I Spent Five Years Trying To Change My Sexuality ...And It Nearly Killed Me

The author opens up about the traumatic practice of Conversion Therapy.

By Mathew Shurka

I finally stopped questioning whether or not I was born this way at the age of 23. But I wasn’t always so certain.

When I was 16, my parents arranged for me to be treated for what a succession of psychotherapists called my “SSA,” or Same Sex Attraction. Not only did these licensed professionals believe there was no such thing as being gay, they were determined to “cure” me of it. So at the start of my junior year, I began a treatment called conversion therapy. This is my story.

I first noticed my attraction to other boys when I was in the 7th grade.

I was on the swim team at a Long Island junior high school, and there was one boy who seemed particularly interested in me. Steve was an 8th-grader, handsome and persuasive. And though I started to explore my sexuality with him, I couldn’t escape the strong pit in my stomach: My homoerotic adventures were giving me so much pleasure -- yet so much shame.

High School was the game-changer though. The senior boys seemed taller, bigger and hairier; they were men!

One by one, I would hear of a freshman girl losing her virginity to one of those upperclassmen, and I was scared sh--less. That pit in my stomach had only grown, a constant reminder that there was something I was hiding. As my desire for men grew, I knew I would have to do a lot more if I wanted to cover up my true feelings.

So I became one of the “bros,” tossing around words like “fag” and “gay” as offensively as they did, and throwing big house parties behind my parents’ back. I was training myself to be straight and -- from the outside -- I was doing a great job. I was well-liked; no one questioned my sexuality. Meanwhile, I hoped that my attraction to boys would simply disappear so I would never have to face myself -- or the prospect of coming out.

All the while I ignored Steve, meeting him only after school hours.

But as much as I disguised it, I couldn’t change what I was feeling. I finally told my father that I was attracted to boys because I trusted him more than anyone I knew. He gave the best answer a son could ask for: “I love you no matter what.”

What seemed like a bright beginning lasted just one week though. Within a few days, my father was paralyzed with fear over what it meant to have a “possibly” gay son. He feared I’d be bullied, lose my family life and career opportunities. So he began researching and came across a conversion therapist, who believed there was no such thing as being gay and that every person is innately born straight.

To them, being gay was nothing more than a psychological void created from a childhood trauma.

"Is your SSA stronger or weaker today Mathew?"

During each therapy session, I was asked about my attraction to men as if it were a debilitating disease, like ALS or something. I did this every week: After swim practice, I would take the train into Manhattan by myself, where I attended conversion therapy sessions in Union Square. I was told that I needed to look deep into my past for the trauma that had caused my same-sex attraction. But I couldn't find anything.

When I complained to my father that the therapy wasn't going anywhere, he got another recommendation for a therapist based out in Los Angeles.

John was apparently known in the conversion community to have had the highest “success” rate. My father and I initially flew out to California to meet John, a scholarly university professor, who agreed to conduct my sessions over the phone. I was an easy case, John explained, because I hadn't experienced "full homosexual intercourse." My father never forced me into conversion therapy but he was open about his fears for me. I was 16 years old, and all I could think was: “If there‘s a chance that I'm not gay, that these feeling are just in my head -- then I’ll do anything to cure' it.”

The treatment went something like this. I was initially told to spend as much time with the boys at school as possible -- and to avoid women at all costs. That included my own mother and sisters. By spending time with other boys, I would be able to heal my trauma and experience healthy male bonding. By avoiding women, I’d prevent myself from picking up so-called effeminate behavior (I was already self-conscious about a “gay walk” I’d developed from walking on my tip-toes as a swimmer). Distance from girls at school was also meant to make the opposite sex seem mysterious and attractive.

The therapy was based mostly on gender stereotypes, and I played into it. As I built personal friendships with the other boys -- something that I always wanted -- I took it as proof the therapy was working.

Up until that point my experience with girls had been minimal, though I had mastered being able to make out with girls.

Eventually I began having sex with one woman, and once I did, I continued to pursue more of them. Didn’t that make me straight? Well, not really.

My anxiety was taking a toll on me: my grades suffered, I had no relationship with my mother and sisters even though we all lived under the same roof, and I began to suffer severe depression and even contemplating suicide. And when the anxiety attacks got so bad that I couldn’t perform sexually with a woman, my therapist suggested I take Viagra.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I didn’t have any trouble being intimate with men. During the summer before college, I fell in love for the first time and had my first romantic relationship with another young man. I couldn’t resist; I was falling in love. At first my father didn’t resist either. But eventually, with the cooperation of my therapist, he met with this guy without my knowledge and warned him to stay away from me.

Eight months later, I found out what my father had done, and it was the last straw. I was 19 years old now.

I ended my relationship with my therapist and became estranged from my father. I never wanted to see any therapist ever again. However, as my mother and sisters came back into my life, my mother insisted I see a general psychotherapist. I reluctantly said yes.

After several months, though, I still strongly believed I had failed at becoming a heterosexual. I was afraid I would end up gay, alone and loveless as had once been warned. So I put myself back into conversion therapy.

Once these irrational thoughts are put into your head, they become hard to shake. Two more conversion therapists and a conversion therapy camp (yes that's an actual thing) followed. Over a two-day weekend, men from around the country, ages 18 and over, gathered to seek guidance on how to overcome their homosexuality. I kept running into the same nonsensical theories about being gay, particularly that there was no such thing as love between people of the same sex.

By 2009, the year of my last conversion therapy session, I had seen five therapists across four states. I was 21 years old and I was tired. I had had enough. My conversion therapy had gone on for five years.

I took a job as a server at an upscale restaurant in Manhattan, where I met openly gay co-workers, customers -- even my boss was gay. After three years at that gig, with love and support from these new friends, I went from closeted to proud gay man.

From there, I was also able to face my father in 2012. I wrote him a letter that read in part:

"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, Dad. Thank you for giving me life."

I was estranged from my father for five years. I now speak to him every day.

After years of internal struggle, I decided I could help others by pushing back against the practice of conversion therapy so no one else ever has to go through what I did. I recognized the damage it did to me, my family and countless other LGBT people. Since 2012, I’ve spoken everywhere from gay rights conferences to government hearings. Slowly, the foundations of conversion therapy are eroding -- but we still have a long way to go.

It’s recently become illegal for minors to undergo conversion therapy in California and New Jersey, and similar legislation is being introduced in other states, including in my home state of New York.

The American Psychological Association (along with every other credible medical and psychological organization) is against this practice and will take away your license if there’s a report you are practicing conversion therapy -- but there’s major underreporting -- which is one of the many reasons we need to keep fighting on this issue.

These so-called therapists are licensed by the states in which they operate, and without laws in place to protect, young people continue to be subjected to these harmful and discredited practices.

I don’t want other kids to have to go through what I did. I want them to understand what I finally was able to, 10 years later: I was perfect all along.

To help put an end to this dangerous practice, you can join the NCLR's #BornPerfect campaign or head over to PrideAgenda.org for more information. If you need immediate help or a safe space to talk, visit TheTrevorProject.org.