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.

Federal Appeals Court Lets Stand California Law Protecting Youth from Dangerous Anti-Gay ‘Conversion’ Therapies

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (January 29, 2014)—Today, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit let stand an earlier decision by a three-judge panel of the same court upholding Senate Bill 1172, a California statute enacted in 2012 that protects minors from dangerous and ineffective mental health treatments that falsely claim to be able to change a young person’s sexual orientation.

The California Legislature enacted the law to prevent state-licensed mental health professionals from attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender expression of minor patients. The Legislature based the law on the unanimous consensus of the nation’s leading medical and mental health associations that such purported treatments have no scientific basis and put children at risk of serious harms, including depression and suicide.

In the lawsuit that the Ninth Circuit ruled in today, the statute was challenged by therapists who wish to engage in these practices on minor patients and who argued that the law violated their right to freedom of speech.  In August 2013, a panel of the Ninth Circuit held that California’s law was a permissible regulation of medical treatment to protect public health and safety and did not violate the free speech rights of therapists. The Ninth Circuit’s ruling today allows that decision to stand, thereby ensuring that California’s law will remain in effect.

California’s law was defended in the case by California Attorney General Kamala Harris and by Equality California, the lead sponsor of the legislation and California’s largest organization advocating for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Equality California was represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and the law firm of Munger, Tolles, & Olson LLP.

Three of the Ninth Circuit’s 27 active judges dissented from today’s ruling, based on disagreement with the original panel’s reasoning. The dissenting judges took no position on whether the statute is valid, stating: “The regulation at issue may very well constitute a valid exercise of California’s police power[.]”

New Jersey enacted a similar law in 2013. A federal district court upheld New Jersey’s law on November 8, 2013, and that law is currently the subject of an appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. In that litigation, NCLR represents Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s largest LGBT rights organization.

Said NCLR Legal Director Shannon Minter, Esq.: “Today’s decision affirms that California can protect young people and their families from being deceived and harmed by unethical therapists who falsely claim they can change a person’s sexual orientation. These practices have no scientific basis and can cause serious, lasting harms that devastate families and destroy young lives. California has a duty to protect the public from deceptive and unsafe practices by medical professionals who are licensed by the state. The Legislature did the right thing by enacting this protective law, and the ruling today strongly confirms that other states should follow California’s example and adopt similar laws.

Added Equality California Executive Director John O’Connor: “Equality California is proud to have sponsored and defended this important law. We are grateful to Senator Ted Lieu for authoring it and to Governor Brown for signing it. We are also grateful for medical and mental health associations that supported the law and helped to educate the legislature about the serious dangers posed by scientifically baseless efforts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender expression. No ethical professional should put a young person’s life and well-being at risk by engaging in these ineffective and dangerous practices. Every young person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect and to be valued for who they are.”

Born Perfect is a survivor-led campaign to end conversion therapy created by The National Center for Lesbian Rights, a national legal organization committed to advancing the human and civil rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community through litigation, public policy advocacy, and public education.

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