Wendy VanderWal-Gritter. (Courtesy photo)

Topics: Justice | LGBTQ2

I once led a conversion therapy organization

"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."

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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.

More on Broadview: These moms chose their LGBTQ2 kids over their conservative churches

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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  • says:

    If you ban conversion therapy, what do you do with those who are LGBTQ+ and wish to put in the effort to become "straight"?

    You could ban "forced" conversion therapy.

    This would be akin to banning AA, what if an alcoholic wishes to be sober?

    Replies

    • says:

      AA considers alcoholism a disease. One's sexual orientation is not a disease nor is it a lifestyle choice, for why on earth would anyone want to choose a lifestyle that has seen them lose jobs, homes, and even their lives? We now know far more about human nature and sexuality to know that diversity is part of God's beautiful world. Even in nature there are examples of intersexual creatures, species that can change gender, and same sex partners. In 1975, American Psychology recognized that homosexuality is not a mental illness or lifestyle choice. 44 years ago!

      Replies

      • says:

        I realize I'm threading on egg shells, I'm grateful for the dialogue. Often these topics are closed for comments because of the hate that people toss at each other, and that is where these topics become polarized.
        To answer your question, yes sexual orientation can be a choice (not always the case) Here are some reasons Why would someone choose to be gay?
        I am no Psychologist or Medical Doctor, and I’m sure the answer for each person is as complex as the next.
        But here are some reasons why you may choose to be gay, at an expense.
        Rebellion against parents or society; to take a risk against the norm; fit in with your peers (close friends who are gay); release of emotional turmoil that you wish to express in other ways; a cry for help from another deeper issue (past sexual abuse, low self esteem, a need for love)
        The pain you gain, may override the pain you currently have, whether real or perceived.

    • says:

      but Gary....gay is gay...why would you want to "go straight" that makes no sense...and to equate AA and alcoholism with gender is like apples and squash... not equatable at all. Conversion therapy is so wrong and must be banned

    • says:

      If this were the sixteenth century, instead of the twenty-first, traditionalists would be Catholics, instead of “conservative” Christians, and the new belief system would be Protestantism, not “gay-positive” theology. Protestants were so sure they were right, they massacred Catholics, and vice versa. If I were Protestant during that time, would I feel sanctimonious if I actively worked to ban Catholicism, wherever it is found, in all its forms, using the force of law? What is happening to freedom of religion in the United Church of Canada today?

    • says:

      I think that simply affirming the LGBTQ+ person that they're OK where ever they are on the spectrum; if they wish to be something other than what they are, we can just be present w/ them....maybe sympathize about how difficult it all is.

    • says:

      (Just an observation) I find it odd that when a person reveals that they are homosexual, they are lauded as a hero type. Yet, when a homosexual person reveals they want to become heterosexual, they are confused, a liar, or "playing the game".
      Sorry if I offend, but I believe some (not all) become gay for attention sake no matter the cost, again my observation, and I'm not trying to generalize. It is these, that some form of therapy would assist.
      As Christians, we cannot say: "In the animal world, there are instances of homosexuality." Animal creatures are not made with the image of God, and animals are set instinctively, and have no standard of consequences for their actions.
      Finally, I despise being called "homophobic" because I disagree with another's "lifestyle" (a word that indicates a choice). One can hate a trait without hating the person.

  • says:

    I am appalled this individual still gets the media recognition for which she so desperately clamors. She wants a medal for being a white knight for gay Christians--downplaying the fact that it was her own actions and organizations that created the conditions from which she congratulates herself for rescuing us. Perhaps I'm too cynical, but I think Wendy Gritter is an opportunist. All too happy to work a job de-humanizing the LGTBQ2S community, until the wind shifted, and she could then place herself at the head of our "mainly not straight" parade. (BTW, that 'mainly straight' line is nowhere near as cute as she thinks it is)

  • says:

    Wendy is the real deal. So proud of her and intend to learn from her. Her book, Generous Spaciousness, is a must-read for those who would be allies without getting caught in the swirl of spectrum factionalism.

  • says:

    I feel that this magazine name-change is risky but very worth-while and timely. Blessings on you writers; keep up tis good work.