Mathew Shurka is one of the leading activists out to end conversion therapy in America. While some municipalities have passed laws, to date 42 states have zero laws against conversion therapy, a scientifically disproven practice to change a person's sexuality or gender identity to heterosexual and cisgender norms. The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified at least 70 practitioners across the U.S., not including pastors and clergy who work within religious communities. Committed to debunking the theories of conversion therapists, Mathew uses his own experience and a controversial approach to address those who support the practice.
When Mathew Shurka was sent by his father to 'reparative therapy' as it was described to him, he really gave it his all. At 16-years-old, Shurka went to four different therapists in four different states from 2004 to 2009, all out to help him transition to a hetero lifestyle. Buying into his father's fears that being gay would mean a life of exclusion and professional strife, he believed the therapists' claim that homosexuality is a myth and that he could have the same feelings for girls that he did for boys. He even attended a now infamous sleep-away camp where other boys and men like him attempted to 'heal' into heterosexuality.
The practitioners' approaches were all pretty similar. They believed that childhood traumas cause deviations from heterosexuality. The therapy included working through the traumas and altering behavioral changes. In an attempt to defeminize him, they instructed him to watch straight porn focusing his attention on the females and encouraged him to develop 'healthy male bonding' with his peers in school. He was also instructed to avoid socializing or being close with his mom or sisters in order to deter any effeminate behavior they might encourage.
"It was incredibly traumatic because nowhere was safe anymore. I couldn't be myself at school and I couldn't be myself at home."
"When the therapist explained these instructions, telling me it was best to stay away from women, it became a house rule for them not talk to me. It was a specific structured part of the therapy to distance myself from women and because I was the only male," Mathew told VICE Impact in an interview.
"It was really important that I didn't have any exchanges with them. It's a lot of femininity in one home," Shurka continued. "It was incredibly traumatic because nowhere was safe anymore. I couldn't be myself at school and I couldn't be myself at home."
For a while, Mathew thought it was working. Until it wasn't.
"In the beginning, when I had sex with women I was able to do it. The more sex I had with women the more affirmation it was for my heterosexuality. So I would push myself to keep having sex and making sure I was doing it and because the pressure was so strong I ended up having panic attacks and anxiety about having sex with women."
Instead, Mathew's therapist and father got him viagra pills, telling him it would boost his confidence and to keep trying.
After five years of playing it straight, Mathew came to the slow realization that the approach dictated to him wasn't going to work. "I kept noticing these patterns, [the therapists] all had the same ideas, that the design of the human body is to experience true love when you procreate with another person. But then everyone I talked to who was in therapy admitted that their same-sex attraction never goes away. And I kept asking everyone, 'show me one gay man, who completely stopped their attractions' and to this day I've never met one."
For the last five years, Mathew has shaped his career around ending the practice and preventing others from going through what he endured. He's worked with government officials in almost every state to introduce bills to end the legality of the practice and help pass laws in eight states. He also led the campaign that added the rainbow flag to your emoji keyboard.
"Even if conversion therapy is made illegal in all 50 states, it won't stop the religious right from advocating and counseling around it. "
What makes Mathew's specific brand of advocacy unique is that he openly engages and works diplomatically with his opposition to find a solution. What that looks like is conversations, and lots of them. "Even if conversion therapy is made illegal in all 50 states, it won't stop the religious right from advocating and counseling around it. I don't think we can make the difference we want to make by just writing them off and being disgusted.
In June, Mathew traveled from his home in Brooklyn to Boston to testify at a state Senate hearing on a controversial bill to end conversion therapy for minors. He listened to about eight individuals testify against the bill. They all claimed that their conversion therapy was a success. "It blew my mind. All these formerly gay men had their wives with them. There was one person who had reassignment surgery and claimed it was a mistake. It's like holy shit, this guy no longer has the genitalia he was born with and he regrets it. I realized I need to see what's going on. I've done a lot of work thus far but maybe I need to dive deeper."
Mathew attended the 2017 Restored Hope Conference in San Diego, organized by a right-wing Christian group for 'strugglers, family members, loved ones, counselors, pastors,' and laypeople in the face of 'same-sex attraction.' For two days he sat and listened to people talk on everything from healing childhood abuse, to parents coping with having gay children. In alignment with his mission as an advocate, Mathew attended as an open member of the gay community.
"It might sound strange, but I did experience a tremendous amount of love in the room. Which I thought I would with understanding it's a Christian organization. I found it to be ironic because as LGBT activists, we always imagine these people to be really evil. And don't get me wrong, there were moments where it felt evil. Certain speakers expressed hostility and anger claiming that liberal America was out to get the Christian church, but for most of it, it was a really loving atmosphere -- just a loving atmosphere where they consider homosexuality a sin and they're looking to heal and find love."
Mathew believes he can make a difference by bridging two sides, but his stand to end conversion therapy is still at the root of his advocacy. "Obviously the bills don't make the biggest difference because I'm sitting in San Diego in a conference with 410 attendees who are all there to learn and do conversion therapy. I'm sitting in a state where it already had become illegal to practice. No one at that conference gave a shit. So what that tells me, as an activist it's important that we see beyond the laws. "
In a time in America where echo chambers of opinion amplify polarization, Mathew's willingness to listen and engage speaks to the importance of tolerance for the future. It requires patience, which is a value that seems harder to find in a world with increasing fear and anger at our changing political climate. But dedication to change a culture won't happen with opinion and self-righteousness as the only weapon.
After five years of national and global activism, Mathew started his own foundation create results in 'bridging the gap,' if you want to learn more or donate, click here. If you want to tell your state to end conversion therapy, go here.