Mathew Shurka, who says gay conversion therapy “was the best training ever in how to lead a double life.” (Damon Dahlen, The Huffington Post)
In 2004, when Mathew Shurka was 16, his father brought him to a licensed therapist who claimed he could make gay people straight. Books lined the wall, and a couch was available for those patients who liked to recline while sharing their woes. The place had an aura of scientific respectability. But few ordinary psychologists would have condoned the conversation that took place.
The therapist, who worked in the Los Angeles suburbs, belonged to a relatively small network of mental health professionals who offer what is sometimes called “sexual conversion therapy,” an unconventional technique that is being contested in courtrooms and legislatures around the country. Like other clinicians in the field, he promised to help gay patients overcome their same-sex attractions. Some of these men (and they were nearly all men) had spent decades struggling with feelings of shame and guilt.
But Mathew was only beginning to think about his sexual identity. About a month before, he’d confessed to his father, a wealthy businessman, that he had a crush on a boy and was feeling confused. His father, who declined to be interviewed, worried that Mathew’s sexuality would prevent him from being happy and successful. “Let’s get this fixed now,” he declared at the end of a meeting with his son and the therapist, pounding his fist on the desk. The therapist told the Shurkas that because Mathew was so young and sexually inexperienced, they could expect to see signs of progress in as few as six weeks.
Therapists have attempted one form or another of sexual conversion therapy since the time of Freud. Most mental health clinicians now view the practice as a troubling relic of the profession’s dark days in the ’50s and ’60s, when homosexuality was considered a mental illness and the catalogue of “cures” included the sorts of torments made famous by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — electric shock, forced lobotomy, castration.
More recently, the rise of the religious right has provided a base of political support for the handful of right-leaning therapists who continue to insist that people can change their sexual orientation through counseling. In one particularly cozy example, Marcus Bachmann, a psychologist and the husband of Republican Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, reportedly offers conversion therapy at the counseling center that he runs. While his wife and her colleagues on the Christian right use their roles as elected officials to rail against homosexuality in Congress and on cable news, Marcus uses his role as a psychologist to provide an intellectual framework for the argument that being gay is a choice.
Conversion therapy has attracted growing scrutiny in recent years. Just last week, the head of the largest so-called “ex-gay” group in the world, Exodus International, announced that his organization was ceasing operations, and offered an apology for ever promoting the therapy. The American Psychological Association and American Psychiatric Association have also cautioned against the practice. A group of former patients and their parents have brought a consumer-fraud lawsuit against Jews Offering New Alternatives To Healing (previously known as Jews Offering New Alternatives To Homosexuality, or JONAH), a New Jersey counseling center that offers conversion therapy. And lawmakers in several states have taken measures to ban it. In September of last year, California became the first state to outlaw licensed therapists from attempting to change the sexual orientation of minors. “These practices have no basis in science or medicine, and they will now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery,” Gov. Jerry Brown of California said upon signing the bill into the law.
It’s unclear whether that law and similar bills proposed in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts will survive an expected barrage of legal challenges. Late last year, two conservative legal groups filed suits claiming that the California ban amounted to an unconstitutional violation of parental rights, privacy and freedom of speech. Both cases are awaiting ruling at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Legal experts say they expect the litigation process to drag on for years.
Culture warriors on both sides have rallied around these cases, portraying them as fundamental to the future of gay rights on the one hand and religious freedom on the other. Central to the dispute is the question of whether sexual orientation can be changed through counseling (or prayer). Social conservatives have long argued that homosexuality is a chosen “lifestyle” — as Newt Gingrich put it to The Des Moines Register when he was running for president in 2011, “people have many ranges of choices.”
Although these views are increasingly marginal, gay-rights activists still feel that they threaten to undermine the central premise of the modern gay rights movement — that sexuality is as immutable as skin color, and that gay people should be granted the same rights and protections as any other minority group. Wayne Besen, founder of Truth Wins Out, an organization dedicated to fighting conversion therapy, said the idea that people choose to be gay “is the foundation itself of homophobia. People in the movement get upset and say it shouldn’t matter whether someone chooses homosexuality or is born that way. But in reality, it does matter. Poll after poll shows it.”
In recent months, Mathew Shurka, now 25, has joined the ranks of former patients who have stepped into the debate. Nearly a decade after he and his father flew from New York to LA to meet the therapist — and one week after Gov. Brown signed the California law — he made a YouTube video for Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better Project,” an anti-bullying campaign. Sitting before his computer in a black T-shirt, Mathew explained why he supported the law.
“It was pretty horrible,” he said of the experience with the therapy, smiling nervously. “Nothing about it ever had to do with being myself.” Mathew, whose family spent around $35,000 on his therapy, has smooth olive skin, straight white teeth, and a thoughtful manner. He often pauses in the middle of a sentence to find the right word, his hazel eyes wandering the room. “You don’t really ever learn to accept who you are,” he says in the video.
Eight months after recording that video, Mathew invited me to accompany him to California, where he reunited with his therapist for the first time in more than five years. The therapist, who I’ll call John, had agreed to meet us on the condition that no identifying details about him would be published.
We met at a hip coffee shop in an LA suburb, where Mathew ordered a mandarin orange soda. John, who was on a juice cleanse, stuck to herbal tea. “I’ve always been an NPR-listening, progressive-minded guy,” he said. He noted that he hadn’t practiced conversion therapy in years, and seemed embarrassed by his former associations with the right-wingers and religious ideologues who populate that world.
After a few minutes of chitchat, Mathew excused himself to make a phone call and I took the opportunity to ask John about his background. John massaged his temples and asked me to put away my recording device. He said that his involvement in conversion therapy had been a professional and personal “disaster.” Instead of helping Mathew overcome his shame and anxiety, John had grown ashamed of the experience and fearful about the possible repercussions for his career.
***Mathew’s sessions with John took place once or twice a week, on the phone, between the fall of 2004 and the summer of 2007. John helped Mathew brainstorm strategies for learning how to “act straight.” They talked about how to dress like a straight guy, how to walk with confidence, how to make friends with the cool boys at Mathew’s school. The sessions weren’t limited to conversations about sexuality, and in recalling their work together John is still adamant that, in many respects, it wasn’t that different from conventional adolescent therapy. Mathew admired John and felt close to him. In Mathew’s imagination, John embodied a certain easy-going West Coast masculinity. He was young and put-together, and unlike another therapist whom Mathew had briefly seen in New York, John didn’t try to force religion on him. As far as Mathew knew, John had no religious background.
Mathew wanted to believe the therapy could work, and he tried to follow John’s advice. When John told Mathew he identified too closely with female family members and friends, Mathew took steps to avoid speaking with his mother and sisters. When John encouraged him to establish more friendships with the straight boys at his school, he threw parties for hundreds of teenagers at his family’s Long Island mansion. A year into his therapy, he lost his virginity to a girl. John approved. Soon he was sleeping with women “left and right.”
As Mathew put it recently, “The therapy was the best training ever in how to lead a double life.”
Every day after school, Mathew and his best friend — I’ll call him Jacob — would drive around town in Mathew’s car. They’d play video games, swim in Mathew’s pool, take the train into the city or hang out at the mall. Mathew’s pictures from this time, which he still keeps on his computer, show them happy and affectionate, their arms around each other. Mathew had been infatuated with Jacob since meeting him at a Bar Mitzvah at the Waldorf Astoria when he was 13.
John didn’t discourage Mathew from spending time with his crush. In fact, he encouraged him to spend as much time as possible with Jacob. Like many conversion therapists, John believed then that boys who relate closely to their mothers and lack strong bonds with their fathers tend to see men as exotic and mysterious, which, in turn, produces feelings of sexual attraction as the boys reach puberty. In keeping with the central theory of conversion therapy, he believed that Mathew could erase those feelings by forming strong, nonsexual relationships with other men.
Around Mathew’s 18th birthday, he and Jacob had sex. It was Mathew’s first time with a man. Early the next morning, as Mathew walked home through the picturesque streets of his bay-side town, he tore off his T-shirt and pressed it to his face, inhaling Jacob’s lingering scent. Ashamed, he then stuffed it into a storm gutter in the street and retreated into his home.
Mathew lived in Great Neck, N.Y., a wealthy suburb overlooking the Long Island Sound. His family’s house was a 1980s modernist palace of dark-stained wood and shimmering glass, with an indoor pool, a man-made stream winding through a Japanese garden, a semi-private dock, and wrap-around floor-to-ceiling windows offering a commanding view of the water and the Manhattan skyline. His father had the place built not long before Mathew was born: It was his proudest possession and a symbol of his arduous climb up the American economic ladder, Mathew said.
An Israeli immigrant of Persian descent, Mathew’s father began his years in America as an uneducated cab driver, and slowly built up a commercial real estate empire. Relatives had followed him to Great Neck, reconstituting the tight-knit and insular community they’d had first in Iran and then in Israel. Mathew’s family was not very religious (they didn’t keep kosher or regularly attend temple), and according to Mathew, his father didn’t see homosexuality as a sin. But the family had never fully assimilated to the culture around them. Being openly gay just wasn’t done, and Mathew said his father believed that if his son revealed his sexuality, he would alienate the extended family and never fulfill the opportunities Mathew’s father had worked so hard to provide for him.
Mathew now entertains ambitions of becoming an architect, and one day this spring, as he gave me a tour of his childhood neighborhood, he pointed out his favorite mansions along the shore. Turrets rose from customized castles; balustrades and columns decorated 20,000 square-foot villas with 11-car garages. To invoke F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line about the Gatsby mansion, which Fitzgerald supposedly modeled on a home set on the very spit of land where Mathew’s house now stands, they were all colossal affairs by any standard. Like Gatsby, Mathew’s father had conjured a fortune from thin air, proving that nothing was impossible, no dream out of reach. Mathew saw no reason to doubt his dad’s judgment, and was terrified of letting him down. And yet he continued sleeping with Jacob on and off for the next five years.
In his sessions with John, Mathew complained that he felt torn. A part of him still hoped that the therapy would somehow make his love for Jacob vanish. But he was increasingly sure that he didn’t like sex with women, and the Viagra that his father gave him on two occasions only made him feel worse.
By this point, John says he had begun to harbor serious doubts about his practice, and about his work with Mathew in particular. He could see that the treatment wasn’t working, and he prompted Mathew to consider that he might actually be happy as a gay man. But he didn’t let Mathew or his father know that he was losing faith in the therapy. He didn’t admit to selling what he’d later refer to, in a moment of uncharacteristic bluntness, as “garbage.” At the coffee shop in LA, he said he regretted his lack of candor with the Shurkas. In the world of conversion therapy, “therapists collude with the clients’ wishes,” he said, “rather than bringing the bad news, or helping them cope with the news they didn’t want to hear.”
***The question of whether it’s possible, or desirable, to change one’s sexual orientation goes back to the dawn of modern society’s understanding of mental health. Freud attributed same-sex desires to “developmental arrest,” but he didn’t see homosexuality as an illness and was skeptical of attempts to change it. In a 1920 case study, he warned that “to undertake to convert a fully developed homosexual into a heterosexual does not offer much more prospect of success than the reverse, except that for good practical reasons the latter is never attempted.”
Still, when the practice of psychiatry spread from Vienna to New York after World War II, the American mental health community classified homosexuality as a sociopathic personality disorder. In a society where gays faced routine discrimination and could be institutionalized or jailed for sodomy, many psychiatrists viewed sexual conversion therapy as a humane alternative.
Unsurprisingly, the first wave of gay rights activists in the 60s and 70s didn’t see the profession in such a benign light. In 1970, the same year as New York City’s first gay pride parade, a group of gay radicals stormed into a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in San Francisco and derailed it. They saw the profession’s stigmatization of homosexuality as one of the main barriers preventing gays from enjoying the same civil rights as everyone else.
Under pressure from these activists, a bitter feud erupted within the psychiatric community over whether gay people were sick. To those who scorned the APA’s decision to remove homosexuality from the list of mental disorders in 1973, it seemed as though the group had capitulated to the pressures of the nascent gay rights movement, privileging the politics of the moment over the unchanging laws of science. This view persisted for decades, even as it became abundantly clear to many people in the profession that the supposed science behind the APA’s former classification was dubious, if not completely baseless.
One of the most outspoken critics of the APA’s shift was Charles Socarides, a psychiatrist widely considered to be the modern father of sexual conversion therapy. In the ’90s, when the APA and other mainstream groups began to issue formal statements repudiating the profession’s history of discrimination against gay doctors, Socarides and a younger colleague, Joseph Nicolosi, formed the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality, or NARTH, one of the movement’s intellectual pillars.
The group’s formation coincided with the rise of the evangelical movement and the religious right, and the two movements fed off each other. For Christian conservatives, NARTH coated the war against homosexuality with a veneer of scientific legitimacy, and it proved a reliable source of credentialed experts eager to testify against gay causes in courtrooms and statehouses. The religious right, meanwhile, provided the therapists with patient referrals and publicity.
Near the movement’s peak, in 1998, a coalition of 16 religious right organizations launched an ad campaign in The New York Times and other major newspapers featuring the testimony of a self-described former lesbian who claimed to be “living proof that truth can set you free.” NARTH has always been reluctant to reveal much about its inner workings: A spokesman for the group said he would not divulge any information about the size of its membership, donor base, or email list. But by the late ’90s, NARTH had its own journal, held an annual conference, and was training hundreds of new recruits, by some estimates. After years of isolation and irrelevance, conversion therapy was making a comeback. And that’s when Mathew’s therapist first learned of it.
John says he never had anything against homosexuality. In our conversations he made a point of stressing that he has had gay friends and even attended a gay rights rally in college. And he insisted that his involvement in conversion therapy had nothing to do with religion or ideology, even though he was raised in a Christian household and studied Christian theology at school. And when his efforts to help one of his first patients — a married man who complained of unwanted homosexual urges — led him to the writings of Nicolosi, a practicing Catholic, he didn’t recoil. “There was a little bit of theory and a little bit of anecdotal stuff,” John explained at the cafe, “so I thought, okay, maybe if there are folks who have same-sex attractions and don’t want them, there are things we can do to help them.”
Through the writings of Nicolosi and others, John was persuaded that some men unconsciously develop same-sex attractions as a way to compensate for failed relationships with their fathers, or in response to childhood molestation. By learning to connect with other men in non-sexual ways, they could supposedly repair their damaged psyches, causing their homosexual feelings to spontaneously dissipate.
None of the papers guaranteed change — most subscribed to the idea that around a third of all patients could be cured, a third could learn to manage their desires without acting on them, and a third would never succeed, John said. In those instances when the efforts did fail, blame was usually laid on the patient. “Some clients agree with the premises of reparative therapy but do not have the ego strength to see it through,” Nicolosi wrote in his 1991 book, in which he coined the phrase “reparative therapy,” a variation on “sexual conversion therapy.” “Such men usually drop out within the first few months in spite of their apparent commitment. Lack of ego-strength leaves a client vulnerable to the attractions of the gay lifestyle.”
As John delved deeper into the literature, he joined an informal network of several hundred therapists who practiced various forms of reparative therapy, and NARTH and JONAH began referring patients to him. In the early 2000s, after The Boston Globe published a groundbreaking investigation into widespread sex abuse in the Catholic Church, he began seeing patients who were referred to him through his church connections, including a number of young men who had been abused. Even now, John maintains that his work with those patients “affirmed for me that this is a complex and challenging issue from any angle.”
Around the same time, conversion therapists received a major credibility boost. In 2003, Dr. Robert Spitzer, a towering figure in psychiatric circles, published a study that purportedly validated the idea that sexuality can be changed. Spitzer had asked 200 men and women to describe their feelings before and after treatment. Most reported that the therapy had worked. Adding legitimacy to the study’s credibility was Spitzer’s record on gay issues; he had presided over the APA’s removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973.
By this time, John had begun wondering whether the practice really changed anyone, but the study helped alleviate his doubts.”It gave me hope that maybe this could become a mainstream idea,” he said.
***A few months after Mathew and Jacob first slept together, Mathew started his freshman year at Baruch College and moved to Manhattan. Jacob was still living at home, but he slept over at Mathew’s once or twice a week, and they would sometimes spend weekends together. One day in early November, as Mathew was walking home to his apartment, Jacob called and said he needed to talk. Lingering nervously outside a Starbucks on 2nd Avenue, Mathew heard him out. Jacob told him he needed a break. In Mathew’s telling, Jacob said he didn’t know if “this whole being gay thing” was for him, and he wanted to give himself two years to see if he could get over it.
In the sessions that followed, Mathew pressed John to help him understand why Jacob had left him.
Eight months later, he found out.
It was late spring, nearly a year since he and Jacob had first slept together, and Mathew was back home at his parents’ house for the summer. He was surprised to see Jacob’s number come up on his cell phone. Jacob asked if he could come over. “We were intimate with each other,” Mathew recalled. “Then, he asked if we could go for a drive.”
Out on the road, Mathew listened with growing astonishment to Jacob’s story. Jacob hadn’t really wanted to end their relationship, he said. Last fall, Mathew’s father had called and asked to meet for lunch. At a coffee shop in Queens, Mathew’s father had ordered Jacob to cut Mathew loose. He explained that Mathew was in reparative therapy, trying to become straight. He felt that Jacob was interfering with Mathew’s progress. In the car with Mathew, Jacob said he wanted another chance.
“More than anything else, what I wanted to say to him was, ‘Yes. Yes, I want to be with you,'” Mathew said. “But the news was so shocking and so horrible, I couldn’t. I said, ‘No there’s no way. None.'”
In a daze, Mathew said he confronted his father, who insisted he had done right by Mathew. Then he called John and angrily demanded an explanation. John admitted knowing of his father’s plans. Mathew declared that he would be ending the treatment.
A few weeks later, Mathew and his mother flew out to Los Angeles, but not to meet with John. Mathew wanted to start a new life away from his father. “I felt conspired against, betrayed,” he said. His parents had begun divorce proceedings. Mathew’s mom, Jane Shurka, said that the therapy was a factor in their break-up. “I saw my son was not doing well,” she said. At first, she had respected her husband’s determination to help Mathew, but instead of getting better, Mathew was “angry, a wreck. He could not handle one thing to the next.”
Mathew quit school and enrolled in a two-year community college in Santa Monica. He stopped speaking with his father, and began seeing an openly gay psychologist. But he wasn’t out of the closet, and he says he “couldn’t shake the feeling” that if he lived a gay life, he’d never be happy.
Alone for the first time in his life, he spent weekends driving around the sprawling city in a little sports car. He dropped out of school again and hid in his apartment for days at a time. About a year after breaking off the sessions with John and six months into his work with the gay therapist, he decided to give reparative therapy another try.
His new conversion therapist, a Mormon (and self-described “ex-gay”) in the LA area, suggested they attend a weekend retreat called “Journey Into Manhood.” On its website, Journey Into Manhood is described as a “48-hour immersion in intensive emotional-healing work, designed specifically for men who are self-motivated and serious about resolving unwanted homosexual attractions.” A survey on JIM’s website declares that 79 percent of participants reported a decrease “in the frequency or intensity” of their same-sex attractions after attending the retreat.
As Mathew arrived at the site of the retreat, in the woods of Charlottesville, Va., hooded men carrying staffs led him and the other participants into a darkened room. Native American flute music played in the background. The room was hazy with incense. The group leaders reenacted the plot of Jack and the Beanstalk. In their reading, Jack’s quest to conquer the giant and marry the princess was a metaphor for the process of defeating one’s same-sex attractions. Over the next two days, the 40 or so attendees engaged in what’s sometimes called “touch therapy,” cuddling in the dark while “trying to experience the fatherly love you never got from your father,” Mathew said.
At other times, they would act out traumatic moments of their youth, searching for the one defining experience that made them want men. Mathew chose two scenes from his childhood, both involving his father. The experience disturbed him. On the first night, he found himself thinking about Jacob and broke down crying.
***In 2007, the American Psychological Association convened a task force to study the existing research on conversion therapy, the latest indication that the professional mental health community had grown increasingly concerned about the practice. John didn’t need to wait for the results to be published. “It really became just more and more and more evident that this was a controversial field, and I didn’t want any part of the controversy,” he said. Deeply troubled by Mathew’s recent departure and his realization that conversion therapy wasn’t making any of his patients straight, he decided not to see any more patients who wanted to change their sexual orientation.
In the cafe, John apologized for the “bad ending” with Mathew. It served as a “wake-up call,” he said, forcing him to accept once and for all that conversion therapy was harmful, especially for minors. Sitting side by side, the two men reviewed the darkest chapter of their work together — their failure to break away from the overbearing authority of Mathew’s father. John said he didn’t collude with Mathew’s father, but admitted that he knew of his plans to end the relationship with Jacob.
“To know that you had known killed me inside,” Mathew told him.
He’d been waiting months to say that. He’d first reached out to John half a year before, and he’d called him countless times since then, coaxing him to sit down with a reporter. Mathew still believed that a conversation between two people could make the world a better place, and he wanted others who’d been through the therapy to understand that healing was possible.
“Well, I’m sorry,” John replied, clasping his hands together on the table. “I didn’t play that right.” Resorting to the language of his profession, he reprimanded himself for failing to set appropriate “boundaries.”
Mathew was more than satisfied. “I’m going to give you a hug,” he said.
The act of physical, nonsexual male bonding that followed was, for Mathew, all the therapy he needed for now. As we drove to the beach afterward, Mathew couldn’t stop smiling. He loved LA, he said, even though the last time he lived there was one of the loneliest times of his life.
***The history of the ex-gay movement is rife with apologies, renunciations, and scandals. Michael Bussee, one of the founders of Exodus International, fled in 1979 after meeting the love of his life at Exodus. John Paulk, a former Exodus leader and the subject of a 1998 Newsweek cover story on patients who swore by the practice, was photographed two years later in a gay bar in Washington, D.C. NARTH member Christopher Austin was convicted in 2007 of “unlawfully, intentionally and knowingly caus[ing] penetration” of a client.
Stories like this have supplied critics with ample fodder. As the gay rights activist Wayne Besen put it, in a blog on The Huffington Post, “If so-called ‘ex-gay’ therapists had a slogan, it would be ‘Getting paid and getting laid.'”
Not everyone has required the prodding of public humiliation to call it quits. Just a few years after he appeared in advertisements with his wife saying “change is possible,” Alan Chambers, the head of Exodus until its disbanding this month, announced at the group’s annual meeting last year that he no longer believed homosexuals could be “cured” through Christian prayer and psychotherapy. When I spoke with him, he said he was “deeply sorry” that he’d had a hand in promoting the therapy. “It causes people shame, and shame internalized never produces freedom,” he said. “It causes death, and for the rest of my life I’ll do everything I can to help people realize they don’t need to be ashamed.”
Chambers said he’s starting a new organization to help any Christians, gay or straight, who choose to live a celibate life. “There are always going to be people like me who view the Bible in such a way that calls them to celibacy,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest blow to the movement came last spring, when Dr. Spitzer acknowledged in a letter to the editor of the Archives of Sexual Behavior that there was no way of knowing whether the subjects of his influential 2003 study had truthfully responded to his questions. He apologized for “making unproven claims” and asked for the forgiveness of any gay person who “wasted time and energy” because of his endorsement.
Ex-gays and their political supporters have long accused defectors of bowing to political pressure. David Pickup, an ex-gay therapist who acts as an unofficial spokesman for NARTH and continues to cite the Spitzer study on his website, told me he didn’t think the defections proved anything. “Does authentic reparative therapy work for everyone?” he asked. “No. Does it work for some people? Yes.”
We were at Nicolosi’s counseling center, a drab corporate building in Encino, an LA suburb. A handsome minister’s son with a deep, confident voice, Pickup spoke in glowing terms about his own experiences in reparative therapy. “It saved my life,” he said. “It helped me become much more my true self.”
Pickup never thought of himself as gay. But in his late 20s, he started getting into gay porn. Over 15 years of therapy, he said, he learned to come to terms with a childhood trauma: He was sexually abused at the age of 5 by a 16-year-old male neighbor. By his account, the therapy boosted his self-esteem and confidence, causing his homosexual feelings to go away “spontaneously.” At 56, his relationships with women have become “more authentic,” he said. But he hasn’t found that special someone. “I’m still looking,” he said, laughing.
Pickup is the lead plaintiff in one of the lawsuits filed to stop California’s ban on conversion therapy for minors. “I refuse to see a group of children abused,” he said. “This law will continue the emotional abuse and, in cases when children have been abused sexually, it will continue the sexual abuse.” Pickup’s conviction that he wasn’t born gay anchors his belief that sexuality is changeable. “The problem,” he correctly points out, “is in the strictest scientific sense, no one can prove it either way.”
***While science has little to say about the mutability of sexual orientation, it’s also largely silent on the question of whether or not sexual conversion therapy causes harm, and to whom. According to the American Psychological Association, however, the risks appear to outweigh the benefits. Dr. Judith M. Glassgold, chair of APA’s task force, addressed the lack of “methodologically sound studies” in a statement on the group’s findings in 2009. “Psychologists cannot predict the impact of these treatments and need to be very cautious, given that some qualitative research suggests the potential for harm,” she warned.
Among those who allege harm is Chaim Levin, a young man from an Orthodox Jewish family who met Mathew at Journey Into Manhood. In the recent lawsuit filed by former patients and their parents against JONAH, Levin and a handful of others accused the organization of “fraudulent businesses practices” that led to “depression and other emotional harm.” In the written complaint, Levin described his sessions with a man named Alan Downing, an unlicensed therapist at JONAH who called himself a “life coach.” According to Levin, Downing asked the teenage Levin to slowly undress in the mirror and make negative remarks about himself. Downing looked on as Levin stripped. Once Levin was naked, Downing told Levin to touch his bare penis and buttocks. “Good,” remarked Downing, according to the lawsuit. That concluded the session.
Downing’s lawyer in the suit said in an email that “Mr. Downing denies any inappropriate conduct with Mr. Levin or any of the other plaintiffs at any time.” JONAH, for its part, says that the lawsuit is “without merit.” Arthur Goldberg, JONAH’s co-director, said in a statement that the group remains “steadfast” in its commitment to helping people with “unwanted same-sex attractions” and claims that there are “thousands of people who have overcome or significantly diminished their unwanted same-sex attractions, not only through our programs, but also through other similar programs.”
In 2009, Mathew saw Downing, too, but he didn’t stick around long enough to learn whether Downing wanted him to get naked. At their first meeting, Mathew said Downing told him that if he didn’t turn straight, he’d never experience love. “I stood up and I just walked out,” Mathew said. “He said he would bill me, but I never paid the 100 dollars, and he never called me,” Mathew added. “I was done.”
Downing’s lawyer said that Downing “categorically denies making that statement to Mr. Shurka or anyone else.”
Over the next four years, Mathew gradually came out. He’d moved back to New York and was waiting tables at Balthazar, a celebrated French restaurant, where he became friendly with gay colleagues and customers. He’d also reconnected with his two sisters and his mother. “I’ve been to hell and back with him,” Jane Shurka told me over lunch at a diner in Great Neck. She’d begun seeing a therapist of her own, she said. “Everyone has some crap,” she said. “How you deal with it, how you cope with it, is the point.”
About a year ago, Mathew took a course at Landmark, a global self-help enterprise that purports to offer clients a system for “producing breakthroughs— achievements that are extraordinary, outside the limits of what’s already predictable, attainable, or known.” Landmark has its critics, but also claims many successful graduates, from the eight-time Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken to Paul Fireman, the former Reebok chief executive. Mathew described the sessions as life-changing. In May 2012, he flew to Israel, where his father had been living since splitting up with his mom, and began the process of repairing that relationship.
He has seen his father only briefly since then, and until recently their relationship was shaded by Mathew’s participation in his mother’s divorce suit. But one day this spring, after traveling to LA to reconcile with John, he wrote his father a compassionate email.
“I am sorry for not meeting the expectations you’ve had for me,” he wrote. “One being that I am gay. This is who I am and who I always have been. I am a man that enjoys men and I am no less of a man. I am a powerful, self-expressed, free man. I have my whole life ahead of me, and it is a beautiful life I am living into. You created that for me. You created warmth and comfort for me to come home to, you created security, and a big family to surround myself with.
“Aba,” he continued, using the Hebrew word for father, “I am going to become a world leader, an architect, a father, grandfather, someone’s love, and be in love. I am going to create wealth for myself and for those around me. I am inspired and will inspire. You’ve given me everything a son can ask for. I am sorry I wasn’t there for you when you needed me most, I am sorry I never stood my ground for who I was, and what I wanted… I miss you every day that you are not in my life. There is nothing more that I want than to be close to you. I love you Aba. Thank you for giving me life.”