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Mathew Shurka
Mathew Shurka, who's been leading the fight against conversion therapy

New York bans gay conversion therapy

A survivor of gay conversion therapy explains why we need to stop trying to ‘cure’ gay people

New York has announced a ban on gay conversion therapy – the widely discredited practice which tries to ‘cure’ people of homosexuality. The move to outlaw the controversial practice was announced by Governor Andrew Cuomo on Saturday. Under the new rules, it will be illegal to provide conversion therapy to children under the age of 18, and Medicaid won’t be able to cover the costs of the ‘treatment’.

Although gay conversion therapy won’t become illegal per se, The New York Times reports that the new restrictions will essentially eliminate the practice – given that conversion therapy is almost always inflicted on gay children by their parents. In a statement given to the newspaper, Cuomo said that conversion therapy was a “hateful and fundamentally flawed practice”, before going on to say that the state of New York will no longer “allow the misguided and the intolerant to punish L.G.B.T. young people for simply being who they are”.

While the concept of ‘curing’ gay people of their homosexuality can seem unbelievable, gay conversion therapy remains legal in most states across the USA – despite having been linked to a number of suicides in recent years. And before you think that things are better over here, here's a fact for you: gay conversion therapy is legal in the UK

Last year, President Obama officially condemned the practice after the tragic death of Leelah Alcorn, a seventeen year old transgender student who’d been forced to attend conversion therapy. In her suicide note Alcorn explained that the pressures of being forced to attend conversion therapy in relation to her gender identity had compelled her to take her own life.

Despite President Obama’s support for banning the practice, and the fact that the World Health Organisation and every other reputable medical organisation in the world has condemned gay conversion therapy, so far only five US states have acted to ban the practice.

To find out more, Dazed spoke to Mathew Shurka from the #BornPerfect campaign. Shurka underwent gay conversion therapy for five years, in an attempt to “cure” him of being gay.  He’s now a leading anti-conversion therapy activist in the USA, and has been instrumental in getting states to ban the practice. He explains why it has to stop – before more people lose their lives.

In 2014, my team and I began a campaign called #BornPerfect. Our ultimate aim is to end conversion therapy nationwide by 2019. Since then we’ve been bringing legislation state-by-state, and we also have a federal bill which is sitting in Congress right now.”

As a New Yorker, Governor Cuomo’s announcement is particularly meaningful to Shurka – who underwent years of conversion therapy in the state. “It’s such a milestone, because Governor Cuomo has announced the new changes by executive order. It really shows how urgent it is to make sure this practice ends”.

This sense of urgency is underscored by the statistics. “One of the leading causes of death for minors in the USA is suicide. And every week, we’re hearing about the suicide of someone who was undergoing conversion therapy. The LGBT community is four or five times more likely to commit suicide than the rest of the population – and this figure is multiplied by a factor of eight if the person is undergoing conversion therapy”.

Shurka’s experience of gay conversion therapy has driven his activism – but it almost cost him his life. “I was in conversion therapy for five years, from the ages of 16 to 21. In my therapy, I was told that there is no such thing as homosexuality – there is no such thing as being LGBTQ – and it’s childhood trauma that causes your homosexuality. So if you can heal the trauma, your innate heterosexual self will come back naturally. Because that’s who you are.”

Shurka was forbidden from speaking to his mother and sisters for three years – because they might have an ‘effeminate’ influence on him. “It tore my family apart. Coming home every day and not being able to speak to my mother or sisters. My home was no longer a safe place for me to live in”.

While the conversion therapy seemed to be ‘working’ superficially – Shurka was having sexual relationships with women – the psychological impact was intolerable. “My grades fell. I was suffering from depression; I contemplated suicide.” When told to have sex with as many women as possible by his therapist, Shurka started having panic attacks. Unbelievably, his therapist prescribed him viagra pills. “I started to view myself as disabled, because I needed the viagra to have sex. I felt like there was something deeply wrong with me. It was traumatic”.

After a two-year recovery period, Shurka came out as gay and now advocates against conversion therapy to prevent other young people having to suffer what he went through. “My ambition is to end conversion therapy across the US, but it doesn’t end there. I want to take this international.”

Let’s hope his victory in New York inspires other governments to ban this outdated and barbaric practice – for once and for all.