SENIOR ONLINE REPORTER
LGBTQ nonprofits OutNebraska, Born Perfect and The Trevor Project held an online event on Zoom for survivors and experts to educate attendees about the controversial practice of conversion therapy, targeting LGBTQ youth and seeking to change their sexual and gender identities.
Survivor and co-founder of Born Perfect, Matthew Shurka was in conversion therapy for five years, from age 16 to age 21. His father expressed his support before seeking out a recommendation for a medical professional.
“Not knowing what conversion therapy was, he was told that there was no such thing as homosexuality and because I was inexperienced sexually that I had the highest chance of overcoming my same sex attraction,” Shurka said. “That’s what began my five years of conversion therapy.”
In Shurka’s first three years of conversion therapy, he was instructed by a therapist not to have communication with his mother and two sisters and was coached how to be friends with the same sex “without getting attracted to them.”
“In their diagnosis they told me, ‘well, you are close to your mother, you’re the youngest of three kids and you have two older sisters. You’re definitely around too many female role models in your life and that’s why you relate to women better and you may think you have the same desires as them,’” Shurka said.
“Their goal was that I felt related to my own masculinity and to the boys and men around me, whether at school or the other male figures in my family, and they believed that they would cure me of my homosexuality,” Shurka said. “We hear that rhetoric over and over again.”
Shurka said he became estranged with his family and that conversion therapy did not change him, but adversely affected his mental health.
Another survivor, musician and Professor of Fine Arts at Creighton University, Adam Witte, said his experience with conversion therapy was what he sought himself during high school out of fear of disappointing his parents and damaging the relationship with his family.
“I was like your typical overachiever student type, honor roll, super involved in the activities that I was a part of, always trying to achieve highly in any and every way that I possibly could,” Witte said. “That also included being super involved in my church youth group and my church music program as a musician.”
Witte said he searched online, he found references to Evergreen International, a conversion therapy program and learned a place in Omaha offered a similar program that was advertised. He went in for a consultation and was inquired about his history and parental permission, which was later waived before he started the program.
During the 18 months Witte participated in the program, he had one week of the religious counseling component where the facilitators took a personality inventory to determine his eligibility alongside the electro-shock component he attended for the rest of the time.
“That was the point at which I realized that this was not something that was safe,” Witte said “I figured after 18 months, if it had gotten this bad and I hadn’t noticed any change in the level of my same sex attraction, that this probably wasn’t something that was going to be effective for me”
Licensed psychologist Camie Nitzel, Ph. D., talked about how conversion therapy goes against the ethics guidelines that many mental health professionals, nurses and physicians are obliged to follow.
Six mental health organizations – American Psychological Association, American Counseling Association, Psycho Analytic Association, Psychiatric Association, National Association of Social Workers, and the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy – spoke against that practice of conversion therapy.
“Those are the six organizations that have their own specific code of ethics but they’re all saying this is a harmful practice, yet it continues.” Nitzel said.
Nitzel quoted the American Academy of Nursing, stating that efforts to “repair homosexuality” by any means constitute health hazards to be avoided and are to be condemned. She said that this practice not only allows harm but charges people for an unsuccessful method.
“Conversion therapy is very clearly a discriminatory practice, and the truth of conversion therapy is that they are explicit acts of harm and of violence,” Nitzel said. “It’s discriminatory, oppressive, and certainly doesn’t demonstrate respect for anyone’s dignity or their human rights.”
Representative of nonprofit organization the Trevor Project, Casey Pick, said that her colleagues in the research department have surveyed more than 40,000 LGBTQ youth ages 13-25.
10 percent of LGBTQ youth reported receiving conversion therapy from someone who tried to change their sexual orientation or gender identity to straight cisgender, according to the Trevor Project survey this year. The same 10 percent were asked if they had attempted suicide in result of experiencing conversion therapy with 28 percent reporting yes.
“It correlates what we hear from survivors from people like Matthew and Adam,” Pick said. “That’s what we’re hearing on the broader perspective of this being an ongoing and real threat across the country, licensed and unlicensed.”
Pick said that, as somebody who has worked on the range of LGBTQ equality issues for more than a decade, the simple fact is that in more than half of the United States, it is still legal to attempt to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
“And to do so with a government issued license sends a very difficult message for us to try and overcome when we’re arguing for laws protecting us from discrimination,” Pick said. “So as long as the ideas of conversion therapy are still out there, as a community and as a movement we will struggle to overcome the barriers it takes to actually win full lived and legal equality,”
When asked if Nebraska is ready to be one of the next states to pass a law protecting LGBTQ minors, Matthew Shurka wholeheartedly agreed and wished that more bills would be passed years ago.
“The answer can never be no,” Shurka said. “Look at what’s happened so far in the country and why it’s so important these bills pass. James Bower is with us today, the city council member in Lincoln, is having a conversation about can we have a city ordinance.”
Shurka said the bill to ban the practice of conversion therapy isn’t partisan.
“This is not about what side of the aisle you’re on,” Shurka said. “If you look at the 20 states that have passed these bills, out of the 20, almost 50%, 9 of the governors who have signed these bills into law are Republican.”
Shurka said it’s about human rights, a reasoning many can get behind.
“Conservatives have LGBTQ children. Conservatives may even be LGBTQ,” Shurka said. “So it’s not a one-sided conversation that’s something that we are always navigating, making sure we’re getting our messaging out there. We want communities to be involved.”
To learn how you can participate, you can contact Trevor Project number at 1-866-488-7386 and visit the OutNebraska website.