To Ban or Not to Ban



A journalist, let’s call him Sam, called me recently to discuss my experiences in conversion therapy because of a possible ban of the practice in my hometown of Vancouver, Canada. Sam asked if I thought these kinds of bans were even necessary today, since he said he hadn’t found much information on the internet to suggest that conversion therapy still occurred, much less locally, in Canada. 

First, I answered to Sam on the phone, the fact that cursory Google searches for labels like “conversion therapy” do not result in many hits from actual organizations or practitioners claiming to endorse it does not mean it isn’t still occurring; in fact, one of the most common misconceptions I’ve encountered, I explained to Sam, is that many people tend to think conversion therapy is always an actual thing that can be quickly identified, or found, so that it can be eliminated or prevented. How do you “find” homophobia, or transphobia? How do you “find” ideology, hatred or prejudice? Especially when it's behind closed doors in a therapeutic relationship between two people in privacy—can fear ever be “found”?

Conversion therapy begins with the thought that gay and trans people are somehow ill and need to be “fixed.” Thoughts carry into beliefs that are then projected outward into systematic acts of oppression by “helping professionals,” whether religious or secular, who are in positions of power over the vulnerable. Shame is the breeding ground on which these kinds of “treatments” thrive, I told Sam, and shame is fostered by silence. Few, if any, will ever admit to practicing anything remotely called “conversion therapy”; in their minds, “conversion therapy” likely doesn't even exist. Instead, they are trying to “help.”

Sam went on to ask that if practitioners aren’t openly admitting to practicing conversion therapy, how can we expect to regulate them; and if they can’t be regulated, the question remains: why are these bans still worthwhile?

These are all good questions, I told Sam, and ones that I’d been repeating to many people for a long time. However, I reminded Sam that all of these concerns are the exact same “problems” that any jurisdiction would likely face, and about 30 U.S. cities / counties, 10 states and D.C., even the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Ontario, have all banned the practice of conversion therapy, even though regulatory policies against the practice already exist in nearly every national and international health organization. Obviously, further preventative measures are still needed. Just as morality cannot be legislated—despite laws against sexual abuse or rape, some go right on sexually abusing and raping—no ban against something as elusive as “conversion therapy” will ever prevent every act of hatred toward gays or trans people, but it is a start.

All that said, not all proposed bans have been successful; as it turns out, one such bill in New Hampshire failed to pass just recently because opponents believed that “conversion therapy” was not a concern where they lived (funny how that works: shame from these treatments fosters silence, and because of silence the opponents claim the treatments don't exist); that actually banning these so-called “therapies” might prevent minors from wanting to openly discuss their “unwanted” same-sex attractions with counsellors; and that many “former” homosexuals (known colloquially as “ex-gays”) have claimed to have actually been helped by these “therapies,” living out their lives now as heterosexually married or at least coupled in opposite-sex relationships. Once again, as in past, such opponents confuse these types of coercive treatments with safe, honest, and emotionally fulfilling discussions around sexuality and gender, both of which are of course complicated issues and well deserving of serious attention. Banning conversion therapy in no way prevents such discussions. Torture is never “therapy,” and conversion therapies torture people, through various shame-based approaches, into trying to become who they’re not. In terms of apparent “success rates,” the director of the sexual orientation and gender diversity office at the American Psychological Association was quoted to have said in a follow article in The New York Times: “Even if someone agrees to behave differently, it doesn’t change who they are.”

Sounds simple enough, and I couldn’t agree more.

I’d also add that even if a gay person changes the “map” of their sexual identity—engaging in opposite-sex partnerships—it will never change the “territory” of their underlying desires. I call myself a gay man but I could also call myself a heterosexual man and even go about having sex with a woman if I wanted; I could change my behavior—but would any of that change my underlying sensibilities and desires? Is what I do or how I present myself to the world always the same as who I am and know myself to be? Of course not. People live a lie all the time. All that sort of contradictory, duplicitous, behaviour would do for me personally is betray who I know myself to be and thrust me back into the state of dissonance and inner turmoil that I also struggled most of my early life to escape. To live my life as truthfully and as honestly as possible is what will bring me peace: this much I know for sure. A map may not be the territory it represents, but to align my authentic self, my territory, with my outer behaviour, my map, is my objective.

Bans against “conversion therapy” hold great value, I told Sam, finally, since they set a tone and create a precedent, thereby possibly preventing these kinds of “therapies” from recurring again; they also bring the issue out into public scrutiny, which is already a step forward. People don’t discover who they are simply from within; people discover who they are, and also who and what they’re not, by what they encounter in the world outside. Bans against conversion therapy send a clear message to all by destabilizing the belief system—which is of course just that: a belief system; it is not Truth—that says gay or trans people are somehow “broken” and must be healed. Bans like the one proposed in Vancouver and already passed in numerous other jurisdictions tell us all that there is nothing wrong with being gay, or lesbian, queer or trans. Bans like this tell us we are valued, and protected; that when we, as LGBTQ people, are depressed or unsettled, struggling with feelings of displacement or alienation from family or our religion, that this very alienation and displacement is not as a result of our true nature, but as a result of being shamed and dejected, silenced, of being subjected to people promoting hatred and intolerance in the name of God, which in my mind is never godly—maybe even as a result of trying to change ourselves, through extraordinarily twisted and counterintuitive measures, into something we are not. Trying to change our sexuality or gender in order to feel less alone and “normal” is antithetical to what we truly desire and ultimately need, which is to be accepted and valued, loved, for who we are. If bans like this can prevent even one LGBTQ person, who may still believe there’s something inherently wrong with them simply for being themselves, from falling under the spell of even one “practitioner,” who may still believe there’s something wrong with them simply for being LGBTQ—then that ban, as far as I’m concerned, will have succeeded triumphantly.

To Ban or Not to Ban may be the question for lawmakers, but the underlying issue, at least in my books, remains helping to prevent immeasurable harm while fostering lives lived in honesty and integrity, or perpetuating institutionalized hatred by turning a blind eye for the sake of maintaining a lie.