Wendy VanderWal-Gritter, who identifies as “mainly straight,” is executive director of the Ontario-based Generous Space Ministries. With chapters nationwide, this charitable organization has become a haven for LGBTQ+ individuals and allies, as well as advocates for an end to conversion therapy in Canada.
Generous Space was originally New Beginnings, and then New Direction for Life — under these names, hundreds were subjected to sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts (or conversion therapy) from 1985 to 2004. VanderWal-Gritter has been with the ministry since 2002, and led the organization into the “generous space” of LGBTQ+ affirmation, allyship, and advocacy. She spoke with Brianna Sharpe.
Brianna Sharpe: How did you find your way to what’s now known as Generous Space?
Wendy VanderWal-Gritter: When I entered the ministry in 2002, I felt gay people had been treated badly by the church (trans people weren’t even on my radar then), but I was profoundly naive — I had no inkling of what I was walking into, or that it would become my life’s work. I was just out of seminary school, I had two little babies, and I could work from home. Pragmatically, that was the reason I applied.
Once I started hearing stories of conversion therapy survivors, I found myself in a terrible quandary. It wasn’t like I could walk in and say, “Guess what! We’re changing everything!” The question was, how do I lead the change I feel compelled to make without this completely blowing up?
BS: What kinds of stories were you hearing?
WVG: It became clear that survivors’ efforts to change their sexual attractions were causing numbness and disconnection from all desire, joy and hope. This permeated every part of their life — many experienced deep depression, suicidal ideation, increased anxiety, inability to perform well at work, guardedness in all relationships. Even with good therapy, the residue of shame and harm lasted for years.
My own theology shifted from a particular view of orthodoxy towards a justice lens that saw anything but full affirmation as injustice for LGBTQ+ people.
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BS: Why has Generous Space taken such a public stance against conversion therapy?
WVG: Given the history of our organization, I feel compelled to do whatever I can to address the reality that conversion therapy is still happening in Canada. Misguided faith leaders are doing profound harm, often to very vulnerable individuals.
A ban on conversion therapy is so important. But the awareness campaign is almost as important, so religious parents will know that trying to change their children’s gender identity or sexual orientation is going to harm them. It is going to increase their risk of suicidal ideation.
BS: What types of advocacy are you doing?
WVG: The ethos of the ministry was mainly to stay out of politics, but I really pushed the federal petition to ban conversion therapy. I wrote a letter to the prime minister, and co-signed the United Church’s letter. I also recently submitted a brief to the Standing Committee on Health’s study on LGBTQ health.
Our campaign, #pastorsstoppingtheharm, will be a statement acknowledging the harm of change efforts. It will ask pastors to sign on with their name, their church and where they are in Canada.
It’s important as fledgling allies to educate ourselves, so LGBTQ+ people don’t do the emotional labour for us. For this reason, Generous Space develops many resources for straight, cisgender church people to educate themselves.
BS: What has kept you going?
WVG: I recognize LGBT people don’t get a break from being LGBT, even if they’re in hostile environments. If I’m truly standing with my rainbow family, that means I need to stay engaged as an ally. I don’t get to duck out when it’s hard. It also means taking care of my self-care needs so I can continue to engage and be fully present to this work of resistance.
I stand on the shoulders of so many who broke first ground, harder ground. I’m grateful to have been given a second chance, to do better. And I do have regrets — but I can’t let those regrets paralyze me. Instead, they must compel me.
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