A look inside the world of ‘gay conversion therapy,’ as states seek bans

President Obama, the U.S. Surgeon General and several state lawmakers have joined the growing movement to outlaw conversion therapy for LGBT minors. (illustration by Erik Mace/Yahoo News)

Mathew Shurka was 16 years old when he fell in love with a boy his age. Shurka had started experimenting with boys a few years earlier, but this was different. Confused about his feelings, Shurka consulted his father — and received, in his words, “the greatest answer a son could ask for.”

“I love you; I’m going to be by your side,” Shurka remembers his father telling him. “Whatever we need to do, we’ll take care of it.”

In the days that followed, however, Shurka says his father began to worry about what having a gay son would actually mean. What kind of challenges would he face in school? In the working world? Would he be able to have a family? Shurka’s father went in search of support and wound up finding a licensed therapist who told him that “conversion therapy” could cure his son’s homosexuality.

Over the next five years, Shurka’s parents spent tens of thousands of dollars on a discredited form of psychotherapy that nearly tore their family apart. Under his doctors’ orders, Shurka didn’t speak to his mother or sisters for years, took Viagra to have sex with women, and searched desperately for some memory of childhood trauma — which, according to conversion therapists, is the root cause of all homosexuality.

Now 27, Shurka is an advocate in a growing movement to outlaw the discredited practice of conversion therapy for LGBT minors, a movement that has recently received the support of President Obama, the surgeon general, and a number of state and federal lawmakers.

Last week, the LGBT advocacy groups Human Rights Campaign and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) released model legislation for state lawmakers looking to ban licensed medical health professionals from practicing conversion therapy on LGBT youths.

Just days before the sample legislation was released, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration issued a report concluding that there is no credible research to support the idea that gender identity or sexual orientation can be altered through cognitive or behavioral therapy, and that such attempts to intervene in an adolescent’s sexual orientation, gender identity or expression “are coercive, can be harmful, and should not be part of behavioral health treatment.” 

The report’s recommendations echoed a call made in April by President Obama to end conversion therapy for minors following the widely reported suicide of transgender teenager Leelah Alcorn. In a note posted on Alcorn’s Tumblr, the 17-year-old, who was born a boy, wrote that her parents rejected her transgender identity and sent her to a religious therapist who sought to change her. 

“In 2015, you’d think that by now, if we’ve got marriage equality we’d at least have a society that’s safe for our kids,” said Samantha Ames, an NCLR staff attorney and coordinator for the #BornPerfect Campaign, which is working to get laws against conversion therapy passed in all 50 states. 

Three years ago, NCLR teamed up with then-California State Sen. Ted Lieu and, with the help of mental health professionals and associations, drafted the first bill of its kind banning licensed mental health practitioners from practicing conversion therapy on minors in the state of California. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill into law in September 2012, and since then, NCLR has helped get similar laws passed in New Jersey, Illinois, Oregon and Washington, D.C., and bills were introduced by lawmakers in at least fifteen other states.

California’s Lieu — now a member of Congress — introduced a federal ban on conversion therapy in the House of Representatives this year.

Mathew Shurka speaks at in front of the New York State Capitol Building in Albany on Equality Justice Day, April 29, 2014. (Courtesy of Mathew Shurka)

What is conversion therapy?

Before the American Psychiatric Association (APA) declared that homosexuality was not a disease or mental disorder in the mid-1970s, LGBT people were regularly subjected to a variety of harsh therapies, from electroshock to induced nausea.

After the APA declassified homosexuality, such treatment was driven underground. But a resurgence of the practice began around 2009.

Alison Gill, senior legislative counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, suggested that this second wave of conversion therapy emerged in response to the burgeoning LGBT rights movement, “as an alternative to equality.” The premise, Gill explained to Yahoo News, is that “there is no reason for LGBT equality if people aren’t really gay or trans or if they can be fixed.”

A practice that had previously been largely confined to religious groups was now being promoted by secular organizations such as the Los Angeles-based National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality, or NARTH, which began training licensed professional psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers to practice conversion therapy around the country.

Precise data on the prevalence of conversion therapy in the U.S. is hard to come by. For a sense of its scope, opponents of conversion therapy reference the research of Dr. Caitlin Ryan, a clinical social worker and leading expert in LGBT health, whose Family Acceptance Project studies relationships between LGBT youth and their families. Ryan estimates that one in three LGBT adolescents have been to conversion therapy. 

But, as Mathew Shurka explained, part of what helps keeps the world of conversion therapy underground is “the stigma of being gay.”

“If your parents are putting you into conversion therapy, you’re not going to tell anyone, because then you’d be outing yourself,” he told Yahoo News. “And if you do it and you proceed to either become a heterosexual or not, you’re not going to tell anyone because you’d be admitting that you are gay, or were gay.”

Shurka’s story: A perfect illustration of conversion therapy’s reach

Shurka describes his upbringing as Jewish but not religious. His family didn’t go to synagogue, but every Friday, relatives would gather for Shabbat dinner at their house in suburban Long Island. His father’s concerns about his homosexuality were not rooted in Scripture, but a desire to shield his children from struggle.

“This was never about the Bible,” Shurka said. “My father is this successful businessman. He worked really hard, and his idea was that a gay man is never going to survive in this world. My dad believed that no matter what, LGBT people will always be discriminated against.”

It’s with that mentality that, in about 2004, Shurka’s father went in search of a therapist, someone who might be able to provide his son with the kind of support and guidance needed to navigate life as a gay man. He talked to a variety of general psychologists and psychotherapists, some of whom were gay men themselves. Eventually, his search led him to a conversion therapist, who explained to him the philosophy that everyone is born heterosexual, that homosexuality is a response to childhood trauma that can be overcome.

Shurka says his father had never heard of conversion therapy before, and did not set out in search of someone who could cure his son’s homosexuality. But when a licensed professional suggested that it was possible, he became interested.

“The question I get a lot is, ‘Was it voluntary?’” Shurka said. “It was more fear-based. I’m 16 years old, and my father has the idea that this is something I can change.”

Terrified by the thought of coming out to his friends and peers at school, Shurka said, conversion therapy “was a way for me to not really deal with it.”

So during his junior year of high school, once a week after varsity swim team practice, Shurka took the train into Manhattan by himself to see the first of three conversion therapists who would try to treat his homosexuality over the next five years.

The first therapist was a much older man, and after several months, Shurka complained to his father and said he wanted to see someone younger, sparking a second round of searching. This resulted in Shurka and his father flying out to Los Angeles to meet a young therapist who boasted the “highest success rate for converting teens to heterosexual” and conveniently did sessions over the phone.

“He was cool, he was young, he was very personable. I felt safe in his office,” Shurka said of the second therapist, who told him that because he hadn’t yet had gay intercourse, “I would start to see my heterosexuality come back within six weeks.”

“The less you did, the easier you would be to convert,” Shurka was told.

As soon as he returned to New York, Shurka began making changes to his daily life as prescribed by his new therapist. First, he was instructed to cut all ties to members of the opposite sex — including his mom and two older sisters.

“They don’t want you to associate with women, pick up their effeminate behaviors, relate to them,” Shurka said. “They want you to keep them as this mysterious thing until you’re ready to have sex with them.”

Shurka said that, at first, his mother was willing to follow the doctor’s orders, but within a couple of months she became vocally opposed to the divisions being created in her house. Shurka, however, was determined, as was his father. For three years, Shurka says, he would come downstairs every morning before school, eat the breakfast his mom had prepared for him, and walk out the door without saying a word to her.

When his mother would try to communicate with him, Shurka says he would throw tantrums and accuse her of trying to sabotage his therapy.

“My mom is not really an overbearing mother, but I was being instructed that I had to look for trauma in my life, so I blamed her. I was creating problems,” he said. “I really believed that this was something I had to cure, that there was something wrong with me. And because my father was supporting it and I had a doctor, I felt it made sense. It sounded realistic.”

His older sisters were both in college in Manhattan at the time, making them slightly easier to avoid. But they still came home every week for Shabbat dinner and, Shurka says, his father instructed them to keep their distance.

“This turned my house upside down; my sisters were fighting with my father, my mother was fighting with my father,” he said. “Conversion therapy had a toll on my family. We were a close-knit family that was breaking apart.”

As his relationships with the females in his family were dissolving, Shurka’s popularity among the boys at his high school was blossoming. In addition to avoiding women, Shurka’s therapist had instructed him to spend as much time as possible with members of his own sex as a means of relating to masculinity. Shurka said the therapist acknowledged that, with all this male bonding, he would likely be attracted to some of his new friends, and told him exactly what to do when that happened — introducing him to what Shurka referred to as the “masturbation and pornography techniques” of conversion therapy.

“If I ever had an erection over another boy, I was instructed to go to the bathroom immediately to lose the erection,” Shurka said. “They don’t want you to sit with the erection and linger with thoughts of men.”

Shurka said he was told to try to think about women as much as possible while masturbating and to use pornography featuring females whenever he could.

By senior year of high school, Shurka’s weekly therapy sessions had turned into nearly daily phone calls.

“I almost couldn’t do anything without asking him first,” Shurka said.

Following his therapist’s guidance from Los Angeles each step of the way, Shurka eventually decided he was ready to have sex with women.

“I’m becoming the most popular guy in school, trying to have sex with as many women as possible, living a double life,” Shurka said. “At this point, I’m convinced therapy is working.”

But at the same time that Shurka thought he was succeeding at becoming straight, the rest of his life was unraveling.

At home, tensions between his parents had become uncomfortably high, as Shurka continued to avoid his mother with his father’s support. After more than a year of conversion therapy, Shurka, once a straight-A student, saw his grades sink so low that he almost wasn’t eligible to graduate from high school. He was feeling depressed and anxious. He started having panic attacks.

His teachers expressed concern and his principal, Shurka later found out, even tried to intervene.

“That’s one of the beautiful things about these new laws,” Shurka said, noting that in states where such legislation has been passed, “Conversion therapy is [recognized as] a form of child abuse, and a professional educator actually does have the power to do something.”

Mathew Shurka in 2006, during his senior year of high school, two years into conversion therapy. (Courtesy of Mathew Shurka)

But Shurka stayed the course. He managed to graduate from high school and went off to Baruch College in Manhattan, continuing to share everything with both his father and his therapist along the way — including his occasional hookups with other guys and his irrepressible longing for his hometown love. 

“My therapist would say, ‘Okay, one step back, two steps forward,’” Shurka said. “The self-guilt and the self-blame is probably what drove my depression more than anything else.”

Eventually, Shurka and his first love — we’ll call him John — began seeing each other romantically. But one day during the fall of his first year at college, Shurka said, John broke up with him, telling him he “wasn’t sure if he wanted to live a gay life.”

Heartbroken, Shurka tried to get back on track with his therapy by having sex with women at college. But he was “on a roller coaster of depression and anxiety and having such severe panic attacks,” and soon found himself unable to perform. He of course relayed this to his therapist, who offered a solution.

“He told my dad to get me Viagra, to keep up my confidence and stamina to continue to have sex with women,” Shurka said. He followed the doctor’s orders, taking Viagra about three times before encountering what he describes as “one of the most traumatic moments.”

“I’m 18 years old, in the bathroom taking a Viagra pill, a woman in my bed, and I’m thinking, ‘I have to have sex with this woman so I can go back to my therapist and father and tell them I did it, all so I can just fit in.’”

Shurka said the Viagra experience made him think “I must be disabled, there must be something really wrong with me that I’m spending my teenage years doing this.” He stopped having sex altogether.

“The idea of having sex took so much work and so much emotional exhaustion,” he said. “Male or female, I wasn’t comfortable being naked with anyone.”

At the end of his freshman year, John came to see Shurka and revealed that their breakup had actually been prompted by Shurka’s father who, under the therapist’s instructions, had taken John to lunch and told him to stay away from his son.

“I’d spent the last eight months telling my therapist in California that I’m heartbroken, I don’t know what to do, and he knew this the whole time,” Shurka said.

The revelation was devastating, and it prompted Shurka to cut ties with the therapist as well as his father. He reached out to his mom and sisters who, all these years, had been trying to contact him. But when the boy he loved was finally ready to be with him, Shurka declined.

“I still believed in my work in conversion therapy,” he said.

Over the next few years, Shurka continued to go in and out of conversion therapy, even attending a weekend conversion camp in Virginia, where he said he and 60 other men were instructed to watch others re-enact their own childhood traumas.

‘We don’t pray the gay away’

Though it may sound much more benign than something like electroshock treatment, in the view of the Human Rights Campaign’s Gill, “talk therapy is just as dangerous as other techniques.” Conversion therapists, she said, “use fear and shame to make people feel like they have to change who they are. It’s very destructive.”

In response to the resurgence in convergence therapy in 2009, the American Psychiatric Association issued a report on the health risks faced by adolescents who undergo efforts to change their sexual orientation or gender identity, listing depression, drug use, homelessness and suicide among the potential harms caused by conversion therapy.

But proponents of the practice, who refer to it as “reparative” rather than conversion therapy, argue that such reports and the recent bans pose the greatest threat to their patients.

David Pickup is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and one of several spokespeople for a referral organization called Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays. He credits reparative therapy with successfully treating his own unwanted homosexuality.

“Reparative therapy worked for me,” Pickup told Yahoo News. “I was one of those sexually abused little boys. As an adult, I got help with authentic reparative therapist who helped me resolve the emotional wounds that caused homosexual feelings.”

Pickup said that the state bans “are not only based on junk science; they are based on quackery stories that have nothing to do with sound reliable therapy that actually works.” He argued that opponents are the ones promoting exclusion and ignorance.

“Some gay activists deny change is possible and deny we exist,” he said. “They allow only one side of the story to be told, which is an extreme form of bigotry.”

“We don’t pray away the gay, we don’t do exorcism,” he added. “We’re not here to treat gay people badly. We’re absolutely in favor of sound therapy that really works.”

Pickup argues that such bans are particularly harmful for young people who may be victims of sexual abuse which, according to the principal theory of reparative therapy, is exactly the kind of childhood trauma that causes homosexual feelings to arise during puberty.

“Homosexual feelings arise because of sexual abuse,” Pickup said.  “When those are healed, so to speak, when a guy feels his own sense of masculine wholeness and authentic sense of self in his own body, the homosexual feelings don’t need to exist anymore, because that homosexual pleasure is what had been anesthetizing those wounds down below.”

Pickup has two private practices — one in Dallas, where he is based, and another in the Los Angeles area. California’s law against conversion therapy, he said, “putting my clients in therapy in danger.”

“According to the law,” he said, referring to the state bans, “these guys cannot request any therapy that could reduce or eliminate homosexuality of any kind.”

Not long after his weekend at the conversion camp, Shurka finally rejected the teachings of conversion therapy for good. But it would take another few years before he was ready to come out, still struggling to let go of the feeling that he’d somehow failed.

Initially embarrassed about sharing his experience with anyone, Shurka was inspired by the flood of positive responses he received after posting an “It Gets Better” video to YouTube in 2012.

The realization that his experience could help others drove him to his current role at the #BornPerfect campaign. At 27, Shurka has reconnected with both of his parents (they divorced) and even made amends with his former conversion therapist in L.A. He now works to ban conversion therapy and educate families on how to best support LGBT teens like himself.

“I have a whole life ahead of me that wasn’t an option before,” he said.

Related Video: