Kingston City Council has passed a motion to ban the practice of conversion therapy within the municipality.
“I think in June, when we see the pedestrian crossing [outside City Hall] painted the colours of the rainbow, I think we can with pride know that we’ve really earned that privilege,” said Councillor Bridget Doherty, who tabled the motion on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021.
The motion passed after a lengthy discussion on whether it should be strengthened from its original form, which only denounced the practice. Council amended the motion, guided by the insights of local members of the LGBTQ2+ community shared during delegations Tuesday night, as well as input on the legality from City Staff.
Doherty’s original motion suggested that municipal regulation could face challenges. “As conversion therapy is often practiced in secret outside of formal business settings,” the motion read, “any such municipal prohibition or regulation would be difficult for municipalities to regulate and enforce.”
It also noted that the federal government is on its way to nationally criminalizing the practice, as Bill C-6, An Act to Amend the Criminal Code (Conversion Therapy) passed its second reading in the House of Commons on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020.
Council added directions to City Staff to draft bylaws that fully prohibit the practice of conversion therapy across all age groups within Kingston, enforcable with a fine. The bylaw draft is due to Council for review before the end of 2021.
“I’m really glad for the amendment, I think it really strengthens this,” said Councillor Jim Neill. “It’s all very well and good to say that there’s a Criminal Code [amendment] in the works but, there may be an election that slows that up.”
A widely documented, dangerous and psychologically damaging process, conversion therapy aims to change an individual’s sexual orientation to heterosexual. It may also be referred to as Reparative Therapy, Reintegrative Therapy, or Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Change Efforts, and its definition has expanded to include attempts to modify a person’s gender to conform with their biological sex at birth.
Council Doherty moved to address the issue at City Council after news outlets Vice News and Global Kingston exposed a local independent church, the Third Day Worship Centre (TDWC), for alleged coercive attempts at conversion therapy for some members of its congregation. Mayor Bryan Paterson is a former member of TDWC, though he announced his departure from the church last fall. He seconded Doherty’s motion Tuesday night.
The motion also calls on Council to write a letter supporting Bill C-6 to the Prime Minister of Canada and other federal officials. Finally it stipulates that City Staff should collaborate with Kingston Community Health Centre (KCHC) and KFL&A Addiction and Mental Health Services (AMHS) to set up support services for local survivors of conversion therapy, with a September 30th deadline.
The motion passed unanimously. Councillor Simon Chapelle recused himself from voting, noting a conflict of interest as the Associate Chair of the Ontario Parole Board, which has a further association with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.
Community members speak out
Ben Rogers, who has come forward publicly as a survivor of conversion therapy at TDWC, spoke to council Tuesday night. He described the experience as a kind of torture.
“I support this motion. It is a good step but it is not enough,” he said. He implored Council to make the motion inclusive of victims of all ages, to reconsider references to ‘consent,’ and not to distinguish between paid or unpaid forms of the so-called therapy.
“People who consent to conversion therapy are not doing it out of their free will,” Rogers said. “I was convinced that the only thing I could do, to be a man, to be a Christian, to be with my family, to be with my Church family, was to let them ‘fix’ me. To let them change who I was…. It’s ridiculous.”
He also noted that he was 19 years-old when he experienced the ‘treatment,’ just one year too old to be protected by the federal Bill C-6, which pertains to children and youth.
“The aspects paid or unpaid,” he added, “Churches don’t necessarily ask for money. Third Day didn’t ask for money, not for the conversion. It wasn’t money that they wanted from me. They wanted someone they could use as a prize.”
Rogers made one of four delegations presented to Council on the issue Tuesday night, among other citizens Seth Perry, Ashley Perna, Kaili Gabriel and Sheila Roewade.
“This is not just a rubber stamp,” Perry said. “This is a commitment to justice and equality.”
Council notably declined a delegation from Derek Sloan, the Member of Parliament representing Hastings-Lennox & Addington. Because his request for delegation was submitted late, Council had to vote to amend the City of Kingston’s Procedural By-Law to allow him to speak.
Councillors Mary Rita Holland, Jim Neill, Wayne Hill, Bridget Doherty, Peter Stroud and Jeff McLaren opposed Sloan’s delegation; Lisa Osanic, Gary Oosterhoff and Robert Kiley voted in favour and Simon Chappelle was recused. The same bylaw was unanimously amended to allow delegations by Rogers, Gabriel, Roewade and Perna.
Sloan voted against the Federal Bill C-6 in October 2020, voicing concerns that it could criminalize the dialogue about sexuality and /or gender between a parent and child, or between a religious leader and a young person.
Following the delegations and entering into discussions on the motion, Councillor Doherty told her peers: “We have two choices: we support the motion or we amend it to include a municipal ban.”
Mayor further distances himself from TDWC, denounces homophobia
Towards the end of the meeting Mayor Bryan Paterson took a moment to address his involvement with TDWC. Paterson announced in September that he would be stepping away from it after a video surfaced of TDWC sermons expressing homophobia, Islamophobia and promoting COVID-19 conspiracy theories.
Rogers addressed the mayor specifically during his delegation, telling him “Maybe people truly can change. I believe that and I want to give you the opportunity to show that you can.”
Just past 9 p.m., and before the final vote, Mayor Paterson raised the issue.
“I would like to address the elephant in the room which in this case is me,” he said. “I know full well that my personal faith has been in the spotlight for the last number of months. So I genuinely appreciate the opportunity to be able to speak to council and to speak to the community as a whole.
“First of all… my wife and my family and I left TDWC last fall. We are no longer a part of the church,” he said. “I know that there have been some legitimate questions about what my own beliefs are. With the indulgence of Council I would like to take a moment to address that and hit that head on.”
“Conversion therapy is wrong. It’s just plain wrong,” he said. “I do not support it, condone it any way, shape or form. I heard Ben’s story. It breaks my heart. It honestly breaks my heart.”
“I will tell you that while I was not aware of these situtaions, I’m just deeply saddened to hear about the negative experiences that people had,” he added.
He said he saw the motion as a chance for Council, and himself, to take a stand against something, as well as “to stand up” for a more inclusive community.
“I’m going to be very honest. My thinking, my attitudes towards the LGBTQ community they have evolved over the years,” he admitted. “I want every member of our LGBTQ community to know that I value you, that I respect you.”
“I often say this phrase that we are all in this together,” he continued. “I mean that. We can all be included, we can all succeed and thrive regardless of our sexual orientation, our gender identity, our race, our religion…. As Mayor I am proud to champion that mission. I am proud to lead towards an inclusive community. That is what I believe.”
Councillor Holland also took a moment to talk about the significance of the City’s action, and its place within a broader social context.
“I live with a teenager now,” she said. “I’ll tell you nothing gets you the side-eye faster than saying something that is not inline with the current way of thinking about issues of equity. My 14 year-old told me ‘I can’t believe that you are speaking about this, that this is an issue. I can’t believe that you are having this conversation. This is torture. How is this happening in this century?’”
“That’s the way this issue is perceived by the next generation,” she added. “I am happy to see… that we are taking a position that is on the edge, being leaders, in order to demonstrate to people who really are affected in that young vulnerable stage, and to everybody who has been affected in the past, that we recognize the cruelty and the terrible hardship that has been caused by this way of thinking.”