts we have, it’s still hard to expose these programs. They are well-funded, usually have charity or non-profit status, and will always deny that what they do is conversion therapy or an attempt to change orientation.
Many survivors have shared their stories and those stories are easily available through quick web searches (try reading those first before asking for ‘proof’, I have included a multitude of links at the end of this article).
Some survivors have found healing and empowerment in sharing their stories, but that is not the case for everyone and we cannot expect anyone to share if that’s not what they choose. If they want to share, I am happy to help find them a platform, but I am no longer interested in asking survivors to re-live their trauma and tell their stories publicly in order to prove what they experienced.
I want to be clear that I am not blaming survivors or past participants.
They are victims of toxic theology and, like many of us, were doing whatever they could at the time to try to be okay, follow their religious beliefs, or to simply belong or comply with guidelines given to them by their loved ones or religious leaders. They deserve solace and healing and for us to believe them about the impact it made on their lives. Queer people are loved by God, as they are, completely and entirely. And I will continue to spread that message as well.
I am blaming those who continue to lead and promote these programs, whether by hosting them or marketing them.
They are dealing false and deadly theology that goes against everything I stand for as a gay Christian.
What I am interested in is for each and every one of us to contact those who are causing this damage in the first place.
Which means contacting organizations like Journey Canada, and all of the known churches, psychologists, psychiatrists, and organizations who support them and run their programs.
They will not admit to conversion therapy. They will not use that language.
So I would encourage the media and individuals to contact these organizations, individuals, pastors, Journey Canada representatives, and ask them specific questions (examples below) around their theology and practices and how this informs the work they do with and about LGBTQ+ people.
For example, under ‘Beliefs’ on Journey Canada’s website, they state:
“To receive the gift of sex in a way that is most life-giving and joyful, it is reserved for marriage, which is undertaken by one man and one woman together as a life-long journey toward greater intimacy, mutual spiritual maturity, and self-giving love.”
The beliefs they state mean that they would never support a romantic or sexual relationship or marriage for gay and lesbian people. So if these are their beliefs, how can they claim that they don’t want to change people’s orientation, or to ‘correct’ their behaviour by at least making them live their lives as heterosexuals or become celibate?
The churches and orgs/schools who run these programs will likely have similar belief statements, where words like ‘traditional marriage’ ‘biblical definition’ of marriage, and ‘bible-based beliefs’ on marriage and relationships. Beware of any language that uses codes like these.
There may be a rare case where some people inside those churches do not know that these programs are being run in their community. If that’s the case, the people in those churches should know what is happening so they can make an informed decision about whether they want to continue involvement in that church, and whether they may want to hold their leaders accountable for running these programs.
This photo contains a list of the organizations that worked with Journey Canada, provided in Journey Canada’s 2017 Annual report. They did not list the exact organizations they worked with in 2018, likely to keep under the radar and to avoid media and questions from the public. This list may give you an idea of who you would want to contact. I have highlighted the ones based in Calgary.
Sample Questions to Ask Any Person/Organization Around Conversion Therapy:
- Do you market or run any kind of group or program where being gay, being in romantic relationships with someone of the same sex, or engaging in sexual activity with someone of the same sex (unmarried or married) is discouraged?
- Do you believe that being gay is a sin? Do you believe that acting on attraction to the same sex is a sin?
- Do you believe that being transgender is a sin?
- Do you believe that there are only two genders: male and female?
- Do you believe that someone is allowed to identify as a different gender than they were assigned at birth?
- Do you encourage people to only be in heterosexual relationships?
- Do you perform same-sex marriages?
- Do you affirm same-sex marriages?
- Do you perform marriages where one or both of the partners are transgender?
- Do you affirm transgender people and honour their trans identity?
- Would you hire an openly LGBTQ+ person?
- Would you accept and hire an openly gay or transgender minister/priest/clergy person?
- Would you fire an employee if they told you they were gay and were going to pursue relationships with the same sex?
- Would you fire an employee if they told you they were transgender?
- Do you encourage openly LGBTQ+ people to have leadership positions in your organization? If so, are there any caveats to their leadership position in regards to their romantic and sexual relationships with people of the same sex?
- Would you affirm the romantic relationships of any LGBTQ+ person without asking them to change?
- Would you baptize the child of a gay couple? Would you baptize a child of a couple of which one or both partners are transgender?
- Do you think LGBTQ+ people should have the right to adopt children?
- Do you recognize that being gay is part of someone’s personal identity and not a ‘behaviour’?
- Do you think being gay is a disorder? Do you think being transgender is a disorder?
- Do you think being gay is a result of trauma or abuse?
- Do you think having substance abuse or other addictions is the result of same sex desires or activities?
- Do you have clear anti-discrimination policies that include not tolerating discrimination against anyone, explicitly naming gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation?
- If an LGBTQ+ person feels mistreated or discriminated against in your organization/church, would they know who they could safely talk to, to report the incident?
- What kind of training do the leaders of your programs have — are they licensed psychologists accredited at recognized universities?
- Does your church/organization have resources or recommended reading or curriculum that addresses LGBTQ+ people and theology around them? Do these resources discourage LGBTQ+ from living openly?
Media Articles and Resources about Conversion Therapy:
Human Rights Campaign:
National Center for Lesbian Rights:
The Trevor Project: