Content warning: This article discusses conversion therapy.
When Mitchell Goodine’s family forced him into conversion therapy at age 15, he almost saw the sessions as routine as his violin lessons. The goal was to “pray the gay away.”
But soon the practice might be banned, or at least it might be in Saint John. The city plans to become the first place in Atlantic Canada to ban conversion therapy.
The motion was brought to council on Jan. 27 by conversion therapy survivor and University of New Brunswick Saint John graduate Victor Szymanski and Saint John city councillor David Hickey. Szymanski also plans to visit the New Brunswick provincial legislature in March with Memramcook-Tantramar Green Party MLA Megan Mitton to propose a province-wide ban.
Goodine said while he likes the idea of the ban it isn’t enough.
“To simply ban it is not that easy,” he said.
“I want federal coverage so everyone is on the same page because only then will you truly have reparative form when you know that nobody will do this anywhere across the country in any form of legislation or health care.”
Life as a rural, gay teen
Conversion therapy is defined as any treatment that attempts to change sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, according to Matt Ashcroft, a conversion therapy survivor. In his report, Background Information on Conversion Therapy for Municipalities in Canada, he said conversion therapy can include individual talk therapy, behaviour therapy, group therapy and medical or drug-induced treatments.
Goodine, a former UNB nursing student, grew up during the early 2000s in a Pentecostal family and community in Perth-Andover, a rural village in northwestern New Brunswick. He said while a few teachers at his school would offer students a safe place to talk about their gender and gender identity, there weren’t many options available to him.
“We didn’t have [pride] flags on the walls or the windows to say that ‘You are safe here, this is your zone,’” he said.
Goodine said his parents found out he was gay after they found gay porn on their home computer. After that, he said they kept him away from a lot of social activities like community dances because it was an “opportunity to sin.”
Goodine’s parents booked appointments with a social worker in Woodstock to start conversion therapy sessions. They were held every two weeks in the basement of a Baptist church during the summer of 2005.
He said the sessions involved repetitive, constant meditation and repentant prayers. One exercise involved image therapy.
“She would get me to put all of my gay tendencies in a box and then she said, ‘Now we’re going to put a lid on that box, and we’re gonna pray the anointing of the Lord that he seals that box,’” Goodine said.
“It was just like another Sunday sermon.”
In school, he dealt with bullying, depression and suicidal thoughts regularly. He also felt like the religious community didn’t include him because they sensed he was gay.
Over the years, Goodine’s relationships back home slowly improved, which he said was very surprising.
“I could have sworn that most of them were going to backlash me once they figured out that I went public,” he said.
But after his father’s death in 2012, Goodine said he received some support from his sister and mom, including small acts like morning texts.
“They still want to extend that they always love me,” he said.
“They may not believe or support what I live and what I do, but they love me, and I think that’s something that I’ve always just wanted in my life.”
The beginning of the end
Tyler MaGee, the sexual and gender diversity representative for the St. Thomas University Students’ Union, grew up in Saint John. He said it’s bold of the city to take on the responsibility of a ban considering its strong religious ties.
But he’s concerned about how the city will police the new bylaw to ensure residents comply.
“It’s not enough just to have it, you have to be able to enforce it,” MaGee said.
“I think that will come down to the way it’s worded and the types of provisions they have in it and the sanctions they have for people in violation of whatever policy they come up with.”
Still, MaGee commends Szymanski for standing up to get the bylaw passed.
“I think that is incredibly resilient of [him] and very, very brave,” he said.
Cassidy Wilson, the LGBTQIA2S+ wellness coordinator on campus, said she hopes the new laws will mark the beginning of the end for conversion therapy.
“Research really shows that conversion therapy doesn’t work. It’s not effective. Things like sexual orientation and gender identity are innate parts of who a person is,” she said.
Wilson said resources are available for students who may have experienced conversion therapy in the past. Options include STU and UNB Counselling Services, the 203 Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity, the STU Sexual and Gender Advocacy group and Fredericton Gender Minorities Group.
Looking forward, Goodine, who now lives in Fredericton, said he would like to work towards creating a safe space downtown where members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community can come together and support others who have experienced discrimination, prejudice and acts of homophobia.
“We’re trying to encourage survivors who have the means and opportunity to use their rights and use their platform to help those who don’t.”
On Dec. 13, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wrote in a mandate letter to the minister of justice, David Lametti, “To amend the Criminal Code to ban the practice of conversion therapy and take other steps required with the provinces and territories to end conversion therapy in Canada.”
Goodine said he loves Trudeau’s mandate letter and hopes the prime minister lives up to his promise to save others from going through similar trauma.
“We need action,” he said.
“We can’t let the conversation die, we have to keep pushing our MPs to bring this to legislation and represent our New Brunswick residents.”
If you have been involved in conversion therapy and are looking for help, you can contact the LGBT National Help Center Hotline at 1-888-843-4564 or visit them online at https://www.glbthotline.org/.
With files from Caitlin Dutt