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Outing conversion therapy's ills


When Mathew Shurka told his father he was gay, he says his dad was initially supportive and understanding.

"My father gave me the best answer any son could ask for, 'No matter what happens, I love you,'" Shurka says.

But then his father began to worry that Shurka, who lives in New York City, faced a life of struggle and loneliness, Shurka says. And in his effort to help, he came across conversion therapy — a pseudo therapy that usually aims to change LGBTQ people into heterosexuals — and encouraged his son to pursue it, Shurka says.

Following the advice of a therapist licensed by New York State, Shurka didn't speak to his mother or sisters for three years. He was supposed to avoid even casual conversation with women so he didn't acquire their feminine characteristics, his therapist said.

Conversely, being around young men was supposed to encourage him to be more masculine by supporting his interest in sports, cars, and young women.

Shurka, 26, began conversion therapy when he was 16. He saw four different licensed mental health professionals in five years. During that time, he says he committed himself to converting to heterosexuality; his self-worth became intrinsically linked to succeeding.

"I could see my father was terrified," Shurka says. "I acted out of fear because I didn't want to lose my father's approval."

Conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy, attempts to change an individual's sexual orientation — usually from homosexual or bisexual to heterosexual. Women and transgender individuals have also undergone the therapy.

The controversial practice has been around in some form for more than 100 years, but more recently it has come under intense scrutiny as young LGBTQ survivors become more public about their experiences.

It's unclear how many people have undergone conversion therapy, says Allison Steinberg, a spokesperson for Empire State Pride Agenda. Exact numbers are hard to come by, she says, partly because there are many different organizations offering it. But some state lawmakers have reported hearing deeply troubling stories from the LGBT community.

A bill banning state-licensed therapists from engaging in efforts to change the sexual orientation or gender identities of minors was recently passed by the State Assembly. Under the bill, mental health professionals caught practicing conversion therapy could lose their license.

Although LGBTQ leaders were confident that a Senate version of the bill would pass in the final days of the legislative session, the bill never made it out of committee.

The legislation does not ban conversion therapy altogether; it bans licensed practitioners from offering the therapy to people age 18 and younger, Steinberg says. And it protects heterosexual youth from conversion therapy, too, she says.

If the legislation had passed, New York would have joined California and New Jersey in prohibiting licensed mental health professionals from offering conversion therapy.

There is no credible scientific evidence that shows conversion therapy works. Most mainstream medical and mental health organizations, including the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association, oppose the practice. They describe it as a scam that can cause psychological harm.

Exodus International was the organization leading what's often referred to as the ex-gay movement, but the group disbanded last year after more than 30 years in operation. Some of its own officials no longer believed sexual orientation could be changed. But other organizations have quickly filled the void.

"Conversion therapy has often been centered around conservative communities of faith," says Scott Fearing, executive director of the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley.

The promise that finding a relationship with God will cure a person of homosexuality is often used as a pretense to convert the person to Christianity and for the church to build a following, Fearing says.

The state legislation would not stop religious organizations from performing conversion therapy, Fearing says.

And many mental health practitioners offer conversion therapy, too.

"Sexual orientation conversion therapy was the treatment of choice when homosexuality was thought to be an illness," writes Douglas Haldeman, a Seattle-based therapist and researcher on human sexuality. "Despite the declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness, efforts to sexually reorient lesbians and gay men continue."

Conversion therapists often use loose interpretations of Freudian psychology to explain attraction to the same sex.

Shurka says that one of his therapists told him that his attraction to men stemmed from early childhood trauma. He was told that the trauma could be as subtle as exposure to an overbearing mother or a father's rejection, he says, or it could be the result of something more overt and disturbing such as sexual molestation.

"Because of the trauma, I kept trying to find the cause," Shurka says. "Conversion therapy caused me to think it was my mother and father's fault."

But conversion therapy treatments tend to be based more on behavioral modification techniques — some of them quite radical by any standard. There are reports of young gay men receiving electric shocks to different areas of their bodies, including their genitals, when they see homoerotic images.

For a little more than a year, Shurka says, he thought his therapy might be working.

"I was more popular [in school]," he says. "I learned how to walk and talk in the stereotypically masculine ways."

He says he thought if he had sex with young women it would further his conversion, "except my attraction to men was still there and getting worse."

When it became clear that the therapy wasn't working, Shurka says he began having panic attacks. He dropped out of school and says he became suicidal.

Shurka abandoned conversion therapy for a while and then re-entered because he says he was overwhelmed with a sense of failure. Even after his mother told him that she loved him and that it didn't matter whether he was straight or gay, Shurka says he couldn't find relief.

"I blew up at her because I didn't want to fail," he says. "I had put all of this time into this."

A turning point for Shurka was when California Governor Jerry Brown signed that state's anti-conversion law, he says. Shurka says that while he never envisioned himself as an LGBTQ activist or as a political person, he was so moved that he created a four-minute video for the "It Gets Better" project.

The campaign uses celebrity and non-celebrity videos to tell LGBTQ youth that suicide in the face of discrimination and bullying is not a solution. Shurka's "I Survived Conversion Therapy" video, which tells some of his story, has been widely viewed.

Shurka strongly supports the New York legislation, he says. And he's extremely critical of public figures such as Texas Governor Rick Perry, who recently compared homosexuality to alcoholism. Perry's comment was widely viewed as meaning that homosexuality is a disease that can be controlled, and drew sharp criticism. He later backpedaled slightly, saying that he "stepped in it."

"This man has no idea of how much harm he's doing," Shurka says. "I can't imagine the impact he's having on LGBT people living in Texas."