BY MATHEW SHURKA
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