A rainbow-clad crowd burst into applause at city hall Monday as council unanimously passed a motion to ban conversion therapy.
Calgary joins Edmonton and St. Albert as another Alberta community taking steps to block the harmful and discredited practice of using psychological or spiritual intervention to change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
City staff will now draft a bylaw that prohibits conversion therapy and fine anyone found advertising or offering the practice in Calgary. The motion also includes a request to push the federal and provincial governments to end the practice.
Coun. Jeromy Farkas, who is openly bisexual, teared up as he talked about his experiences coming out at a young age.
“When another person in authority, someone I trusted and admired, approached me and said that I could, more or less, pray the ‘me’ away, I felt humiliated,” Farkas said.
“I would say more than 20 years later and serving in a public role like I am, where every step and misstep is broadcast on television, I still have never felt so humiliated as that day.”
Many councillors said the province and feds need to do more about conversion therapy. The Liberal government is currently looking at a ban across Canada, but there’s no law in place yet. Last year, Alberta’s UCP government cancelled a working group tasked with banning conversion therapy in the province, just a month before the federal government issued a letter to provinces and territories urging them to do their part in abolishing the “cruel exercise.”
Farkas said he still has concerns about whether the move to ban conversion therapy should fall to the city when the other levels of government have more powers to stop it. But he still put his support behind the motion.
“Some will say that this is virtue signalling, but is it worth it to send a signal about the kind of city we are and we want to be? Damn straight.”
City of Calgary councillor Jeromy Farkas speaks during a council session on Monday, February 3, 2020. Gavin Young/Postmedia
It sends shivers up your spine
Lois Szabo, 83, watched at city hall as one by one, council members spoke in support of the ban on conversion therapy.
In 1970, she helped found Club Carousel, Calgary’s first gay bar. That was a time when people “wouldn’t have dared” to be a politician and openly LGBTQ.
“If they dared to enter politics at all, they wouldn’t have been open and out and supported,” she said. “It sends shivers up your spine to realize that people are now standing up.”
Szabo came out as a lesbian in the 1960s, and she said the fight for equal rights is far from over.
“We can’t let up for one minute. I’m disappointed to see not so many grey-haired people at this event. They should be packed here with people who went through hell to get what we’ve got.”
Calgary councillor Jyoti Gondek in a council session on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. Gavin Young/Postmedia
Couns. Evan Woolley, Druh Farrell, Jyoti Gondek, Gian-Carlo Carra and Mayor Naheed Nenshi initially proposed the conversion therapy ban last month. On Monday, Woolley acknowledged that while the move is symbolic, “we will bring teeth.”
“If you are practising this in our city, we will come at you with everything that we’ve got,” he said.
Gondek also sent a strong message in council chambers.
“For any of the religious groups who are saying it’s a ‘lifestyle choice’ that you are going to try to talk someone out of, your role as a place of worship is to be inclusive and welcoming to anyone that God has put on this earth that is just trying to get by. And no one is trying to monitor that.”
About a dozen people who opposed the ban gathered at city hall Monday morning, some holding signs urging council to “respect the right to choose” and “reword the motion.”
Graeme Lauber, who works with Journey Canada in Calgary, said the group against the ban is concerned about the potential for the new Calgary bylaw to “infringe on religious freedoms.”
The details of the bylaw’s wording will be discussed later this year at a council committee.
Lauber says he’s gay, but he lives by “traditional Christian beliefs” and so is married to a woman.
“We do want to make sure the wording of the law respects the faith traditions of Calgarians who make different choices,” he said.
According to its website, Journey Canada is “committed to a traditional Christian understanding of sexuality,” but “we reject any program that promises change in sexual orientation or makes orientation change a goal.”
Meanwhile, Keith Murray had helped assemble a group of about 150 people to show support for the motion Monday. Along with local LGBTQ advocate Pam Rocker, they handed out scarves and stickers ahead of the vote.
Murray, the affirming co-ordinator at Hillhurst United Church, uses they/them pronouns. They said they hear from people who have gone through some form of conversion therapy on a regular basis, and Hillhurst United Church just opened a new support group to respond to the demand.
But Murray said there’s hope in the strength the LGBTQ community showed on Monday.
“I’m so proud of our community rallying together. We are a strong and resilient community and we stand up for each other.”
Twitter: @meksmith