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Awareness fuels efforts to end conversion therapy

Within a week of coming out to his father at age 17 in 2004 Mathew Shurka started conversion therapy. At first, he went along with it, believing he would change his sexual orientation.

Conversion therapy, the practice of using psychological or spiritual interventions to try to change an individual’s sexual orientation from homosexual or bisexual to heterosexual, dates back to the 1920s, but became what it is today when conservative Christian groups began opening conversion therapy centers in the 1990s.

Shurka’s therapist said there was no such thing as homosexuality, and that being gay came from childhood trauma. Shurka thought he dug deep, but couldn’t find trauma.  His therapist said he wasn’t looking hard enough, was too influenced by his sisters and mother and needed more male bonding. He was told to not speak to the women in his family and to hang out only with boys, his uncles and father.

After three years, Shurka became suicidal. In conversion therapy, he said, blame is always on the patient, never the therapist. Over the course of five years, he went to treatment in four different states and to a one-week “Journey into Manhood” camp. He left at 21, realizing he wasn’t changing. His parents had spent $35,000.

“It is a wide, moneymaking industry,” he said.

Today, Shurka, 30, is estranged from his father and reconnected with his mother and sisters. After starting regular therapy, he came out again at 23 and started advocating against conversion therapy at 24.

He told his story at the outset of “Conversion Therapy: Laws, Policy, Advocacy and Awareness in the United States and Beyond," a program held on Jan. 26 at the Midyear Meeting, sponsored by the Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.

Reacting to Shurka’s story, panelist Jocelyn Samuels, executive director of the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy at UCLA School of Law, said it made her realize anew that “this therapy is an abusive, harmful practice.”

Through data analysis, the Williams Institute estimates that about 700,000 Americans have been subjected to conversion therapy, half of whom were adolescents.

“This is not a minor problem. This is not a boutique issue,” Samuels said.

Conversion therapy is banned in 8 countries, including China, Brazil and most recently the United Kingdom; and in 15 states, the District of Columbia and some counties and cities. Public awareness increased last year after two movies centered on conversion therapy were released, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” and “Boy Erased” (both of which Shurka served as a consultant on).

The bans only apply to licensed medical providers and not to religious and spiritual advisers, and the Williams Institute calculates that as of last January, 20,000 teens were at risk of being forced to undergo conversion therapy by religious and spiritual advisers.

“It’s an underground world of minors or teenagers being put thru this treatment. It’s not publicly known how widespread it is,” Shurka said.

“This is one of those problems that can’t be fully solved by the law; we have to change the culture,” said panelist Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

For his part, every time panelist Alphonso David, counsel to N.Y. governor Andrew Cuomo, hears Shurka’s story he’s disturbed, and despite all the progress, he stills sees “a lack of urgency” on this issue.

David said the laws across the country fall into roughly 3 categories:

  1. Prohibit medical/mental health professionals from engaging in conversion therapy,
  2. Prohibit medical/mental health and their assistants or anyone who is providing some support to them from engaging in conversion therapy, and
  3. Prohibit medical/mental health professionals from engaging in conversion therapy and the advertising of that practice.

Religious groups have the right to engage in religious practices without government interference, he said. However, they can be restricted in how they perform certain practices in two instances:

  • where they are charging fees and/or,
  • if they are advertising in such a way that it potentially violates consumer fraud laws (i.e., “they are guaranteeing a result we know they cannot achieve”).

New York State passed a conversion therapy ban in January, but two years ago, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo took executive action and directed three separate agencies to protect people from conversion therapy:

  • Department of Financial Services issued a set of regulations that prohibited insurance companies from covering conversion therapy,
  • Medicaid was forbidden from covering conversion therapy and
  • The Office of Mental Health issued a set of regulations and directives to prohibit any state-licensed, -funded or -run facility from covering, providing or sanctioning conversion therapy.

Minter discussed a case in which the Southern Poverty Law Center brought a suit in New Jersey under the Consumer Fraud Protection Act against a religious group called Jonah, which markets and sells weekend conversion therapy retreats.

The jury took minutes to award a “significant” settlement to the plaintiffs. “It was astonishing to see the level of pure quackery going on” and also “how sad and tragic it was that these folks … were being bamboozled,” Minter said.

 “Part of what I hope we’ll see is the private bar stepping up and bringing more of these cases,” he said.

“There has been no presented evidence of a success rate” for conversion therapy, despite claims of success, Shurka said. On the contrary, Minter said, “there’s overwhelming scientific evidence that you cannot change your sexual orientation.”

Looking ahead, David sees the window for more bans being the strongest between now and June, because this issue “is unfortunately still controversial” and “can be used against certain elected officials” during the 2020 election year.

According to Shurka, the most promising states for enacting new bans are Utah (where he says a cultural shift of acceptance is happening), Colorado, Florida, Maine and Massachusetts.

Samuels said “state bar associations can play a role in promoting these bans and making sure that state legislators have the information they need.

Conversion therapy “really is a public health crisis,” Minter said. “This is a big part of why LGBT young people still have …wildly disproportionate rates of depression, suicide, HIV infections, dropping out of school” and more.

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For more, download Legal Talk Network’s podcast with the panel discussing conversion therapy and efforts to ban it in all 50 states.