Theresa May’s call for an outright ban of so-called ‘conversion therapy’ will save lives

After years of contemplating suicide and being estranged from my family, I finally left conversion therapy. And I became committed to advocacy to ensure other LGBTQ+ youth never had to go through what I experienced

Mathew Shurka
Sunday 08 July 2018 18:08
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The prime minister said nobody ‘should ever have to hide who they are’
The prime minister said nobody ‘should ever have to hide who they are’

The UK Government Equalities Office conducted the world’s largest LGBTQ+ survey, with a total of 108,000 participants. The survey found that two per cent of LGBTQ+ people have been subjected to conversion therapy “in an attempt to cure them of being LGBT” and an additional five per cent have been offered this debunked treatment.

My five years in conversion therapy could not have been more traumatising. At 16 years old, a clinically trained therapist in the US told my father that “same-sex attraction” was a treatable mental disorder and that with the right treatment from him, I could change my sexual orientation if I worked hard and wanted to change.

My father loved me and saw this as an opportunity to give me the life he’d imagined for me – a heterosexual one.

In weekly “talk therapy” sessions, I was told to stay away from all of the significant women in my life, including my mother and two sisters. My therapist said this was essential to prevent me from behaving effeminately and to avoid seeing women as my peers. During my weekly sessions, my therapist objectified women, encouraged me to also do so and described this objectification as the basis of a healthy male-female relationship. Meanwhile, I was also instructed to emphasise characteristics my therapist viewed as stereotypically masculine. I was told to relearn how to talk and walk, encouraged to play sports and told that I should only be spending time with men. By the end of this therapy, I hadn’t spoken to my mother and sisters for three years.

When I turned 20 I attended a conversion therapy weekend camp in Charlottesville, Virginia, called “Journey Into Manhood”. This camp also eventually came to the UK. While I was at the camp site with about 60 other men all trying to rid themselves of “same-sex attraction,” I met two other young men who had traveled from the UK to attend the camp. This was my first exposure to men from outside the US who were also attempting to “cure” themselves and I learned that we had something in common. We all yearned to be accepted by our parents, communities and religions. And we believed that being “cured” and becoming straight could be the answer.

After years of contemplating suicide and being estranged from my family, I finally left conversion therapy. And I became committed to advocacy to ensure other LGBTQ+ youth never had to go through what I experienced. With a team of lawyers from the National Center for Lesbian Rights, we created the Born Perfect campaign to protect LGBTQ+ people from harmful, ineffective, conversion therapy.

Through our work with Born Perfect, 13 US states and the District of Columbia, now have laws protecting LGBTQ+ youth and 35 municipalities have passed local protections.

I began advocating for a UK ban back in 2013 when I met with the Labour MP Geraint Davies. He was the first UK official to advance a conversion therapy ban in parliament. Although the bill failed, momentum began to build and in 2015, the UK’s National Health Service published a memorandum to guide and prevent any therapist in the UK from conducting conversion therapy. In 2016, I shared my story at the Royal Geographical Society for Marina Cantacuzino’s Forgiveness Project. And again in 2017 at Europe’s largest Jewish conference, Limmud, in Birmingham, England.

Sharing our stories is the greatest tool we have. It’s what changes the hearts and minds of our families, friends and communities, while helping LGBTQ+ people understand that we are born perfect and need no cure. And in some ways, my story is not unique. There are an estimated 700,000 conversion therapy survivors in the US and conversion therapy has been shown to lead to increased risk of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and even suicide. May’s call for nothing short of a full ban will protect generations of LGBTQ+ youth to come and sets a meaningful, important example for the rest of the world.

Mathew Shurka is a strategist for the Born Perfect Campaign

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