Kingston City Council defers conversion therapy bylaw for revisions

On Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, 11 of 13 Kingston City Councillors voted in favour of deferring a bylaw and program to ban conversion therapy to allow City Staff more time to rework the wording of the bylaw. Councillor Rob Hutchison was absent, and Councillor Simon Chapelle voted against the motion to defer, having indicated he wanted to table a motion to have the matter handled by the Administrative Policies Committee.

On Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, former Kingston resident, Ben Rodgers, appeared before Kingston City Council as a delegate, speaking to a report before Council regarding new programming and a bylaw seeking to ban conversion therapy.

Specifically, Rodgers spoke to Report #79 of the CAO, referring to a proposed Kingston bylaw that – if passed – will effectively ban the infliction of conversion therapy on legal adults within the LGBTQ community in Kingston. Rodgers, who now lives in Belleville, trailblazes what is currently Canada’s first and only support group for survivors of conversion therapy: CT Survivors Connect, forming the group in 2020 by sharing his own harrowing accounts of what he had been through at the age of 19, under the direction of his then-church, Third Day Worship Centre, here in Kingston. Rodgers said he was at first “terrified” at the potential response from the community, but it wasn’t long before his fears were put to rest with some rather unexpected and overwhelming support.

“I was scared out of my wits when I first came forward about all this. I thought the world was going to come after me – I thought that the church was going to attack me, that neighbouring people of the church were going to go after me. I was – in the end – extremely impressed with the outreach that I received. I ended up getting far more positive than I did negative.” 

Rodgers, who was recently awarded a microgrant through Awesome Kingston, is also aiming to raise $14,000 on CT Survivors Connect’s GoFundMe page in an effort to finance professional support group staffing. He has dedicated large swaths of his time, not only to spearheading the support group, but also to attempt to cause a ripple effect that ultimately abolishes conversion therapy practices in Canada – beginning with Kingston legislation setting the example for other nearby lawmakers, including Ottawa. Councillor Bridget Doherty openly advocates the proposed by-law for Kingston.

“I’m a mum, and I have children. I know Ontario already has a [conversion therapy] bylaw, but that’s only for children. Anybody over 18 needs to be protected, too, from something like that. It’s harmful,” Doherty expressed. “People commit suicide because of it. For anybody in our community to be made to feel less-than… and for goodness sakes, what’s the reason? Because they love somebody?”

Doherty continued, looking to the municipality in our nation’s capital.

“The Ottawa mayor is actually gay, and you would have thought it would be he who’d come out with the strongest bylaw of all people.”

According to Rodgers, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson has himself expressed “disappointing” doubts about the banning of conversion practices, quoting him as saying it would “never happen” during the Council meeting on Zoom on September 21. The delegation Rodgers gave at the meeting left many seated councillors visibly moved by his words.

“I want to see you guys actually put this forward and show me – that YOU Mr. Paterson, have made an effort to change, and you HAVE put yourself forward to change,” Rodgers began, referring to the fact that Mayor Bryan Paterson himself is a former member of Third Day Worship Centre, the church that Rodgers claims subjected him to conversion therapy.

“[I want to see] that you all, as a Council are going to make an effort to show us in the LGBTQ community that you believe that we are not broken – that you believe that we are whole, healthy and capable of being everything that we are. Because I can tell you right now – we are amazing people. We are everything and more.”

Rodgers put forward during an interview after the meeting that his traumatic experiences in conversion therapy as a teen were “torture and abuse,” and that making an effort to protect others from enduring the same fate became a moral and ethical imperative for him.

“As a survivor, I know what it’s like to experience it firsthand, and I don’t want anyone else to experience what I went through. The fact that I know there are people out there who are going through what I went through, and have gone through worse than what I went through… that terrifies me – they are trying to change someone at their core. Whether you’re gay, straight, old, young, pink, purple, blue or yellow… would you want that to happen to you?” Rodgers posed.

During the meeting, Council heard from other delegates, some from both the LGBTQ+ community, and some from the larger, general community, who expressed concerns over different parts of the bylaw to ban conversion therapy being proposed. Most specifically, delegates referred to:

  • Language in the bylaw that seemed to give validation to conversion therapy being a medical/health care practice. Councillor Peter Stroud, himself a Registered Nurse, echoed those sentiments.
  • The inclusion of Exemption 4.1 b. “treating a person by prayer or spiritual means in accordance with the tenets of the religion of the person giving the treatment,” which delegates and councillors both expressed confusion and worry over – some noting that this exemption might be exploited by those seeking to use it as a loophole to allow for conversion therapy, others (including City Solicitor Alan McLeod) pointing to the right of all Canadians to practice their religion (and this exemption protecting the City from possible human rights litigation), and still others expressing bewilderment with the use of the word “tenets” and what it means.

In the end, Councillor Doherty tabled a motion to defer the bylaw in order to allow City Staff more time to work in consultation with the relevant parties to reword the bylaw, with the bylaw to come back before Council in January 2022.

“It was deferred to give our legal department a chance to re-evaluate and make changes to the bylaw in an effort to address the concerns we heard from some delegations. We want to ensure we have a meaningful and workable bylaw,” Doherty said after the meeting, underlining the importance of this bylaw, the first of its kind in the province.

And while he is eager to see the bylaw enacted, Rodgers said he sees Council’s decision as a positive sign.

“I was okay with it. Specifically, because Councillor Doherty particularly has been championing this with city council – she and I spoke briefly – and she really did well at listening to what I and other delegates had to say, and understanding that they (Council) had the capability to do something really powerful – that there’s more that can be done. She saw that, and she ran with it,” he expressed.

“It just means we have more time to make the bylaw stronger and more effective, and that’s okay with me.”

Whether Rodgers’ desired ripple effect will begin with a stone’s throw in Kingston remains unknown, but will certainly become clearer when Council revisits the matter in early 2022.

With files from Tori Stafford.

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