Echoing experience of past patients, government report calls for end to “conversion therapy”
When he was a teenager, Mathew Shurka came to the realization that he was gay. Afraid of how his friends and classmates would view him, he came out to his father.
His dad’s solution was conversion therapy. This, Shurka (pictured below at last year’s Virginia General Assembly) says, began the five-year struggle with his sexual identity. And while in conversion therapy, he says he was exposed to drastic, mentally-harmful treatment methods that skirted the margins of illegality and even led to Shurka forcing himself to have sex with women.
“I loved my father, so I went along with it,” Shurka said.
According to a newly released federal report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, Shurka’s story is not unique. Entitled “Ending Conversion Therapy: Supporting and Affirming LGBTQ Youth,” the report finds there is no credible evidence that conversion therapy is legitimate.
Even worse, the authors say conversion therapy can often exacerbate an already tumultuous situation for struggling youth: “Conversion therapy perpetuates outdated gender roles and negative stereotypes that being a sexual or gender minority or identifying as LGBTQ is an abnormal aspect of human development,” reads the executive summary, later adding, “Most importantly, it may put young people at risk of serious harm.”
SAMHSA’s report is part of a trend of federal and state agencies ramping up their efforts to ban conversion therapy. Such bans already exist in Washington D.C., Illinois, New Jersey and California, with legislation either in the works or being discussed in many other states, including here in Virginia.
Defined by the American Psychological association as “counseling and psychotherapy to attempt to eliminate individuals’ sexual desires for members of their own sex,” conversion therapy has long been a contentious issue for advocates on both sides of the fence.
The same holds true here in the commonwealth. A bill aiming to end conversion therapy on minors was introduced toward the end of 2014 by Patrick Hope, a representative from the 47th district in Arlington County. The General Assembly later voted down, though it was reintroduced to the Virginia Senate by Louise Lucas, a Virginia State Senator, in January of 2015. It, too, was defeated in committee, by a vote of 7-8.
Roland Winston, who helped advocate for the reintroduction of the senate bill, does not think the results of the SAMHSA report will have much sway in the minds of those who oppose ending conversion therapy here in Virginia — namely, those in the GOP.
“Doing something that protects LGBT is not on the minds of Republicans that are elected,” Winston said.
Senator Lucas’s office said that she would not be attempting to reintroduce the bill this year. But, in a phone interview, Winston said the bill will be pushed forward again, this time by the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR). They’re crafting their strategy based on a successful, groundbreaking lawsuit in New Jersey that argued conversion therapy amounted to consumer fraud. The previous Virginia bill argued conversion therapy was “child cruelty.”
Conversion therapy has its supporters. Linda Wall, a self-described reformed lesbian who said that her reformation was “supernatural.” She said that god came into her and took away her homosexuality. Wall says the practice should be allowed to continue, and even lobbied against passage of the Senate bill to ban it. She believes banning conversion therapy interferes with personal choice, and said that if someone doesn’t want to be homosexual, they should have the right to try not to be.
“I would have killed myself if someone told me I couldn’t get out of homosexuality,” Wall said. “That’s how bad I wanted out of it.”
Apryl Prentiss, a lesbian who went through gay conversion programs, said that she had the opposite result. Like Wall, she went into conversion as an adult and of her own will. Unlike wall however, Prentiss went into a conversion program. Prentiss said years in conversion therapy left her feeling depressed, suicidal and turning to drugs for relief.
“I was feeling at war with myself,” Prentiss said. “I barely escaped those years.”
She said that emotions were treated very analytically in conversion therapy, with counselors often asking how she felt about what she did and why she felt that way.
“You couldn’t ever just have an emotion,” Prentiss said. “Every emotion had to be analyzed and related back to your ‘sexual brokenness.’”
Prentiss said many people she has met have similar stories to hers, and that they eventually left the programs. She says several of them are happily married to partners of the same sex.
But Shurka, the teenager whose father recommended conversion therapy, continues to worry about gay and lesbian youth. He said a majority of children in conversion programs are put there by their parents, much like he was. Shurka was 16 at the time, and attended conversion programs over a period of five years.
He eventually left conversion therapy, but not before experiencing some drastic treatment methods. One such treatment included trying to associate orgasms with the female anatomy – he claims he was told to masturbate while trying to think of a woman every time he got an erection.
In his personal life, Shurka would force himself to have sex with women, but said it gave him great anxiety. To combat this anxiety, Shurka said his therapist told his father to obtain Viagra, and then give it to his son so that he could have sex with women. Shurka said while this recommendation was illegal, his therapist was a licensed professional.
Gay conversion therapy still has an effect in Shurka’s daily life. As a result of going in and out of therapy and moving around he has never finished college, and he says it’s caused a rift in his family that eventually ended in his parents’ divorce. However, he says he has now come to terms with his sexuality and is an activist who continues to speak out and lobby against gay conversion therapy.
“You are born perfect the way you are,” Shurka said. “There’s nothing you can change.”
“He has openly advocated for conversion therapy. I want that to sink into people.”November 22, 2016
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