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Can't Be Converted: Trauma as Therapy in Virginia


Mathew Shurka was told he was gay because of childhood trauma -- and had to "reenact" it whether it was real or not. 

"Conversion therapy" in the United States is practiced in many forms -- talk therapy, exorcisms, and even torture. But despite broad consensus with the clinical community and even growing recognition among religious leaders that it is harmful, it remains legal in 35 states for licensed therapists and mental health professionals to put minors through the dangerous practice of trying to alter their sexual orientation or gender identity.

In an ongoing series, "Can't Be Converted," The Advocate collected testimonials of those who endured conversion therapy in states where it remains legal to perform on minors. These individuals ultimately rejected the practice and now share their stories in an effort to educate the public -- especially parents -- on the potential harm, in hopes of influencing policymakers to follow the lead of states that no longer tolerate this abuse.

If anybody knew I was hooking up with a boy in high school, I knew my life would be over. So I came out to my father thinking if there's anyone who can protect me, it's going to be my dad. I was very scared of his reaction. But he was loving and let me know he supported me. He had some questions, like "How long have you been feeling this way or acting this way?" But he just overwhelmingly gave me his support.

Then literally the following day, he began to panic about what this actually meant for me and the family. He had an emergency meeting with my mom and two sisters. They didn't really know many openly gay people, but they didn't have a problem either. But my father wanted to talk to a therapist. He met one who explained to him there's no such thing as homosexuality. It's all rooted in childhood traumas. Because I was only 16 and I hadn't experienced full intercourse with another male, I had the highest probability of overcoming my same-sex attractions, according to this therapist. For my father, this was the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance I could live as a heterosexual.

My father's pitch was, you don't realize how horrible your life is going to be as an openly gay man. We need to give this therapy a chance. So at 16, I began my first conversion therapy at a center in Manhattan. It was just a constant effort to try to figure out where the trauma was. But I had a pretty good upbringing by my parents. I spent most of my time going down that rabbit hole of understanding that this was my dad's fault. There was some dynamic of the parents that caused this horrifying trauma. I couldn't find one. So my dad said let's find someone else. I actually flew to California to meet a therapist. If I was ever in California I could meet him for a session, but mostly we spoke on the phone. That's when the real conversion therapy began.

The first thing I had to do was stop talking to women or girls as much as possible. I was not allowed to speak to my mother and two sisters. The goal was to make sure I was relating to men as my peers and not being attracted to them; that would lead to me seeing women as the mysterious opposite sex and I would one day engage with them sexually. This caused a real uproar in my family. Up until now, my mom didn't believe in this, but she went along with it. When she realized part of the treatment included me not talking to her, she started to retaliate against my father. How is the solution separating a mother and a child? My mother and father were constantly fighting, and my home became a really unsafe place. This was the beginning of the differences that led to their divorce.

So I went to school overly aware of my interactions with all the males and females there, sure I was becoming one of the guys and not one of the girls, and then I came home to avoid my mother. I basically ignored my mother for three years. There were moments when my mother approached me and told me how much she loved me, telling me I was gay and it was OK. I would throw a tantrum and curse at her. I'm working so hard trying to save my life, I'd say. I was already told she was the cause of this, and this made me blame her even more.

I was actually making more male friends. I would also be attracted to them, which I had to acknowledge and figure out with my therapist. I had different techniques. A lot of it had to do with masturbation. I would not hold onto an erection when I was thinking about boys. I was going crazy. I was overly aware of my behaviors. There was something wrong. My body should not have been reacting this way. I thought I was mentally ill. I contemplated suicide for about two years, knowing I was never going to change. As I was going through my adolescence, my attraction to the same sex was only growing stronger.

I knew I was in love with my best friend. I was more scared than ever. How was I going to become a heterosexual? It was that summer, when I was going into my freshman year of college, I really wanted to see if there was something. This boy was closeted. I asked permission from my therapist to try something. He told me you're just reacting to childhood traumas, confusing love for OCD. But I approached this boy and we hit it off.

But my father threatened him at some point. He told him to stay away from me, threatened to tell his father. So he called me one morning and broke up with me. I was devastated. But my therapist complimented him and said he was obviously suffering but extracting himself. Look how strong he is. I should admire that.

I ran away from home and ended my relationship with my father and that therapist, and I moved to California. But I continued to do conversion therapy. I put the blame on myself. What if I didn't try hard enough?

I called JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing) asking for someone who could help. When I moved back to New Jersey, a licensed provider there said, "I'm part of this program called Journey Into Manhood. I think it'd be really great if you were to go to the program. I will already be there because I'm a counselor. You should come and join. It's in Virginia."

We met at the camp in Charlottesville. Once you arrive, you do a 48-hour program where you're not allowed to be connected to the outside world. They take away your cell phones. There are no computers. There were about 60 men from all over the country but mostly the East Coast. The entire weekend followed a narrative fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk. They used that analogy. We were fighting the big giant in the sky. The seeds Jack got were his testicles, a symbol of his masculinity. They said to use this weekend to fight back for your masculinity and become who you really are, a heterosexual male.

That evening, there were all 60 men in one of these cabins, and we were sitting in a giant circle and they said, "Raise your hand if you have already been attracted to someone in this room," and all 60 men raised their hands. "OK, thank you for the honesty. We're going to show you what to do so you know the steps of how to unravel your attractions when they come up. Does anyone want to volunteer?" One gentleman raised his hand, and they said, "Do you mind pointing to which of the men you find attractive?" He pointed to me.

They asked me, "Matthew, would you be willing to do this exercise?" OK. So the two of us were in the middle of the circle, face to face in a room of 60 other men in chairs making a circle around us. They explained that you're not actually attracted to the other person. You're attracted to something the other person has that you don't. So for this person, they asked, what is it about Matthew you wish you had? He started to literally list them: "Matthew has broad shoulders. Matthew has a deep voice. Just by looking at him I imagine he's a really confident person in his life. I like his dark skin and that he looks like he might be European or Middle Eastern."

They said, "Don't you see how these are things that you want, but you're not going to obtain this if you were to engage in sexual activity with this person. And he said, "I see." And now you know what you can do. We learned some techniques, like try engaging him and asking for a friendship instead. Then say, "Matthew, can you see these are my attractions and I would actually want to put that aside so I can build a friendship with you." I said, "Yes, I would like that." They told all the men to do that any time they had an attraction to another male during the weekend.

But that was just one exercise. We did more. In my situation at Journey Into Manhood, they were saying that trauma is the cause. So on the first day, the 60 men were divided into smaller groups. We all went to the small cabins to reinvent and reenact the childhood trauma that caused our same-sex attractions.

In my group, the first person who went was a 70-year-old guy, and his trauma was he was molested as a kid. He had a male babysitter who forced him to perform oral sex. The rest of the group had to reenact this moment, then change the storyline. We were trying to re-create the past for this individual. Meanwhile, the person who actually experienced this trauma had to sit and watch the reenactment.

For the 70-year-old man sitting in the room, it wasn't funny. He was screaming and crying and the other therapists were holding him down as we were reenacting the whole situation, but the moment that the sexual assault was to happen, whoever was playing the little boy broke free, and it didn't happen. Every person in the program had to do that, which is heart-wrenching and terrifying. It doesn't accomplish anything. If anything, it's re-traumatizing the person. But that's a very common theme in all of the camps.

At the end of five years, I was beginning to rebuild a relationship with my mother. I was estranged from my father because I stopped talking to him. I started to question more. I always wanted to meet someone who actually changed, who became straight. They would introduce me to men who married women, but we'd have conversations and they would say, "My attractions never went away. They will always be there, but I just learned how to manage them." It became really clear this was not changing anything.

I was done.

MATHEW SHURKA has worked on legislation banning conversion therapy in states across the union and helped launch the Born Perfect campaign with the National Center for Lesbian Rights. He now lives in New York, where he helped craft a directive from the governor regarding the practice.

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