What sucks about being a Christian in America

USA: The trauma after the "gay healing"

Tears ran down Mathew's face. He had just said something to his father that no one knew about him. Until now, he was always afraid to tell someone. But on this Saturday afternoon the moment had come. 16-year-old Mathew had an argument with classmates in high school. After that, he skipped school for fear that they would eventually find out his secret: Mathew was gay, more attracted to men than women. And his father should be the first he talked to about it that day.

Formerly a "therapy patient", now an activist: Mathew Shurka

The two were driving through the New York borough of Brooklyn. Mathew's father stopped on the shoulder to talk to his son. "His reaction was wonderful," says 30-year-old Mathew Shurka. "He told me he loved me no matter what." Mathew was relieved. It was exactly the reaction he was hoping for. Actually he was getting closer to his mother, but he told his father about his secret: "I thought that if anyone could protect me, it was him." He'll take care of it, said his father. It wasn't clear to Mathew at the time that his father would put him in therapy to get rid of his homosexual tendencies.

Stigma and prejudice

700,000 people in the US have had such therapy in their lifetime. This is shown by estimates by the Williams Institute. Half of them were under 18 years old. "The so-called 'reparative therapy' aims to change the sexual orientation or even the gender identity of LGBT people", Christy Mallory gives a definition. She did research on therapies at the Williams Institute in California.

"People who offer therapies like this still think that homosexuality is a disorder that needs treatment," Mallory adds. But in addition to therapists, religious pastors would also offer such therapies. "The church is definitely a big problem," says Mathew Shurka. "For some Christians it is a sin to be gay or lesbian." 57,000 young people, who are currently between 13 and 17 years old, will undergo such religious therapy. The Williams Institute appreciates that. In many US states, laws have now come into force that prohibit reparative therapy against payment. Religious treatments, however, are often free of charge and are therefore not prohibited. However, the law still allowed 6,000 young people to escape therapy, the study further shows.

Thousands of LGBT people in the US end up on reparative therapy - most of them as teenagers

The main reason why so many children end up in these therapies is their parents. Many do not accept their children's sexual orientation. Being gay still creates stigmas and prejudice in many, explains Mathew Shurka. "I think we live in a transition phase between millennials and the older population." Young people would accept homosexuality better than the generations before them. It is all the more difficult that young people are primarily dependent on their parents when they come out: "If their surroundings accept the orientation, it is easier for children to live as they are."

Homosexuality as trauma

Mathew grew up in a suburb of New York, in a Jewish-Conservative home. "My father was born in Israel, but his parents came from Iran," says Mathew. In his case, however, it was not religion that drove his father: "He said: If that can be treated psychologically, then I would rather that you become heterosexual." His father immigrated to the United States and became a businessman there. "You were lost in your world if you weren't a strong man," says Mathew. His father wanted his son to look as manly as possible. "He told me that my life would be very hard if I was openly gay," says Mathew. With this fear in mind, he too was ready to try therapy.

"All people are fundamentally straight. As a gay person, you only react to trauma that you had as a child," is how Mathew describes his therapist's argument. He attended his first session just weeks after coming out to his father. "I was very nervous and scared," recalls Mathew. He flew to California with his father. The best therapist in the field of reparative therapy has his practice there. The first encounter went well, so Mathew returned to New York and began speaking regularly to the therapist on the phone.

His treatment was pure talk therapy. But other participants in reparative treatments report far worse practices: "So-called aversion therapy is often used," reports researcher Christy Mallory. For example, the patients have to watch homosexual porn and endure electric shocks. Homosexuality is supposed to be associated with a negative feeling.

Thoughts of suicide and doubts

Mathew's therapist quickly found out what allegedly made him gay: "He diagnosed me that I had too many female role models," says Mathew. He was too close to his mother and two sisters. He also has too many female friends. "So the first step in therapy was to spend less time with women and more time with men." Mathew was not allowed to speak to his mother for several weeks. "I felt bad, but went along with it because I thought it would help me." His mother also obeyed the therapist's instructions, but after a few weeks she got angry: "My mother couldn't believe that a therapy that separates a son from his mother could be useful."

Some health organizations in the United States are raising awareness of how dangerous reparative therapy can be. It is harmful to the body and also not effective, says the American Medical Association, for example. After a while, Mathew also realized that it wasn't good for him to suppress his personality. He felt depressed, put on almost 30 kilograms and had suicidal thoughts: "I kept thinking about killing myself for two years. But I never tried," says Mathew. He spoke about it only to a few people. At first he did not tell his therapist either how much his psyche was suffering from the treatment.

It wasn't until five years after his first session of therapy that Mathew decided to stop treatment. "I kept asking if I could meet someone who had successfully changed their orientation," says Mathew. But when his therapist couldn't introduce him to anyone, Mathew began to have doubts. At the age of 21 and with severe psychological problems, he ended his reparative therapy. "It took me about two years to recover from this," he recalls. He first had to rebuild trust in therapists in order to overcome his depression.

Life as an activist

Today Mathew lives in a small apartment in Manhattan and can live any way he wants. He has a boyfriend and has become the top reparative therapy activist in the United States in recent years. With his organization "Born Perfect" he helps victims of polarity reversal therapies in the USA. But the most important part of his job is to enforce laws against the therapies. "We want to end the stigma. We want people to finally understand that it is completely normal to be gay."

US states that have a ban on commercial reparative therapy for minors

His father has since apologized to him. Mathew says: "He accepts my orientation today. But he would have liked it better if I hadn't become an activist." But Mathew puts all his energy into working against reparative therapies: "It is absurd that in the US marriage is allowed for everyone, but such therapies are still not banned." He hopes that the view of LGBTs will change in the next few years. But Mathew Shurka still has a lot of work to do: "As long as some even want to prevent our existence, there will always be prejudices."