Gay conversion therapy survivors speak out: ‘It’s torture’
The Daily Beast
December 1, 2020
Two Trump-appointed judges on the 11th Circuit recently made a pro-conversion-therapy ruling. In the first of a two-part series, LGBTQ survivors of the practice tell their stories.
Warning: some readers may find descriptions of the experiences and alleged therapeutic practices disturbing.
On Nov. 20, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down bans on juvenile gay conversion therapy in South Florida. The majority votes in the 2-1 decision came from two Trump-appointed judges, who argued that the therapists’ practicing this mode of therapy—resoundingly condemned by every professional body in the field—were having their freedom of speech violated by being banned from practicing.
LGBTQ campaigners do not know if the ruling will have a practical effect. It is presently an outlier and for activists an alarming example of Trump’s efficient packing of lower and higher courts with conservative judges, including the Supreme Court with its current 6-3 conservative majority (where a decision in a religious freedom/LGBTQ fostering case is already pending).
The 11th Circuit decision also unnerves activists who thought that a wide consensus had long been reached that conversion therapy—the idea that therapy can be used to turn LGBTQ people straight—was dangerous and wrong.
Mathew Shurka, co-founder of Born Perfect, a group for survivors of conversion therapy (like himself), told The Daily Beast that the ruling ran contrary to the 107 laws have been passed against the practice in 20 states, 84 cities, and with the support of over 2,000 elected officials, Republican and Democrat. It seemed until now that conversion therapy was an issue on which there was legal, medical, and political agreement.
Dissenting 11th Circuit judge Beverly Martin, quoting the American Psychological Association, said that this was a therapy that caused patients “anger, anxiety, confusion, depression, grief, guilt, hopelessness, deteriorated relationships with family, loss of social support, loss of faith, poor self-image, social isolation, intimacy difficulties, intrusive imagery, suicidal ideation, self-hatred, and sexual dysfunction.”
Conversion therapists themselves run from that descriptor, and yet still offer the therapy under new guises, Shurka said. Now re-termed under phrases like “sexual orientation change efforts” (SOCE), it remains prevalent: an estimated 700,000 people living in America today have been through conversion therapy, according to the Trevor Project. According to its 2020 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, 10 percent of LGBTQ youth reported undergoing conversion therapy, with 78 percent of that group saying they had it when they were aged under 18.
In this, the first of two special articles, The Daily Beast speaks to conversion therapy survivors about their experiences.
Singer-songwriter Justin Utley was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, within the Mormon Church. He left the church in 2005 and moved to New York City to pursue his music career, then moved back to Utah. His single “Survivors” was inspired by his experience of conversion therapy. He is also an LGBTQ activist and advocate.
“Every Sunday was the Cub Scouts, everybody in the community was very involved in the church,” Justin Utley told The Daily Beast of growing up Mormon. “There were religion classes at our public school. It’s a very immersive community. If you didn’t go to church, people would know. Everybody knows who is doing what.”
There was a constant, consistent, anti-LGBTQ message. “The leaders of the church spoke out against any participation or sympathizing with any group associated with any LGBTQ organization,” said Utley. “It prohibited any type of homosexual behavior. The bottom line is the Mormon church believes eventually, if you are devout enough, you become a god and you will achieve godhood with your wife—so you become a god and goddess. Homosexuality doesn’t fit that mold.”
Utley was told that homosexuality was a sin next to murder. “In their opinion, it degenerated family and ruins the plan God has put out for us. Knowing I was struggling with some of those feelings, I did not identify with the stereotypes people were throwing around. I thought maybe it was a phase or aberration. I kept it to myself and assumed either no one was feeling the same way I was or other people were feeling the same way and not talking about it. I definitely had attractions, I was just scared to act out on them because of the fear and doctrine the church had put in me. It was made clear that it would be social suicide both in school and in church if I came out.”
It wasn’t until Utley was 22 and went on a Mormon mission to recruit for the church that he realized he was gay.
“I tried to come out to my bishop. That’s when the conversion therapy conversations began. He said that I wasn’t gay and that I was suffering from a condition called same-gender attraction, and that the Church could ‘fix’ it. The Mormon Church has a mental health arm, Family Services, and I was sent to what they consider to be a ‘specialist.’ I met with this therapist once a week and also attended group therapy, which was set up like an AA meeting—it was just that nobody gets sober.” Utley laughed.
“Everyone is wallowing in same-gender attraction problems. The tenets of group therapy was to strip you of any identity as a gay man or an LGBTQ person, to ‘You’re just suffering from a disorder. You’re not gay, this is something you suffered as a child, something your parents did to you.’ They can’t admit being gay is normal. They refuse to accept it, so they strip you of any dignity you have as a gay person and substitute it with a disorder that is possibly reversible through therapy.”
The therapist, said Utley, recited a series of stereotypical reasons why he was suffering from same-gender attraction disorder. “One was that my father wasn’t there and that my mother was overbearing. But in my household that wasn’t the case. Dad was a scoutmaster. I was basically born in a canoe on a campsite. Mom was not overbearing. I was the middle of three boys. She would tell put us in the backyard, tell us not to kill each other, and come back in for dinner.”
The topic of childhood trauma came up a year into therapy. “I had been consistently reading scriptures and going to church. But nothing was really sticking. The therapist then introduced the idea I had been sexually molested repeatedly as a child and I just didn’t remember, because it was so awful,” Utley recalled. “The therapist said this supposed molestation was how I learned the behavior of the homosexual. So when I became anxious or depressed that would trigger my PTSD, and I would then behave like the person who molested me.”
Week by week the therapist pieced together these basically false memories. “Remember a house that really scared you as a child,” the therapist told Utley. “But every kid in grade school ran past a house that freaked them out, but that was used as a carrot to feed me into the story and as the location where this non-existent abuse took place.”
Utley slowly started believing what he was being told—that he had been sexually abused as a child. “I still wasn’t out as gay at this point because the bishop and therapist had told me not to. Instead, I came out to my family as a survivor of sexual abuse as a child. They went on a pseudo-witchhunt to find out who it was. Now I think thank God they didn’t find anyone they thought had done it, because what would their lives be like now if they had been accused of sexually molesting children when they hadn’t?”
The therapist diagnosed Utley as having PTSD after being supposedly molested. “I remember growing up and being pretty anti-gay at some point in my life because I was scared of being gay. I believe leaders of the Mormon church are struggling with that as well,” said Utley. “Their way of exterminating the possibility of themselves being gay is to hide behind the hate.”
“I lost my job, my faith, my belief in community.”
Utley said the church had medicated him “to the point I couldn’t feel anything.” In the second year of the conversion therapy, “a lot of chaos” started happening in his life. “The conversion therapy wasn’t working. It got to the point that I was so overwrought, frustrated, and confused. I needed to find happiness. I attempted to date somebody, a man, so I had to leave group therapy; a bit like if you are not trying to be sober you can’t go to AA.”
Six months into the relationship, the man he was seeing had a heart attack and died. “The coroner thought it was probably an attempted suicide,” Utley said. “He was in the same boat as me, both not admitting we were gay and struggling with the predicament. I tried to go to his funeral but wasn’t allowed to by my office because I wasn’t related to him. So, I came out to my boss at work. Until 2015, you could still be fired for being gay in Utah. I was told they wouldn’t have hired me if they had known I was gay and they were sorry my friend had died but I needed to find another job.”
Utley went to the bishop who had sent him to conversion therapy. “He basically said, ‘You did what I told you not to do. You came out to someone, and now you can’t go back. You’re never going to see your family again in the next life if you don’t fix this, and your boyfriend was taken from you because you’re not supposed to be in a gay relationship.’
I lost my job, my faith, my belief in community. I thought we were supposed to look out for one another. Instead, I was put on the chopping block and found guilty of not only my own sins but of someone’s death. At that point, my self-esteem and everything was pretty low. I planned to commit suicide. My mom found out about my plans from a friend who I’d been talking to about how low I was, how rejected and dejected I felt and how ceasing to exist seemed the best option. I had told him how I would be doing it. He called the police who showed up at my mother’s house.”
The police told Utley to meet them at a corner near a hospital. “I felt more embarrassed than anything. Of course, I wasn’t to go ahead and do anything, so I went to meet them.”
At the intersection, there was police tape, fire trucks, flares—”a ridiculous fanfare for someone in my state.” There had been an accident. A tow truck was pulling an SUV off a smaller car. “My mother was being pulled out of the car’s windows,” Utley recalled. “She had followed the police to make sure I was OK. I sat in the emergency room for hours, thinking, ‘Not only have I ruined my life and the eternal existence of my boyfriend who passed away, now I’ve lost my mother in this whole debacle because of the depression conversion therapy had created.’”
His mother was OK. “She came out of the ER, and told me, ‘I don’t know what you’re going through right now, but I want you to know that you are loved the way you are, and if I have to do this again just to prove how much I love you, I will.’”
Utley’s voice cracked. “And that’s when everything changed for me. I realized there was nothing wrong with me, and I was free to find happiness in my life and had people who would support me in that journey.”
He immediately turned to a licensed therapist who wasn’t affiliated with conversion therapy, or the Mormon church at all. “And they put me on the path to healing, able to pursue my music career. I make my journey a part of what I sing and speak about. None of the guys I was in group therapy with came forward when the debate to ban conversion therapy for minors happened in Utah. They were too scared. They didn’t want to be outed.”
Conversion therapy, said Utley, “is not just psychological torture, but emotional and spiritual torture too. It takes a core part of you—being LGBTQ—and destroys and vilifies it as this evil part of you. They then throw the bait that ‘If you do everything we tell you, you can be cured,’ like you have a disease or something. The leaders keep control through fear.”
Utley finally exited conversion therapy when he was 25. He is 43 now. Officially, the Mormon Church is evolving on LGBTQ issues—homosexuality is not a curable condition, it says. “Individuals do not choose to have such attractions,” the Church says. Therapy focusing on “a change in sexual orientation” is “unethical.”
Same-sex attraction isn’t sinful, the Church says, but acting on it is. Family Services, the Church has said, no longer provides conversion therapy. Last year, the Mormon Church backed Utah passing a ban on conversion therapy. (The Mormon Church did not respond to a Daily Beast request for comment.)
Utley is not convinced by this apparent evolution. “The church doesn’t consider anyone gay, they consider them struggling with same-gender attraction. The church cannot be wrong, they think they are infallible. They speak for God. What they say they don’t take back, they don’t say sorry. Homosexuality frustrates the plan of God and to become gods. Therefore, they need to do everything they can to stop it. Electro-shock therapy was done in the ’90s. A friend of mine was shown porn—straight porn was fine, but when gay porn came on they gave them a drug, Ipecac, to induce vomiting.”
It took three years of therapy to deal with the damage that conversion therapy had done.
“I still have repercussions from it,” said Utley. “The therapist I saw after all this happened looked at all the medications they had unnecessarily put me on, and said I should continue taking the anti-anxiety one because of what they had put me through. There have been a lot of repercussions emotionally, also religiously and socially. It has led me to sever relations with friends and some family members—they think I have done something wrong and should have stayed in conversion therapy because, to them, being gay is evil.
“I had to make the choice between conformity, or be true to who I am and shake off the shackles and live life as honestly as I could be. I thought if I lost relationships over it, I would rather have one or two close friends than a congregation of people who only like me because I am like them.
“It took most of my family a while to come around, because of the shock of me being molested first and the shock of me coming out, and then planning to commit suicide. Dad thought it was a phase. But as I have spoken about it, they have really seen the difference it made in other people’s lives and the damage it caused me and others. They’ve become extraordinarily supportive. Some of them are still believers in the church, and some aren’t.”
Now, 18 years later, Utley “wants to keep the discussion going. If I am the only one willing to raise my voice and talk about what happened, so be it.”
“They gave him a baseball bat, and told him he couldn’t leave until he beat the mannequin of his mother up.”
Utley moved back to Utah to get married. That marriage broke down, but he discovered his ex-husband had been through conversion therapy too. An organization called North Star took him away on a retreat. “They claim what they do is not conversion therapy, but the tenets of what they do are based in conversion therapy,” Utley said.
“On the last part of a hike at the retreat he went on, he came across a mannequin of his mother in a Mormon church-type dress. They gave him a baseball bat and told him he couldn’t leave until he beat up his mother for causing him to be gay. He did it. He beat the mannequin of his mother up. He never reconciled his sexuality. He was in this stuck phase. He had finished with conversion therapy, but hadn’t sought help after it and was not able to have a real relationship because of it.”
A spokesperson for North Star told The Daily Beast, “What you’ve described doesn’t sound like anything offered at North Star. North Star doesn’t take an official stance on conversion therapy. In fact, our mission has nothing to do at all with one’s ability to change or not change his or her orientation. North Star is simply a faith-affirming community for those addressing sexual orientation or gender identity and who also desire to live in harmony with the doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“We aim to provide a safe space for those desiring to do both—identify as LGBTQ+ or SSA (same-sex attracted) and remain active in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We don’t have clients. We don’t offer therapy of any sort. Our mission has nothing to do with changing anyone. North Star is more like a community of people wanting to spend time with others who are like-minded. We accept anyone who desires to be a part of North Star.”
Since returning to Utah, Utley has met a lot of guys who are “either Mormon or stuck in a conversion therapy rut like my ex. They are not willing to admit truths to themselves. They would rather stay broken and half-closeted than lose potential family member relationships.” He has kept in touch with some good friends who are still doing conversion therapy. “It’s now called ‘Becoming the man you’re supposed to be now,’ so they’ve kind of disguised and rebranded it,” said Utley.
It’s been difficult to be single in a “state that is so religious,” especially in the COVID era—but Utley says his experiences have helped him empathize with and help others who have undergone conversion therapy. “I think Mormon teaching will stay in my DNA no matter what. When you’re raised in a particularly devout religion from the age of zero to 20, it will leave some sort of mark. I would ask the church to admit the truth: that they still participate in and condone conversion therapy. They just call it something else. They should allow LGBTQ people to live, thrive, and be happy.”
To anyone in conversion therapy, or considering having it, Utley would say: “There’s still time, and still hope, to be true to yourself and live a life of real happiness. There is always hope, and there are ways to get out of the rut you are in and ways to be happy with who you are, and they are not going to be found in any form of conversion therapy. They will be found by being honest with who you are. Conversion therapy causes increases in depression, anxiety, and can lead to suicide ideation and attempts. I want to let people know that conversion therapy causes damage beyond which they can perceive. Happiness will not be found lying to yourself and being gaslit. Accept who you are.”
Utley also recommends that people look at what churches and organizations offer when it comes to conversion therapy—and ignore “the mental and linguistic” gymnastics they do to conceal that. His own music has been cathartic and also a way to help and “talk people out of something that will be devastating. I don’t think I’d be able to do that if I hadn’t been through it.”
At the end of one gig, one older gentleman approached Utley crying, thanking him and saying he had never come out because of potentially upsetting his parents. “He said he thought he had wasted his entire life. I told him that some people never ever come out, and to enjoy the time he has now that he has come out.”
Utley has been happy to stay in Utah to lend his voice to LGBTQ equality campaigns, such as the bills outlawing conversion therapy for minors and outlawing employment discrimination. To pursue his music career he may leave the state. But he is still motivated to help others, like friends who are still suffering and unable to “accept who they are. I hope someday they can be happy.” To that end, he is releasing a Christmas single, “seeing as 2020 has been such a shit-show of darkness.” “All Is Bright,” he says, has lyrics emphasizing silver linings and being with people you love.
Mathew Shurka is a conversion therapy survivor and co-founder of Born Perfect, a campaign that has become a global movement to end conversion therapy.
In two weeks, Mathew Shurka and his boyfriend will move to a new apartment in Chelsea in New York City. When we speak they are in Shurka’s hometown of Great Neck, Long Island. He likes it, but its conservatism is driving them both a little crazy, Shurka said, laughing.
It was here that he was raised in a “culturally Jewish” home where “tradition was more important than faith.” The family didn’t belong to a synagogue, but Shurka did have a bar mitzvah and Shabbat dinner was served every Friday night.
Shurka started “experimenting” with his homosexuality early in middle school, aged 12 and 13. “Even then, I didn’t come to terms with being gay. I just looked at it as ‘boys will be boys’ just roughing around. My father is Israeli-Iranian. For him, male bonding was playful and rough, so it seemed like a good narrative.” At high school, his attraction to other guys grew; he had closeted relationships with other closeted kids. He wanted to both “fit in and stand out, so no one would think I was gay,” and so started throwing parties when his parents were out.
However, two boys in the grade above him who he did not invite began bullying him, and one day—as two members of a gang of boys—beat him so severely he was hospitalized. His nose was broken in six places. Shurka didn’t feel that beating was specifically homophobic, “but my life was drastically changed from that moment because I knew I was secretly gay. The fact that 10 to 15 boys attacked me made me scared for my life. What if any of them knew I was gay? Whatever confidence I had diminished from that moment.”
The bullies were kicked out of the school, but Shurka, then 16, had begun to cut classes anyway. His parents were worried. His father asked what was wrong, and Shurka came out. “He was great in the conversation, told me he loved me no matter what. We cried and hugged. It was a special moment. Then the following day he said, ‘What are we going to do?’ He had had his own panic about what it meant to have a gay son.”
An emergency family meeting was held with Shurka, his mother, father, and two older sisters. Without Shurka’s knowledge, a search for a therapist had begun. They had not heard of conversion therapy, and they wanted to find a licensed professional. “In a weird way, they did their due diligence,” Shurka said.
They found a therapist in New York City who said there was no such thing as homosexuality or LGBTQ people. The therapist told Shurka’s parents that everyone was innately heterosexual, and that childhood traumas were the causes of same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria. If the child could resolve whatever the trauma was, they would “overcome” their same-sex attraction and opposite-sex attraction would return “because that was innately who we all were. That’s the rhetoric all conversion therapists use, and what I was put through.”
Shurka had four therapists in five years, going through conversion therapy from the age of 16 to 21. He was told he had a distant father and an overbearing mother, that he had been molested or raped. He had not. He had, he says, “a nice upbringing and great parents. My father wasn’t distant. He just worked a lot.”
Lately, with conspiracy theories such a feature of the cultural landscape, Shurka has been reminded of his time in conversion therapy, and its practitioners’ summoning of theories out of thin air, and then connecting random dots into a series of falsehoods, gaslighting the patient into believing things about their lives that are not true. “They blame the parents, or something else; someone or something has to get the blame for being gay.”
Shurka was a “very good student and patient.” He had gone into conversion therapy scared, and told he had to do it to save his own life. “There was this very strong element of life and death, that it would determine the outcome of my entire life. The therapist planted all these seeds, and I was saying to myself that I have it give it my all.”
A second therapist in Los Angeles boasted he had a “90 percent success rate of turning gay kids straight.” Father and son flew to meet him for a first meeting. (Most conversion therapy, Shurka said, is done by phone, because its practitioners and patients are often geographically scattered.) Shurka had never seen his father—here hopping on a plane to fly cross-country—so passionate about anything, “about me becoming straight. There was such a drama, ambition, and eagerness behind it. My dad and therapists made it clear to me how horrible life would be if I came out publicly as a gay man.
“They didn’t make it about sin or religion. They told me, ‘You will never have a job or respect. You’ll never be a business owner. No one will take you seriously—unless you want to be a hairdresser.’ It was crazy, but back then it resonated with me because I had been beaten up by a gang of boys. I thought being gay would never keep me together.”
The “most horrifying” thing about seeing licensed therapists was their skilled deployment of therapeutic tools, Shurka said—and that instead of using those skills to help patients deal with self-esteem and anxiety, the endgame was so much more poisonous for the client.
One of the first rules was that Shurka was to stay away from women as much as possible, which surprised Shurka as he assumed he would be being pushed into dating girls and being around them a lot. The therapist said, however, that Shurka would be trained into spending as much time with men as possible and not be attracted to them. “That was exciting to me,” Shurka said, with a laugh, “because I was gay.” However, following the beating, he did have an issue with masculinity, and the therapists set about exploiting it.
From that moment, Shurka was forbidden from talking to his mother and sisters, despite living in the same house with them. This continued for three years. At the outset, his mother was in the dark about why Shurka had stopped speaking to her.
“My father kept it from her because he knew she would never agree to it. He made some excuse like, ‘He’s going through some things, and only wants to talk to me.’” His mother went along with it for a month or two, until his father told her the real story. “She was outraged. She said, ‘There’s no way I am going along with this. Who cares if he’s gay? There’s no way this is therapy. Whatever the issue is, the resolution should never be to separate a mother from her child.’”
At that point, Shurka was “fully immersed” in the conversion therapy. “I really applied myself. I was like my own police officer in my own home. My mother would try to talk to me. She would say, ‘I know you’re gay. It’s OK, I accept you.’ To me at that time this was going against my father. I would shout at her, ‘How fucking dare you!’ I would throw a tantrum at her. ‘I’m working hard towards this goal, and you’re ruining it.’ The therapist had said my mother was ‘overbearing.’ In my poisoned head, this added to that theory.”
Every morning, his mother made Shurka his breakfast. He would eat it and leave the house without saying a word to her. After school, he would come home, go upstairs, and ignore her. He would hear his parents arguing in the kitchen. “If she tried to talk to me, I would walk away. Back then it was a patriarchal home. But my mother is a strong woman, and she got more vocal as time went on. My mother was fighting tooth and nail for this therapy to stop, but felt she had no power over my father.”
At 19, a freshman going into his sophomore year, Shurka started a relationship with a longtime friend his own age. He told his therapist about it, just as he told him about every time he “messed up” by hooking up with another guy. He trusted that his therapist and his father had his own best interests at heart. His therapist called such moments “One step forward, two back.”
His therapist and father saw that Shurka was falling in love with the other boy. His therapist repeated that there was no such thing as love between members of the same sex, “that it was just two individuals dealing with their own traumas. He told me it was not genuine love, and that was a psychological mess.”
Then, in secret without telling Shurka, his father arranged to meet the young man for lunch. He knew him anyway as the boys had grown up together. Shurka’s father told the young man that Shurka was seeing a conversion therapist; Shurka had told him he was just seeing a therapist. Shurka’s father said he was aware the two young men were having a relationship. Shurka’s father asked the young man if he was gay, and the young man said he wasn’t and was just experimenting.
The young man was frightened, Shurka said. He had never come out before and was suddenly scared about his own family finding out. Shurka’s father told the young man, “I know my son cares for you, but we really need to see if the conversion therapy will work.” He asked the young man to back off, and if the therapy didn’t work he could contact Shurka again down the line.
The young man agreed and called Shurka to break up as instructed—without telling him about his father’s demands. Shurka recalled, “He said that he didn’t think being gay was for him. It made sense because he was closeted, and had to go through his own coming out story. But I was devastated. I had a million questions, he had been the only real joy I had in my life. He said, ‘Give me a couple of years. If this is really who I am, I would love to call you.’”
Shurka thought it sounded weird at the time, and at his next session with his conversion therapist described how distraught he was. “The therapist put the blame on me, and said I had an obsessive-compulsive disorder. This was my trauma fighting its way out of me. That was nonsense of course, and what’s really fucked up is that he had created the circumstances. He knew all the way along why this young man wasn’t in my life anymore. He had coached my father through the whole thing. They had planned it together.”
The truth was revealed nine months later when the young man called Shurka to reveal the whole story behind his sudden disappearance. They met up, but even though Shurka now knew about the plot and deception of his father and therapist, “I was still loyal to conversion therapy. I really believed all LGBTQ people were mentally ill, including myself.”
Still, Shurka confronted his father and therapist. The latter, weirdly, cried and admitted “messing up.” He decided to break off communication with his father; an estrangement that lasted for about five years. He and his mother began to repair their relationship, and she recommended he see a non-conversion therapy therapist who he saw for six months, and who told him he could be his own person, which no conversion therapist had ever told him.
“Actual conversion therapists don’t want to be called that now. They know how conversion therapy is seen.”
Shurka went back into conversion therapy, still feeling he had not tried “hard enough” to change his sexual orientation, attending a weekend retreat, “Journey into Manhood,” outside Charlottesville, Virginia.
“It was crazy. Everyone there had the same intention of overcoming same-sex attraction.” There were about 60-70 men, aged 18 and over (Shurka said he was one of the four youngest guys there). The camp used the fairytale of Jack and the Beanstalk, said Shurka, where the symbolism revolved around the attendees being Jack, the giant representing all their demons. Once the giant had been successfully slain, the men would receive their magic seeds—and, Shurka laughed, at the end of the weekend the attendees all received pouches of seeds.
There was nothing funny about the intense weekend. One exercise saw all the men sitting in a circle, asked if they were attracted to anyone else. A sea of hands went up. One young man was chosen and asked who he was attracted to. He pointed at Shurka, who was asked to stand opposite him.
The young man was asked what he found attractive about Shurka. The young man said his V-neck T-shirt with chest hair peeping out, his broad shoulders, deep voice, and confidence. The leader of the group told the young man that these were all things he wished he had himself. This was not his sexuality, the young man was told. He should work on his own masculinity and self-esteem.
Then the group was split into smaller groups to re-enact incidents of childhood trauma, such as one man whose older male babysitter forced oral sex on him. “Everyone else played characters in the story, including him. It was incredibly disturbing. Then, at the moment the abuse happened, the actor playing him broke free and shouted, ‘I’m my own man.’ The idea was to recreate history. It was exhausting and traumatizing.” Shurka himself had no childhood trauma to re-enact, so made up that he had walked in on his parents having sex.
Rich Wyler, founder and director of “Brothers on a Road Less Traveled,” which organizes the “Journey into Manhood” camps, told The Daily Beast in an email that the group was “NOT a mental-health clinic of any kind. We are not a therapy organization. Brothers Road does not provide therapy. We are a non-profit, peer-led, peer-support community that offers workshops, support groups, webinars, and online group coaching (via Zoom, for instance)—not therapy—to other adults with similar goals.
“In essence, we represent the perspective and experience of the CLIENT, not the clinician. So we have a highly vested interest in our right to voluntarily seek professional counseling and life coaching and to attend workshops and support groups, if we wish, in pursuit of our goal to minimize, to the extent possible—or at least manage—our same-sex attractions in ways that align with our faith, our values, our beliefs, and life goals.”
After a period of highly-publicized influence in the 1990’s and 2000’s, infamous conversion therapy organizations like Exodus International and Jonah have since closed—although, Shurka said, organizations like Brothers Road/Journey into Manhood are repackaging conversion therapy, rebranding it with vaguer language that does not use either “conversion” or “therapy” in its descriptions—even if its purpose and mission remain the same.
“Actual conversion therapists don’t want to be called that now. They know how conversion therapy is seen, so they’re trying to call themselves other things, like ‘reintegrative’ therapy,” Shurka said.
Indeed, “Reintegrative Therapy” is a branded practice; its founder and clinical director is Dr. Joseph Nicolosi Jr., son of Joseph Nicolosi Sr., the onetime figurehead of the conversion/reparative therapy movement who died aged 70 in 2017. A spokesperson for Reintegrative Therapy declined to comment on its practices to The Daily Beast, though implied that any impression that they provided “conversion therapy” was incorrect.
Shurka attended the “Journey into Manhood” camp with his then-conversion therapist, who claimed to be a gay man who was no longer gay. Shurka told him he didn’t want to lose the feeling of being in love that he had with the young man who his father had menaced. Why should he have to undo something like that, Shurka asked. “Because it’s not real, that’s why,” his therapist said.
Shurka began to realize how manipulated and poisoned he had been. He asked the therapist to let him meet “success stories”—men who had renounced their sexuality. But time and again, even if they were married with kids, Shurka met men who were still attracted to men.
Conversion therapy had failed to work for every one of them. “The therapists and organizations doing it are doing it to make money,” said Shurka. His own, supposedly formerly gay conversion therapist, claimed finding the right woman had not been easy, hence his own allegedly hetero single status.
Shurka complained to the Jersey City-based referrals service, Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (Jonah, now closed), who had been referring him to conversion therapists for the previous five years.
He went for one last session with him, and was told—yet again—that there was no such thing as love between two members of the same sex, that he would never find fulfillment “if I chose to live this life.” Shurka thanked the therapist, didn’t pay, “and that was it. I had heard the same story so many times. I thought, ‘This was enough.’”
The stress of the therapy had physical consequences—Shurka went to the emergency room seven times with chest pains. He thought he was having heart attacks every time, but they were anxiety attacks.
“I didn’t know how to function, because from 16 to 21 everything that was core to my identity and who I was was being obliterated,” said Shurka. He contemplated suicide for around two years, “dreaming and thinking about how to do it,” but never attempting it. Shurka recalled being in one classroom seeing the male and female students interact and rushing out of the room crying because he “didn’t know how to be gay.” His conversion therapy had been about patrolling how he walked and spoke, and connected to others.
Shurka came out, aged 23, and began his advocacy work with Born Perfect. He reconnected with his father eight years ago. His father apologized to him, and Shurka chose to forgive him, while being clear with his father about just how horrible his life had been because of all he had done.
“He provided for my family, and was a good man in that way,” said Shurka. “A lot of conversion therapy survivors don’t know how to reconcile with their parents. I went through it myself. My father never cut me off. He thought he was doing what was best for me, but I told him he had been hurting me. I was very firm in what I said. ‘I am a gay man and I love you.’
“He would still say that he was worried about me being gay, but instead of being fucking angry with him and treating my sexuality as something wrong, I told him that I was going to be OK, take the world as it comes, and take care of myself. He was shocked. Someone just needed to tell him that everything was going to be all right. That was the first moment we grew. It didn’t mean that all of a sudden he would march in a Pride parade, but we kept growing closer and closer. Today we’re very close.”
Shurka laughed. “My father still has his moments, and makes remarks, like when I told him my boyfriend and I had an argument about something not that substantial. My father said, as the therapist had, that dating was always more difficult for gay men. I told him that wasn’t true. I always put him in his place, and he stops.” His mom is proud of his work with Born Perfect; his dad would still like him to go into business.
Shurka’s parents are divorced; they had issues prior to the familial mess caused by the conversion therapy, but the latter was a catalyst. It has been “a long, painful process” to rid himself of the psychological poison of the conversion therapy itself, Shurka said. His college friends had been “life-saving,” he said, voice cracking. It took a long time to figure out how to date and make friends within the LGBTQ community. He didn’t know how to relate to men, and spent “many days, completely depressed,” unable to leave his apartment. But slowly he “navigated and rebuilt my life, and figured out who I am and who I should connect to.”
Shurka’s current relationship is his most serious to date, and a challenge in a more acute than usual sense because being in a relationship with another man goes “against everything” he was told in five years of conversion therapy. “Even though what they taught me is gone, and I have done a lot of work over the years and feel very grounded, something unexpected can happen to trigger me. It’s always a surprise I never see coming. It’s not an easy journey. As an organization, we at Born Perfect say the impact of conversion therapy on the individual is lifelong.”
Online conspiracy theory and false information culture also help such organizations flourish, said Shurka, even as Facebook bans overt conversion therapy advertising. “We haven’t yet figured out how to reach younger LGBTQ culture accessing that kind of bad information,” said Shurka. Then there is the rebranding of conversion therapy under other words and phrases.
Even with the immense progress in LGBTQ rights and visibility of LGBTQ people, Shurka says his own experience—of growing up so close to New York City and yet going through what he did—shows just how critical the nature of acceptance (or not) is within the culture, community, and religion one grows up in.
Shurka sees these tensions in the stories of other survivors, as well as the panic over constructs like masculinity, such as his father had. The latter, said Shurka, doesn’t care if you hold up the example of out Apple CEO Tim Cook as a positive example of a thriving LGBTQ individual in business. “To some people, being LGBTQ will always represent a threat, or the need to restructure things like marriage, relationships, and friendships.”
The 11th Circuit ruling was painful, said Shurka. “This is our first major loss. Before that we were unstoppable. Now we are walking on more cautious ground.” Shurka said he would be “nervous” for a conversion therapy-related case to reach the Supreme Court right now, with its 6-3 conservative majority—already ruling rightwards on religious freedom, as last week’s ruling blocking COVID restrictions on religious services in New York City showed.
“I don’t want to see this go to the Supreme Court, and that’s sad,” said Shurka. “As a gay man in this country, I should not have to feel that way, or feel the highest court in the land could rule unjustly on such an important issue and deliver proper justice for LGBTQ people.”