A Personal Letter from Erika Muse

June 25, 2020   |   Op-Ed

My name is Erika Muse, and I spoke at the press conference introducing the Canadian federal government’s Bill C-8 to ban conversion therapy on March 9th, 2020. I got up, and I broke down in tears, and I said that I could not support that bill, as a survivor of conversion therapy, and as an activist who has fought to make sure conversion therapy is banned in Canada.

I want to tell you why I said what I said, why I still cannot support this bill, and why I am pushing for desperately needed changes to be made to that legislation to ensure it protects trans people. Ever since I stood up and said that the bill wasn’t good enough, my concerns with this legislation have gone unreported, and have largely been ignored. Many people may not have seen or heard about what I did, and even fewer likely understand why. This letter is for you to understand who I am, what I have done, and why I need your help to correct the issues with this piece of legislation.

My experiences with conversion therapy were  at the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, a publicly-funded mental health care provider. It was covered by Ontario’s public health care system: in fact, going through conversion therapy was required in order to access gender-affirming transition-related healthcare.

As a trans woman who came out in the early 2000s at the age of 16, I had limited options for gender-affirming transition-related healthcare services. All trans health care in my part of Ontario was required to go through CAMH. In order to access life-saving gender-affirming healthcare (including hormones and surgery, which are collectively referred to as medical transition), I was required to attend the CAMH Youth Gender Clinic, undergo psychotherapy there, and only then would I be approved for access to gender-affirming healthcare services.

At the time, CAMH was known among the trans community as a horrible, hurtful, painful place to go for trans health care; but I did not have a choice about where to go for the care I needed. Ontario health care policy at the time was very clear: trans patients went to CAMH in order to access transition-related healthcare. My treatment there was not therapeutic, not healing, not supportive and certainly not gender-affirming. When I went in for my initial intake appointment, I made it very clear that I needed medical transition services. Instead, I was sent through years of destructive talk therapy, aiming to annihilate my identity, my personality and my gender expression, to try to change me from being a woman and instead reconstruct me as the man the therapist thought I should be. He repeatedly insulted and attacked me for what he saw as my personal failings, my issues, and the things that he felt I needed to resolve in my life. This was not limited solely to my gender identity or gender expression, but also other problems he thought contributed to my gender issues, such as my lack of a father. The therapist forced me to attempt to change these problems he saw in me, framing my compliance with his program as a necessary prerequisite to access the medical services I desperately needed. His assignments were always constructed as ways to fix me, to fix the illness he saw in me, to push away the part of me that identified as a woman.

This process went on for years, during which he repeatedly denied me the medical care I needed. He was the gatekeeper, with the sole authority to give me what are ethically and medically appropriate services for trans people. He denied them to me, instead using me as an experiment, an academic subject to be studied. Meanwhile, my body continued to change in ways I never wanted it to: male puberty continued and eventually finished, and I grew taller and thicker in ways I never wanted, and which access to transition-related healthcare could have prevented. My body is a prison for me to this day; if he had given me the treatment I asked for and needed when I entered the CAMH Youth Gender Clinic, it would have greatly lessened the physical and mental trauma I continue to experience. I remember he used to comment on me growing taller and filling out, complimenting me treating these changes as a good thing. As he spoke, I would try to hold in my tears and screams. I was so traumatized I was left suicidal, self-isolating, severely depressed and anxious by his treatment, repeatedly failing entire semesters during my university studies. I knew that for me, as is true for many trans people, the way to improve my mental health was by accessing gender-affirming transition-related healthcare. While this experience is meant to be affirming and supportive of trans people, it in truth  hurt me more than I could’ve ever imagined. When I was not seeing him, he would call my mother and berate her for my lack of attendance.

Eventually I believe he gave up on me. At our last session he dismissed me, finally gave me the referrals for transition-related medical services I needed, and just let me go. I was too broken and too hurt to ever follow up on them, to possibly expose myself to more of the same treatment. It has been a decade since then, and I am only now beginning to recover who I am after he shattered my identity: holding down a part-time job, barely functioning, starting to believe in myself again.

I have been working for the last five years to hopefully prevent what happened to me from happening to other trans people, young and old, across Canada. I have spoken publicly as a survivor as much as I can, pushing myself to be heard, to be seen, to tell the story of how CAMH ruined the lives and bodies and minds of so many trans people forced to come to them for health care. I don’t personally know of any other trans people doing this advocacy and visibility work; I’ve never met another survivor in a public space. We are all too traumatized to speak up and be heard, and fearful of retribution for sharing our stories. It is a collective wound to the trans citizens of Canada; the theories and programs practiced at CAMH were exported nationally and internationally. Canadian trans conversion therapy is the world standard, still referred to by conversion therapists in other countries to this day. My experiences, I have no doubt, were repeated by other victims at CAMH, and the same theories that were used to hurt me have been used to hurt other trans people across the world.

CAMH’s Youth Gender Clinic is now shut down. Five years ago, I worked with then-MPP Cheri DiNovo to get a provincial conversion therapy ban passed in Ontario. We included specific language so that conversion therapy could not be practiced in the Ontario public health system, preventing conversion therapists from being permitted to act as  gatekeepers for trans healthcare. As a result, CAMH was forced to review and shut down the Youth Gender Clinic.

Ontario is a single province, not the entirety of Canada. An Ontario ban doesn’t protect trans Canadians from coast to coast, and it was apparent we needed a federal ban in order to truly protect all of us. Therefore, I have been working with other queer and trans activists, conversion therapy survivors, and academics to research and develop policy regarding this issue for all of Canada.

When we heard in January that the federal government was considering a national conversion therapy ban we were all hopeful: the government had received our work so far, and promised to take it into account. We never heard the government directly reach out to survivors, only to queer organizations and a handful of academics, and that was a disappointment. We, the victims of this horrible experiment, were never consulted.

Bill C-8 was introduced on Monday, March 9th, but I only found out about it the previous week. I was invited to attend on the preceding Friday, after I chased down who the ministers were talking to. I was never given a clear timetable or any idea of what was required. I was only able to go because the Community-Based Research Centre covered my travel and lodgings on extremely short notice; not the federal government or any MP from their office budget for these purposes. It was a disgraceful disappointment: the Government of Canada never engaged the very people this bill was meant to help, until they needed model survivors for their press appearances.

I did not have any idea what was in the bill until about 10 minutes before the press conference, when I specifically had to ask for a copy to read through, despite being brought into this space specifically to provide my perspective as a survivor of conversion therapy I was blindsided and disappointed by what I read, how incoherent and full of gaps the bill was, and how little it would do to stop the pain that I and so many other trans people had undergone. I had prepared a speech, but I knew that I could not get up in front of national cameras and support this bill, that would not have banned or prevented my own traumatic experiences. A bill that was ostensibly supposed to help me, and victims like me.

I did not have any time to prepare, to collect my thoughts. I just knew it was not right, that it would not help, that it did not have the proper tools to help protect trans Canadians like myself. With time, I have now been able to reexamine Bill C-8, and I’d like to break down what concerns me, and what amendments are necessary for Bill C-8 to protect trans people from experiences like mine:

  • Bill C-8 solely concerns itself with trans people in the form of gender identity, meaning a person’s internal identified gender. Trans identities are often policed, repressed, or challenged because of our gender expressions: how we publicly display our genders (with dress, makeup, body language, social roles, et cetera). Bill C-8 must include protection for both gender identity and gender expression. In my personal experience, my conversion therapy often hammered away at my gender expression in order to destabilize my gender identity.
  • Bill C-8’s definition of conversion therapy specifies that it is a practice, treatment, or service designed to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. However, it provides a specific exemption for services provided as part of gender transitioning, which is infeasible as it leaves an open loophole for conversion therapy provided during those services. My conversion therapy was forced on me as part of gender transitioning, it was set up as a necessary step to access medical care through the public health system. As it stands, this gap in the bill would not have prevented the conversion therapy I experienced, and may even have provided legal defense for CAMH and their practices.
  • Bill C-8 limits itself to too fine a definition of when conversion therapy is illegal: practiced on minors, and as forced on non-consenting adults. My conversion therapy experience began when I was 16, but continued into adulthood; I always consented because I never had any alternative. My consent was always coerced and never given freely. I desperately needed access to transition-related healthcare, and going through CAMH was my only option. I could not freely provide consent in such a scenario.  Conversion therapy, no matter the form nor the method, is always painful, traumatic, and harmful: there is no context in which it is acceptable or justifiable. Bill C-8 should ban conversion therapy for all Canadians of all ages, without exception; we do not allow Canadians to consent to their own murder or physical trauma, so why should a practice known to create mental trauma be any different?

I believe that these holes exist in Bill C-8 because the government did not do their due diligence in consulting survivors and victims from across Canada, including myself or any other trans survivors in particular. The current Bill C-8 is far from sufficient, and narrowly addresses one popular narrative of conversion therapy: a coercive procedure performed on LGB youth to change their sexual orientation, frequently in faith communities. Because of this, the current Bill C-8 may appear to be an effective ban, but it only addresses one of the many types of conversion therapy currently taking place in Canada. It aims to help everyone, but only focuses on same-sex desires.

Similarly, Bill C-8 is also very inoffensive: its definition of conversion therapy, and its refusal to protect Canadians of all ages, is designed to shield the government from criticism and possible legal challenges from the religious right, and medical practitioners concerned the government will be legislating against their practice. Again, my horrible, traumatic, conversion therapy occurred in a licensed therapist’s office, at a public mental health hospital, funded by the public health system on Ontario. Conversion therapy has, is and will continue to occur in medical practices in this country unless this bill is amended to comprehensively ban all forms of conversion therapy. My rights to life, liberty and the security of the person as laid out by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are not limited by the beliefs, speech, or religion of any pastor or psychologist. Bill C-8, if amended, can ensure this protection for myself and others like me.

After I spoke up and said the bill was not good enough on Parliament Hill, my speech was quickly forgotten beyond the briefest soundbite. Minister Chagger’s press appearances to promote the bill were dogged by my accusations that the bill wasn’t good enough. On CTV, she responded that I had not been informed about the bill, that I hadn’t read it correctly, that she would speak to me and fix things.

She never spoke to me, and I have not had any contact with her since the press conference. She was wrong: I was not misinformed.  Minister Chagger herself is. I have spent years exploring this issue, personally and academically, and it is clear to me that Minister Chagger has little knowledge of the true history of conversion therapy in Canada. I do not believe she has spoken to a trans survivor, taken any effort to understand what we need, or incorporated our needs into the content of Bill C-8.

I need to make her, Minister Lametti, and the Government of Canada listen to my concerns: but I can’t do it alone. I need you, the person, the people, the organization reading this, to understand that Bill C-8 is not good enough, and that we need to stand up as Canadians and demand better.

This personal letter compliments an open letter by academics, activists, and organizations pushing for change to Bill C-8 so that it can protect trans people. That open letter contains data and the exact changes that I and the people I have been working with want to see in Bill C-8.  If you haven’t already read it, you can see it here and add your support. We need to ensure that Bill C-8 bans all forms of conversion therapy in Canada, and we need your support to make that happen. We need to be heard, and we need a better bill: for all of us.

Thank you,

Erika Muse