In "The Miseducation of Cameron Post," a teen is sent to a camp to change her sexuality
A number of states are considering legislation to stop such therapy practices
A therapist forbade 16-year-old Mathew Shurka from speaking to his mother and sisters for three years. The youngest child and only son in a tight-knit Long Island family, Shurka said that his mom wasn’t physically or emotionally abusive. Instead, the therapist told the teen to give the women the silent treatment because it would help make him straight.
“When I first came out to my dad when I was 16, I was looking for his acceptance and approval about being gay. He was loving in that moment and said he cared and he’d be there for me, but he thought it was a phase, and he wanted to get me help,” said Shurka, now 30. “He didn’t raise us religious or anything. He just didn’t think I’d be successful if I was a gay man.”
This is what’s known as “conversion therapy,” “reparative” or “sexual orientation change efforts,” in which someone goes to therapy in order to change their sexual orientation or gender identity. It’s often performed by religious leaders, but licensed clinicians are also engaged in the practice.
The practice is getting some attention on the big screen in two new movies: “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” out now, and “Boy Erased,” which is scheduled to release in November.
“Cameron Post” features a teen girl who is caught kissing another girl and is sent away to a camp that aims to change her sexuality. It’s set in the 1990s.
Today, an estimated 57,000 people between the ages of 13 and 17 will get some form of “conversion therapy” from religious or spiritual advisers before they turn 18, according to the UCLA Law think tank Williams Institute, and 20,000 more will get treatment from a licensed therapist.
Activists are pushing for legislation to stop such practices in a number of states. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia, as well as dozens of cities nationwide, now bar licensed mental health professionals from conducting therapy that attempts to change a minor’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Many professional mental health associations have released statements discrediting the practice as ineffective, and some suggest that it may even be harmful.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Counseling Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the American School Counselor Association, the National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association of Social Workers together – representing more than 480,000 mental health professionals – have taken the position that homosexuality is not a mental disorder and not something that needs to be or can be “cured.”
Most of the scientific studies on such practices also draw that conclusion.
‘It was based on a lot of stereotypes’
Shurka says he was sent to a camp like the one in the movie. He served as a consultant on both films and works as an activist, encouraging legislators to ban the practice. He tells them his story, that he went to four therapists in four states between 2004 and 2009.
Most of what he experienced was talk therapy, Shurka says. Each therapist operated from the same premise: Everyone is born straight. People who are gay or have a gender identity that is different from the one they were assigned at birth had experienced some form of trauma that “made them gay.” Being gay was like being an alcoholic, he was told; the behavior needed to be avoided at all costs to be healthy.
“I had a good upbringing, and it was a loving home, so what they decided my problem was that I had too many female role models. That’s why I wasn’t allowed to speak to my mom and sisters,” Shurka said. He was also told to ditch his female friends because his therapists didn’t want him to “relate to women as my peers.” They also told him to walk, talk and dress differently.
“It was based on a lot of stereotypes of what it means to be straight. Nothing about it was about being myself,” Shurka said.
As some studies about the practice have found, the experience undermined his confidence. He felt depressed and anxious.
“When you are told you are sick or bad or that ‘God does not love you’ or you are evil or not working hard enough to get better, most people in this kind of treatment do get depressed, anxious and even suicidal,” psychologist Judith Glassgold said.
Glassgold chaired the American Psychological Association task force that assessed the science and determined in 2009 that mental health professionals should avoid telling clients they can change their sexual orientation through therapy or other treatments. The practice didn’t work and could be harmful, it said.
She writes about the practice and has continued to study the scientific literature. “There is no change in the conclusion from our original report. There is absolutely no causal research in the 150 years of people doing ‘conversion therapy’ that says this works.”
Shurka kept at the therapy because he wanted to do what he was told.
“I tried. I really did. I wanted to please my parents, and I was told how horrible my life would be if I came out. I gave it my everything for it to work. Even if my mom broke the rules and would speak to me, I would throw a tantrum, because I believed what these other adults were telling me. My mom says she felt like she lost me then. It was traumatic.”
Shock treatments and exorcisms
Other people Shurka has spoken with about their therapy experiences say they’ve gone through shock treatments, aversion therapy and even exorcisms.
Aversion therapy is well-documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which released its investigation of the practice in 2016 after working with three men who sued a group called Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, or JONAH.
JONAH’s “treatment” involved telling the men to touch their genitals while standing naked in front of the mirror as a counselor watched, the investigation found. Counselors also advocated “healthy touch” and held cuddling sessions with the men. Other times, the men were encouraged to beat effigies of their mothers or engage in violent re-enactments.
A jury decided JONAH’s practices were fraudulent. The group went out of business, but the Southern Poverty Law Center says it found several other organizations engaged in similar practices.
“Research shows people are likely born gay, or it occurs so early in life that it is not under people’s conscious control who they are attracted to,” Glassgold said. Legitimate therapy “helps someone create a life that is fulfilled where they can work and play and love” as themselves.
‘I try to give them realistic outcomes’
Therapist Christopher Doyle, a conversion therapy advocate working with conservative groups like the Family Research Council to stop the government bans, disagrees.
He experienced same-sex attraction but didn’t want to, he said, but by addressing the trauma in his life through therapy, he was able to shift his attraction. He’s married now to a woman and has five children.
He said he’s dedicated his life to helping others who struggle with unwanted attractions.
“I specialize in trauma and work with clients to resolve that trauma. People who want help. There’s no electric shock or shaming,” said Doyle, who practices in the Washington, D.C., area. He says he doesn’t promise anyone that they will be straight. “Each individual is unique, but I try to give them realistic outcomes.”
He points to a new study in the Linacre Quarterly, the peer-reviewed journal of the Catholic Medical Association, in which 68% of the 125 religious men who underwent such therapy had at least some “heterosexual shifts in sexual attract and behavior.”
Most scientific studies have shown the opposite. And while all the major mental health associations object to the practice, Doyle believes those objections are politically motivated.
He believes that participants’ horror stories involve practices that are not done by ethical mainstream practitioners. “I know I am not calling people bad or evil in my work,” he said. “And I do have gay friends, and they support me, even if they don’t necessarily agree with everything I say, but I don’t agree with everything my wife says, either.”
A ‘painful journey,’ a ‘positive outcome’
By the time Shurka turned 21, he knew that such therapy was not for him.
His attraction to men wasn’t changing. He started to question his therapist, and he asked other men who had been through the treatment whether they felt any different.
“Even the ones who were married to women and have kids, they’d all admit to me in the end, their attractions never went away. It was all about not acting on the behavior,” Shurka said. The other men’s stories prompted him to quit.
It took him two more years to recover from the treatment, he said, and then he came out again. He’s now close to his family again and happy he can use his experience to try to help others.
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“I feel lucky in a way. I survived this when there are so many suicides for people who have gone through this. I know though that I’m going to have a great life, and I know if I can help others and tell them that ‘you can find clarity and growth and get what you want out of this life,’ then I’m proud that I could turn my own painful journey into something that will have a positive outcome.”