In 2004, when Mathew Shurka was 16 his father took him to a licensed therapist who claimed he could make gay people straight. As a result Mathew, who lives in Brooklyn New York, is now a prominent activist working to end conversion therapy.
I grew up in the suburbs of New York in a close-knit traditionally Jewish family. We weren’t particularly religious but for Shabbat dinner there’d always be 30 of us at the table, and I never missed a single one.
In my teens, as my sexuality began to blossom, I realized my attraction for other boys. I was so fearful of admitting to myself about being gay that I was willing to do anything to fit in. Many of the boys I grew up with used words such as “gay” and “faggot” as did I. I created a double life for myself and though I may have been a part of the popular group of kids, inside I was suffering.
There was this occasion when I threw a party. Every one of my peers was invited except for two boys who I deliberately left out because of their reputation for bullying. This created on going tension and resentment from the two boys. On the first Friday of my junior year of high school I was in my car when I pulled up to a stop sign, and saw the two boys crossing the crosswalk teasing and provoking me. When they finally crossed the street I shouted out, “f***ing faggots!”
An hour and twenty minutes later I was in the emergency room with my nose broken in six places. The attack led to a restraining order on my behalf, leaving the two boys expelled from school and in trouble with the law. Additionally my parents began a lawsuit and brought charges against the two boys.
This traumatic event had a great impact on me. Being beat up by two boys had me believe I had no masculinity. A month later, as a cry for help, I came out to my father. His response was, ‘I love you no matter what, and I’m going to support you.’ My father had his own fears of what it meant to have an openly gay son, so he arranged for me to see a university professor – a therapist who told me there was no such thing as homosexuality and that I had the option to have the same feelings for girls as I had for boys. It was the start of five years of conversion therapy. I was convinced I was psychologically damaged and becoming straight was a matter of life and death for me.
Conversion therapy is particularly cruel and damaging. For me it meant separating from my mother and sisters. We lived in the same house but I wasn’t allowed to have any engagement with them; this lasted three years. My home was no longer a safe and loving place for me. My mother reluctantly went along with it because I told her I needed saving. I became the police officer in my own home, which meant whenever my mother tried to talk to me I’d tell her, ‘Don’t ruin this, I’m trying so hard!’ Simultaneously I was told to spend as much time as possible with the other boys at school to encourage ‘healthy’ male bonding.
As I got older my confusion and resentment grew. My parents weren’t getting along; it seems my conversion therapy had shone a light on the flaws in their marriage.
By the time I graduated high school I was experiencing extreme anxiety and even contemplating suicide. When I turned 21 and was exhausted from a therapy that never made any progress, I found the courage to lead my life as a gay man. My mother supported me and for the first time I felt free to be the person who I really am.
That same year as my mother and father began their divorce I took the side of my mother. They were arguing over family assets which were in my name. So I drew up my own law suit against my father. I wanted revenge and would have done anything to hurt him. During this time my father moved back to his native Israel; I wasn’t sure if I’d ever see him again.
After taking part in the Landmark Forum, a personal and professional development training, I realized I wanted to make peace and reconcile with my father. In 2012, I contacted my father and told him I had bought a plane ticket and was on my way to visit him in Israel.
That first evening we went out to a restaurant and after the meal he suggested we went for a walk. Since we hadn’t spoken in five years my father didn’t know if I’d continued conversion therapy or if I was openly gay. He asked if I had come out. I replied, ‘I’ve met inspiring role models, received lots of love and support, and yes dad, I’m out.’ In that moment he went right back to the position he’d always taken, ‘It’s a mistake. You’ll get hurt,’ he said. My first reaction was to be angry, but this time I just listened. He rambled on for ten minutes, giving the same speech I’d heard so often. For the first time I could see he was begging me to save my life. In the past I’d always perceived him as this horrible man who didn’t understand or care for me, but now I just saw a father who loved his son. So I kept calm and when he’d finished I hugged him and kissed him on the cheek. Then I looked him in the eyes and said, ‘Don’t worry Dad. There’s nothing to worry about.’ I told him, ‘I know what the world is, and who I am, and I promise you I will take it as it comes and I will live a beautiful life.’ My father looked at me, stunned, and then just said, ‘OK’.
I was 24 when I got my father back and since then we have built a wonderfully close relationship.
Forgiving my father has led my stress and anxiety to completely disappear. I now sleep a full night’s sleep. I wasn’t present in my life for all those years when I was angry with my father. Being angry is exhausting and time consuming – it took me away from what really mattered to me, pursuing my dreams and living a life that I love.