Coming Out Against Conversion Therapy

By Sam Ames#BornPerfect Campaign Coordinator & Staff Attorney

Today, on National Coming Out Day, countless lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people around the world will find the courage,  through one another, to tell the world who they really are. But this day is more than a just a celebration of the freedom to be ourselves.  It commemorates the 1987 National March on Washington, a grass roots protest against the Supreme Court decision in Bowers v. Hardwick upholding criminal sodomy laws, and the Reagan administration’s refusal to acknowledge the AIDS epidemic. At a time when our nation’s leaders were trying to stigmatize us out of existence, silence wasn’t just death. Speaking was survival.

Today, much of the landscape is markedly different. In the United States, we celebrated two major marriage equality victories this week alone, and, in more and more communities, coming out is becoming an accepted rite of passage for LGBTQ adolescents. Sadly, however, the privilege of authenticity is neither secure nor universal. Only 16 years ago tomorrow, Matthew Shepard was murdered for being openly gay. For many queer youth, the risk of violence and the struggle to survive are still daily realities.  This National Coming Out Day, thousands of kids will come out only to face an impossible choice: try their luck on the streets or change the unchangeable.

As far as equal rights have come in the last few years, up to a third of LGBTQ people are still subjected to conversion therapy, among the most damaging forms of psychological abuse a person can endure. Conversion therapy is a range of dangerous and discredited practices aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Based on the false premise that being LGBTQ is a mental illness that can and should be cured, it can include everything from talk therapy to exorcisms to “orgasmic reconditioning.” Shockingly, it is still legal for licensed therapists to practice conversion therapy on children in 48 states. The result is lifelong damage that can include depression, substance abuse, and even suicide.

The conversion therapy industry preys on the confusion and anxiety of families who don’t know what to do when they discover that their child is LGBTQ. With few exceptions, parents don’t subject their children to conversion therapy out of hate or malice. Tragically, they are almost always motivated by love and concern for their children’s well-being and have no idea what they are risking. When Jane Shurka’s son, Mathew, came out, she and her husband worried that his future would be bleak. A conversion therapist told them he could turn Mathew straight in six weeks. Over the next five years, she watched in agony as her bright young child fall apart. He struggled with anxiety, his grades suffered, and he became seriously depressed. It took five years of turmoil before Mathew was able to embrace his true self. Earlier this year, Jane and Mathew testified together before members of the New York Senate in support of a bill that would protect youth under 18 from conversion therapy. That a licensed professional convinced her to try and change her son, she told legislators, was a tragedy not just for him, but for their whole family. But, like so many brave conversion therapy survivors, Mathew didn’t just survive. He went on to dedicate his life to making sure no one else has to go through what he did.

NCLR is working with legislators and LGBTQ leaders in New York and more than a dozen other states to bring similar protections to young people across the country. We’ve already succeeded in California and Jersey. Although most of these bills are still in the early stages of the legislative process, there is reason for optimism. When anti-conversion therapy laws come up for a vote, they receive broad bipartisan support from lawmakers and enjoy overwhelming backing from mental health practitioners, faith leaders, youth advocates, reproductive justice groups, and civil rights organizations. Protecting our kids from quack medicine is simply not a controversial issue.

Although regulating licensed therapists is an important way to protect LGBTQ youth, not all conversion therapy takes place in a doctor’s office. Some fringe religious leaders still engage in the unregulated practice of conversion therapy in schools and houses of worship. When Jeff White came out at fourteen, his parents sent him to a religious school that promised it could change his sexual orientation. For three years, he endured weekly counseling sessions at the hands of a teacher who routinely raped and sexually assaulted him to convince him that being gay was more painful than suppressing his sexual orientation. He kept his experience hidden from those closest to him, afraid that speaking out would place him and his family in danger. This August, NCLR helped him report the abuse he endured, and, fifteen years later, a formal investigation has finally been launched. Like Mathew, Jeff didn’t just survive either; he went on to found the Mississippi Gulf Coast Rainbow Center, where he serves kids all over the state struggling with intolerance.

In June, NCLR launched #BornPerfect, a campaign to end conversion therapy in five years by passing laws across the country like the one Jane and Mathew advocated for in New York, fighting in courtrooms to ensure the safety of kids like Jeff, and helping other survivors speak out about the devastating effects of these practices. By National Coming Out Day 2015, the state of conversion therapy in the United States could look very different.

But today, we recommit to fighting for those who cannot come out without placing themselves in serious danger at the hands of those who would rather change them than love them for who they are. We recognize the sacrifices many of our youth have made over the years, from Matthew Shepard to Mathew Shurka. We celebrate those who find their way out of the closet and honor those who must protect themselves by staying inside. And, most of all, we celebrate our community’s history of survival, whether by breaking the silence or by braving it.

This article was originally published in The Huffington Post on October 10, 2014.

All LGBT Kids Are #BornPerfect

Born Perfect meme imageBy Kate Kendell, Esq.NCLR Executive Director

Even as the LGBT community enjoys huge gains in understanding and acceptance. Even as we have key leaders from every sector and across every spectrum supporting our full equality and rejecting rank bigotry. Even as we seem closer than ever to winning the freedom to marry nationwide, a persistent and longstanding threat has reemerged.

You have likely heard or read a chorus of anti-LGBT voices in the last few weeks supporting so-called “conversion therapy,” the vile practice used by some unethical counselors and therapists to try to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Texas Republican Party this month officially endorsed this dangerous practice which has been condemned by every major medical organization in the country, saying “we recognize the legitimacy and value of counseling which offers reparative therapy and treatment to patients who are seeking escape from the homosexual lifestyle. No laws or executive orders shall be imposed to limit or restrict access to this type of therapy.”

Days later, Mathew Staver, an ardent opponent of LGBT equality, told a congressional committee in Washington, D.C. that attempts to protect yo uth from this dangerous practice “represent one of the greatest assaults on children and families that has arisen in recent times” and, in a blatant lie, said that mental health professionals could “successfully reduce or eliminate unwanted same-sex attractions, behaviors or identity.”

Then, former Texas Governor and Republican Presidential Candidate Rick Perry equated being LGBT to alcoholism, saying  “I may have the genetic coding that I’m inclined to be an alcoholic, but I have the desire not to do that, and I look at the homosexual issue the same way.”

For more than 20 years, NCLR has diligently worked to end conversion therapy, especially for LGBT youth. We know the practice—which often includes the use of shame and verbal abuse—does untold damage. We know it is dangerous and wholly discredited. We know sexual orientation and gender identity cannot and should not be changed.  We are committed once and for all to ending conversion therapy, ensuring that every LGBT person knows they were born perfect.

But recent statements by the Texas GOP and others over the past few weeks make clear that the vocal minority of anti-LGBT advocates who profit from this destructive practice will not go quietly. These statements are not just random comments or events. This is a coordinated effort to reassert the legitimacy of this fully discredited practice and to resurrect the fraud that sexual orientation or gender identity can be changed. 

Conversion therapy’s vicious assault on human dignity is on the ropes—but it is essential that we finish the job. Over the last two years, NCLR has played a pivotal role in passing and successfully defending laws protecting LGBT children from these practices in California and New Jersey. State legislators and policymakers across the country have seen the damage this quackery inflicts on young people and taken action to stop it.  We are now working closely with legislators and state leaders in several states to pass laws similar to those in California and New Jersey.

To support our multi-pronged effort to end conversion therapy in the next five years, we have launched #BornPerfect: The Campaign to End Conversion Therapy.

We have seen firsthand the damage done by this dehumanizing and shaming practice. We’ve heard Sam Brinton share the lasting trauma from a doctor who used ice and hot coils to associate images of men with pain. We’ve heard Ryan Kendall testify about turning himself over to social services at 16 rather than be forced to continue the conversion therapy that was driving him to the brink of suicide. We’ve heard Deb Cuny recount the heartbreaking struggle to suppress her attraction to women by spending her teenage years being prayed over and even exorcised in an attempt to keep her family intact and fulfill her dream of becoming a minister.

Those who traffic in these practices have now joined forces with anti-LGBT lawmakers and fringe organizations to defend them. We do not intend to let them win.

For every Sam, or Ryan, or Deb, there are countless others who have endured this practice and live with the scars. They may survive and even thrive, but they never forget. And too many get lost along the way. Conversion therapy is a dangerous fraud. We intend to end it.

Dev Cuny (fka Deb Cuny)

NCLR Contributor

As a child, I loved to dress up in my dad’s Sunday best to preach the Good News of Jesus to a congregation of furry stuffed animals. Little did I know that my favorite form of make-believe would foreshadow the painful journey of deciding between a call to ministry and fully embracing my own expression of humanity that separated me from the very church I loved. It would take many years before I learned the two were not separate.

It is an extremely isolating experience to come out as a teenager in an Evangelical Christian family in a small Southern town. As a young person, the face of God in my life was the face of my family and church. I knew with relative ease that I was gay, but accepting the implications of what that meant for my life was nearly unbearable. The church taught some of the closest people in my life—my family, spiritual leaders, friends in the congregation—that as a gay person, I was no longer welcomed at Jesus’ Table. I was sick; I needed to be fixed. Having experienced an intimate relationship with God, I felt my life shatter as I witnessed this church family I trusted most reject me. My own understanding of unconditional love drastically changed as I was abandoned at the time when I most needed to know that God loved me. The face of God transformed from one of love to one of deep judgment and disappointment.

Those around me were taught that to love me meant to save me from my own sexuality. I remember sobbing in my chair at a conference while 10,000+ youth gave a standing ovation to Jerry Falwell as he preached, “There is no such thing as Adam and Steve!” I watched as members of my community engaged in intense prayer asking God for my salvation, something I never thought I could lose. My youth group leaders eventually stopped talking to me. After I decided to move out of the house, members of my faith community came into my childhood bedroom to cleanse it of the demons they believed I had brought into my home because of my “lifestyle.” I couldn’t help but believe I was the demon they were trying to erase from my own childhood home.

My family, in their own attempt to seek help and support, became involved in the ex-gay ministry Exodus International, and eventually began volunteering regularly at a local ex-gay organization called Crossover Ministries. Embroiled in my own struggle to maintain a relationship with my family and with God, I agreed to meet with people who were undergoing treatment for their sexuality. I began regularly engaging in conversations with communities who reinforced my own fear that I had chosen my own self-interests over the love of God. I believed I was irrevocably broken, which made me try even harder to find the root of my illness so I could heal and regain God’s love.

The pull toward ministry continued into college. Believing that I couldn’t answer the call to ministry if I was active in my romantic life, I went through intermittent periods of celibacy. I tried many times to find a home in the Evangelical church, and asked several ministers if I could attend their services. The response I received time and time again was that I was welcome, but only on the condition that I entered counseling or abstain from sexual involvement.

My growing self-hatred eventually led me to agree to the most abusive spiritual practice of my life—a Deliverance. Often labeled an exorcism, the goal of a Deliverance in the Assembly of God Church is to pray away the demons that keep a person from fully embracing God’s love. Over a period of six hours, I went through intense prayer and extraordinary anger as the ministers physically and aggressively handled me while they screamed in my face, believing they were confronting the Demon of Perversion inside me. It was during the Deliverance that I realized this wasn’t working. I was still gay. Before they could finish the Deliverance, I stopped them. I left the room wailing as the lead pastor yelled after me, “You just chose hell.”

In the years that followed, I experienced bouts of depression, disillusionment, and numbness as I tried to move forward as an openly gay person who was no longer a Christian. But something was missing. I would regularly get drunk just so I could listen to the Christian music of my childhood church. It was the only way I could find to touch this deeply buried wound and desire for God.

In my late 20s, I met a friend and mentor who introduced me to a contemplative service at a local Episcopal church. It was at this service where I saw my first female minister and heard my first rector say, “Every person is welcomed, gay or straight.” I still avoided taking communion for years even at the gay-supportive Metropolitan Community Church because, deep down, I believed that gay people weren’t truly Christian. But it was here at this Episcopal church that I was compelled to walk down the aisle and participate in the most transformative Meal of my life—Eucharist. It was here that I first realized I, too, may have a place at The Table.

The experience of welcome at the Episcopal church reawakened my call to ministry, which eventually led me to attend seminary in Berkeley, CA. There, I continued to grapple with extreme internalized homophobia and loss of faith, but I also began to slowly gain a new church family. I found the support I needed to seek out healing, but this time the healing included integrating my call to God with my Divinely-created sexual and gender identity.

My family began their own healing process, and my parents shifted their views of what it meant to love others as Christ loves. The changes in my own family have helped me to restore my own faith in God. I can now say that I have witnessed a miracle. My family is becoming more and more a part of my support network, showing me the importance of reconciliation, compassion, accountability, justice, and grace for our larger Family — the family that will never abandon me.

While I continue to struggle to believe that I am an equal child of God, every year I hear the crack of another broken shackle. My family recently attended my seminary graduation where I had the opportunity to publicly thank them for fighting to love and support me. They received two standing ovations from my new faith community. Their attendance was an act of love that gave me the strength I needed to accept a chaplaincy position at a San Francisco Hospital where I hope to continue living into the role of wounded healer. I now believe that it is when I allow my own wounds to be touched and healed, that I am better able to serve as a part of this new face of God, so that others may experience the unconditional love that I so desperately craved as a gay teenager.

Mathew Shurka

NCLR Contributor

Six weeks and I’ll make you straight. Guaranteed.

That’s what a mental health professional told me when I was 16 years old, and trying to understand the feelings I was having for another teenage boy.

My father—afraid that our close-knit family would be ostracized in our community because of my sexual orientation—took me to the so-called therapist after I confided in my dad about my feelings for a friend. Little did anyone know that the visit with the therapist would start a seven-year battle that would pit my well being against the therapist’s relentless attempts to change my sexual orientation, and cause me to sink so deep into confusion and depression that I couldn’t leave my house for days on end, and even considered taking my own life.

I was raised 20-miles outside of New York City in a traditional Jewish household, where I was close with my parents and my two older sisters. Growing up, I always knew I was gay, but I fought back my feelings until I began to fall in love with a friend, and needed to share what I was experiencing with someone who could support and guide me. I turned to my father, who grew increasingly concerned and sought the help of the therapist whose promises of being able to make me straight in six weeks guaranteed intrigued him.

For an hour each week, this therapist, whose work was deeply rooted in tackling gay stereotypes, taught me the steps – walking more manly, talking more manly, becoming popular with my classmates – that he wanted me to take to live a lie and to seem like a straight teenage boy.

Overwhelmingly, the therapist wanted me to avoid any meaningful interaction – regardless of how short – with any women, fearing that it would stunt my progress and somehow send me spiraling back into a world where I would be gay. Under the therapist’s rules, I couldn’t talk to my mother and sisters, unraveling our once close-knit home.

With the therapist’s encouragement, I soon became dependent on him, relying on him to literally be my on-call decision maker, guiding me through each day to prevent what he considered setbacks.  I would call him with even the smallest question, afraid of making the wrong decision, and possibly stumbling down a path that would lead me to shame everyone in my family, including the two-dozen aunts, uncles, and cousins with whom I once shared weekly Shabbat dinners. The therapist feared that misguided interactions with anyone could potentially make me fallback.

Each time the therapist and I talked, I grew more and more confused. Since I could only spend quality time with other males, I chose to hang out with my friend, falling deeper in love with him, and more confused by feelings the therapist told me that two men could never have for one another. But it was my friend who soon became my place of peace from the hellish experience of living a lie.

At 19, I severed my ties with the therapist and moved to Los Angeles to get away from the lie – the double life – I had created for myself in New York. But I couldn’t forget what he had engrained in me – that I needed to change who I was in order to be accepted. It was buried deep in my memory, and I was petrified to make a decision – any decision, really – that could set me on a disastrous course toward shame.

I struggled to come to terms with my true self and set aside the poisonous damage that he caused in his years of trying to brainwash me into thinking that I couldn’t be gay and happy. I became depressed, and at my worst, I couldn’t leave my apartment for days, fearing that somewhere, somehow, I’d make a bad decision.

Slowly, with the help of another therapist and my mother, I found my willpower, reassembling the pieces of my life that I had last over the years I spent talking to the therapist who made me believe I wasn’t good enough. I moved back to New York, and last year, at the age of 23, I found the courage to say: I’m a gay man.

But it wasn’t until California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill in September 2012 protecting minors from the same type of psychological abuse that I endured that I truly felt a sense of closure.

Finally, others have recognized the long-term damage caused by these types of practices, putting an end to it in California, and I’m hopeful that other states will soon follow.

Mathew Shurka resides in New York City, where he’s a student at Baruch College, and plans on becoming an architect.

— December 2013