Conversion therapy in Alberta: Ryan’s story

One Alberta man's experience with conversion therapy practices in the province

Students in gay-straight alliances (GSA's) were parade marshals for the 28th annual Calgary Pride Parade, held on Sept. 2, 2018.

At 17 years old, Ryan A. – whose last name is withheld for privacy reasons – moved from his small town and enrolled in a bible college just outside of Calgary.

It was then, approximately 17 years ago, that he went through conversion therapy in Calgary.

“I moved away when I was 17, but I turned 18 within a month of college, and in a bible college I’m supposedly living a Christian lifestyle,” said Ryan.

Soon after starting at the college Ryan received a phone call from his dad and his stepmom about a long distance call he had made that summer. They found out the call was to another man.

Ryan said that parental phone call was how he officially admitted to his dad and stepmom that he was gay.

“And then they were, obviously, mad and disappointed; and, eventually, they actually called the college,” said Ryan.

“So they basically got the college to set up the conversion therapy.”

He said he wasn’t sure if he felt he had a choice to go to conversion therapy.

“They [Ryan’s dad and stepmom] would have been too disappointed if I didn’t go,” he said.

Where we’re at today with conversion therapy in Alberta

In February, the former provincial government established a working group to ban conversion therapy in Alberta. The group was to meet regularly for five months and provide to the Minister of Health recommendations for how best to end the practice.

On June 7, the co-chair of the task group, Nicole Goehring, tweeted an email sent to her from the new, United Conservative Party (UCP) Minister of Health, Tyler Shandro:

The UCP government has maintained they’re against conversion therapy.

No plans have been announced by the UCP to ban conversion therapy. They’ve stated that the practice isn’t recognized and can’t be performed by health care professionals.

Calgary Pride also took a stand on the issue.

“And since many of these programs are run out of churches and not performed by certified psychologists or registered social workers, the ethical codes and regulations that govern health care professionals only address one slice of the issue,” stated the press release.

Conversion Therapy: Ryan’s first session

He didn’t have his car. A teacher from the college drove him to the church, not his own, where the sessions took place. Already this felt like a production, said Ryan. Then he was introduced to the program leader, Garnet, by his teacher.

Ryan said it was run like a therapy session. Garnet told Ryan that he used to be gay, too.

“And that he’s now married and lives a successful, straight, life,” Ryan said.

Ryan was told his sessions would be conducted outside of the group. Garnet felt Ryan would be too interested in meeting guys in the group setting because he was from a small town, newly 18, and had never met other men interested in dating men.

“So I only did one-on-one with him,” said Ryan.

Garnet wanted Ryan to describe everything he had experienced so far.

Ryan was unsure about this, but he didn’t want to read too much into it. He said he was young and not overly experienced so he didn’t have much to share.

From there – still on his first day – Ryan was told those thoughts wouldn’t go away and he had to choose not to act on them.

“It’s your choice to, I guess as a Christian, make the right choice every day and put them in the back of your head, and don’t act on them,” he said.

‘…It was more of pretending that it was working…’

The whole experience felt strange, Ryan said.

One of the sessions in particular stood out. Garnet brought Ryan to his home. Nothing bad happened, said Ryan, Garnet had wanted to give him some materials and books.

He met Garnet’s wife. He said Garnet had told him she used to think he was gay. That he had changed himself. Ryan was, again, told that as a Christian he could make the choice everyday not to act on “those feelings.” According to Ryan, that’s what the program was all about: Not acting on homosexual thoughts.

Ryan said there was a point where he thought he would give conversion therapy a shot. That it might actually work.

“In the long run, it was more of pretending that it was working and telling them that there’s been success, but ultimately – it was found out – that it wasn’t a success,” said Ryan.

Ryan’s life today

When asked if he thought other people should go through conversion therapy, Ryan didn’t hesitate.

“No,” he said.

His experience with conversion therapy still impacts his life today. He said many of his struggles are with things young people have already figured out – how to confidently be himself and not feel like he needs to keep his sexuality a secret.

Ryan said he felt like he got a late start. Whether that was from his upbringing, conversion therapy or his small town roots, he couldn’t be sure.

He currently works as a teacher and recently took over leading a GSA at the school where he teaches. Working with those kids has helped him, Ryan said.

“People were aware and the kids treated me better, because it wasn’t something that could be whispered about anymore, it wasn’t something that could be laughed at anymore, because it was just out there,” he said.

Recent proposed policy changes made it seem like there is an attack on the gay community, said Ryan. He wasn’t surprised, he said, that the UCP cancelled the NDP’s working group tasked with banning conversion therapy in Alberta. He said he’s annoyed, especially when GSA’s are simultaneously becoming less of a safe space.

Ryan became a teacher to help students, and he worries about students saying yes to conversion therapy.

“I’m still surprised that at the age of 18 I said yes, just to try and make my family happy,” he said.

Ryan said he felt his experience was tame compared to others.

“I don’t want to think about them going through that. And I know that people have had a lot worse conversion therapy than me, mine was pretty light.”

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