Growing up in an evangelical church, 16-year-old Jonathan Brower loved the sense of community it brought and even attended Baptist bible camps.
At the time, his parents were going through a divorce. He sought out a Christian therapist to support him in dealing with the situation.
That was when Brower told his therapist he was gay, and his journey through “conversion therapy” began.
“It was always sort of a good experience until I started like hearing from the pulpit that it was not okay to be gay,” Brower, who is now 35, said in an interview with the Toronto Observer from his home B.C.
As his teen years merged into young adulthood, Brower soon realized that conversion therapy was more harmful than helpful.
Conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy, seeks to “correct” a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity on the basis of misconceptions about homosexuality. Through the years, the acceptance of diverse sexual orientations and genders have spread across Canada, but not without some scrutiny. Religious leaders in particular insist that conversion therapy is mandatory, but others believe the practice can do irreparable psychological damage.
The federal Liberals are standing with the LGBTQ community and has introduced a bill to ban conversion therapy nationwide.
Currently, it’s only illegal some places — three provinces across Canada, and in the cities of Vancouver, St. Albert, and recently, Calgary.
Conversion therapy can include everything from electroshock therapy to psychological torment. For Brower, who did conversion therapy four times, it meant “writing down all of your sins related to what you were dealing with, and nailing them to the cross.” He is now among those fighting for it to be criminalized nationwide.
WATCH: Jonathan Brower explains the activities he did while in conversion therapy and sends a message to his younger self:
Campaign Life Coalition, a Canadian “pro-life organization” focused on defending “the sanctity of human life against threats of … family values,” is one group that supports conversion therapy.
“Jesus is the true lover of your soul … if you would like help in overcoming … unwanted same-sex attraction,” the group says on their website, which provides a list of organizations to contact.
A 2019 study by Travis Salway, a social epidemiologist at the University of British Columbia, found more than 20,000 people in Canada have experienced some sort of conversion therapy.
Kristopher Wells, alongside No Conversion Canada, cited Salway’s study in a report titled Conversion Therapy in Canada: The Roles and Responsibilities of Municipalities, and claimed that due to the lack of tracking around conversion therapy and it still being legal in provinces across Canada, the actual figure may be higher.
In the years 2005, 2009, and 2010, Brower attended the evangelical organization Living Waters (now known as Journey Canada) in Calgary, where he attended courses to prepare him for becoming a volunteer.
Topics about relational and sexual wholeness were brought up in these courses, and were used as ways to cultivate heterosexuality through spiritual teachings.
“It was agreed on by everyone that … the the sins and the things that we were dealing with … were things that needed to be fixed and things that God could help with,” Brower said.
Banning conversion therapy
On March 9, Minister of Justice and Attorney General David Lametti, alongside Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth Bardish Chagger tabled Bill C-8, which would ban conversion therapy in Canada.
If passed, the bill would make the following illegal:
- Forced conversion therapy.
- Taking minors out of Canada to undergo conversion therapy overseas.
- Causing minors to undergo conversion therapy.
- Advertising conversion therapy.
- Financial benefit from conversion therapy.
Brower sees this bill as effective at tackling the issue of conversion therapy in Canada, but he believes that the government’s inability to create legislation against religious communities or theology, is what does not make this bill secure enough for LGBTQ Canadians.
“It’s very hard to see that this legislation will impact some of these, like really sneaky organizations,” he said.
The long fight
Nicholas Schiavo of No Conversion Canada, which was founded in 2018, has been fighting for legislation of Bill C-8’s calibre since its inception.
A “national grassroots coalition,” No Conversion Canada’s goal is to help federal officials in criminalizing conversion therapy federally and spreading awareness about this “barbaric form of abuse.”
“My kind of thought was … (if) we bring them together and (fight) under this name, it’s a lot harder to ignore us,” Schiavo said in a phone interview.
Schiavo was present at the justice minister’s announcement, as was religious leader Rev. Cheri DiNovo of of Trinity— St. Paul’s United Church.
Back when DiNovo was a member of Ontario’s New Democratic Party in 2015, she backed Bill 77, which stopped the provincial health plan from covering the costs of conversion therapy and prohibited minors from being subjected to it.
In an interview, she said fear is a motivating factor for some parents who seek it out for their children.
“They haven’t done much reading on it and they’re scared for their children and, and they need information,” she said.
Many parents turn to leaders in their faith communities for advice when their children tell them they are LGBTQ+. But not all religious leaders are accepting of homosexuality, and that can lead to advice that is often harmful and uninformed, she said.
“It’s really incumbent upon people in whatever faith they find themselves, to be knowledgeable, to study their scripture, to understand theology … (and) to stand with the oppressed,” DiNovo said.
A happy ending
Today, Brower stands as new person, a stark contrast to his 16-year-old self. Brower, who is friends with Schiavo and has been supporting No Conversion Canada’s fight against conversion therapy from the sidelines, has created safe spaces for LGBTQ+ youth through his profession: theatre.
Before residing in British Columbia with his partner Kyall Rakoz, Brower created YOUth Riot, a queer youth playwriting program in Calgary.
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“We would bring in professional theatre artists, and guests to help train the youth and help them build their own play,” Brower said.
The program has been going on for six years.
When asked about what he would tell his teenage self, entering conversion therapy for the first time, Brower said:
“Jonathan, you’re trying so hard to be what you think, God and everybody else wants you to be. And in reality, the reason God’s not answering your prayers for healing is because you already are, who he wants you to be.”