Nathan: Welcome to this week’s Story Update. Today, we’re going to be speaking with Mathew Shurka, who we spoke with over six years ago. So before we talked to Mathew, let’s take a look at his story.
Mathew: My name is Mathew Shurka, I’m from Great Neck, New York, I’m 26 years old, and when I was 16, I came out to my father. My father gave me the best answer that any son can ask for, was that he loved me no matter what, and that he was going to be by my side always. But immediately after, my father started to build his fears about homosexuality, and what it actually meant, and what it looked like for my family, career – possibly being discriminated and being bullied against as a high school student – and he came across a conversion therapist. My father was told that there’s no such thing as homosexuality, and that everyone is a heterosexual. There are certain people who believe they’re gay, but they’re just suffering from a psychological condition that can be cured and that can be resolved, especially at a young age. So, at 16 years old, I began conversion therapy.
And there was no such thing as homosexuality. There was no such thing as love between two people of the same sex, because only people who could create a child know how to experience love. And these were all coming from men who claimed they were ex-gay themselves, or had their own trauma, or, you know, they say that they had cured themselves and were helping others. And that’s when the therapist tells you that you’re going to live a loveless, hopeless life, trying to fill a void through sex , which you can never do. Sex will never fill a void, and that’s why gay men are promiscuous, and that’s why they never ever have families, and they never ever can stay with one person. And they just plug in every single stereotype as to why homosexuals are not fulfilled and never live happy lives, and they give you this horrible future that, you know, they’re telling a sixteen year old, “Here he is to save you from that, and he’s there to say, ‘Okay, I’m going to help you fill this void in a healthy way.’”
They wanted me to spend a lot of time with other men. So, as a sixteen year old, it was spending as much time with the other boys at school as possible. Simultaneously, I have to avoid women. And the reason that they don’t want you to be with women ‘cause one, they don’t want you to pick up effeminate behaviors. This included my mother and my sisters. I did not talk to my mother and my sisters for three years, and I lived with my mother and my sisters, and I was very close with them, and to not talk to them for three years started the breakdown of my family. My mom realized she wasn’t going to convince me anymore, and she was telling me, “Matt, you’re gay, and it’s okay. I want you to know that. I’m telling you as your mother,” and I would throw the biggest fit ‘cause I put all that time and all that energy for three years, and for her to just look me in the eye and be like, “You’re gay and it’s okay,’ I found that devastating.
My grades started to fail in school, I was cutting classes. I was doing anything I thought that would make me become part of the guys, but I was also trying to ease the pain of the fear that it maybe wasn’t working in the back of my head.
It went on for three years that way. By the time that I graduated high school, I was having extreme anxiety, I was having panic attacks, I was contemplating suicide.
And I eventually started to challenge them. I’d play devil’s advocate with them in the therapy session and question them. Things about love and, you know, who are you to define what love it? And who are you to say that I can’t live a great life? I became estranged from my father, and I cut myself off from that therapist.
And at 23, I had the courage enough to say, “Okay, I’m coming out,” and life started to change, and I was actually having some of the greatest relationships with friends that I’d known for years, but all of a sudden, I was being me for the first time.
I was estranged from my father for five years. I was so angry. I was so resentful. He always took care of me and gave me whatever I needed, and was a great father, and when I actually considered that, it made me put aside my resentment for him.
At that point, my whole entire family had broken apart. My parents began a divorce. My father had moved to Israel, which is his native country. I called him up and said I was coming to visit him, and wherever we went, my father held my hand, and I don’t think my father’s ever held my hand. And he looked at me and said, ‘What ever happened? What ever happened to the therapy? What happened to you being gay? It seems like you’re openly gay. Are you?” “I am. I’m openly gay, and this is who I am. I’m in a really great place.” And in that moment, my father began the same speech that he always used to say to me that I don’t understand what the world is, and I don’t understand how horrible it is. Usually, I would fight back and argue with him, scream and yell, and I didn’t. I just listened to him speak. I stopped him from rambling, I gave him a big hug and a kiss, and I said, “Dad, you know, I love you, and there is nothing to worry about. And I’m going to be okay.” And my father just stared at me, dead into my face, and just said, “Okay.” It was from that moment on that I began my relationship with my father again, and I’ve spoken with my father almost every day or every other day since then. I went through ten years of going through depression, contemplating suicide, being estranged from my entire family, not pursuing my career, not pursuing an education, not pursuing healthy friendships, and when I had a five minute conversation with him, I let go of my ten years of resentment, and now at 26, this is the first time I’m actually getting to live my life.
I always thought to myself, if I was a teenager, and I saw a 20-something year old guy telling me it was okay, and whatever he went through, and, you know, it is going to be better on the other end, that would have meant the world to me.
Nathan: Okay. Mathew, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. How are you doing?
Mathew: I’m great, Nathan, Thanks for having me. This is actually really cool.
Nathan: Thank you. I’m glad that this worked out. I, you know, there’s so many questions I have after watching your story again, after all these years. But one that I’m really curious about is, what – how’s your relationship with your dad these years or these days?
Mathew: I actually, specifically since COVID, maybe better than ever. Which is so crazy because. You know, I talked about rekindling my relationship with my father six years ago and that was only the beginning. It’s been such a rollercoaster with my dad. I don’t know if I say this in the video. I almost can’t remember, but I gay something I think about like, “Because we made peace, it doesn’t mean my father’s going to go march in the Pride parade the following year or something like that.” But since then he has, he has – been to Pride with me. Like we – our relationship is totally blossomed. It’s also been a roller coaster. There’s been yelling and anger. but it’s been like this zigzag projectile of like, we are getting closer, and because of COVID actually we’ve become closer. I think something about him getting older and his mortality – this is like, totally my guess – made a difference in our relationship about, like, what’s really important in our relationship as father and son.
Nathan: Wow. That’s really great. I’m so happy to be hear that, and it sounds like, you know, the ups and downs, it sounds like y’all are a normal family. Yeah. Yeah.
Mathew: Yeah. Yeah.
Nathan: So I, you know, we follow each other on social media, so I know a little bit about what you do, but you’re – you do a lot of amazing work in the community in regards, specifically, to conversion therapy. Can you share with us what specifically you’re doing these days?
Mathew: Yeah, so I am the co-founder and chief strategist of Born Perfect. Born Perfect is a campaign… it’s a legal campaign to outlaw conversion therapy, and our staff of attorneys draft and work on that legislation. We also represent survivors of conversion therapy in litigation if they ever bring a lawsuit against their therapist, for example. Or even just last week, we legally helped remove a 16 year old out of the conversion therapy program in Missouri. and he’s now safely living with his aunt and uncle, for example.
Nathan: That’s amazing.
Mathew: Yeah. Yeah. It’s like, it’s incredible all these years past that how prevalent conversion therapy is. It was… it was hard to, like, tell the public that when we started and it’s so real to this day. And we’ve made a lot of progress, but it is still that real.
Aside from that, you know, Born Perfect, we as an organization have consulted on numerous movies. We worked on Boy Erased. We worked on – which… which was a incredible film about Garrard Conley, starring Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. We did a Sundance film called The Miseducation of Cameron Post and that won best picture – it’s like basically the best award you can get at Sundance – in 2018. And which is great.
What all those films do is it brought the issue of conversion therapy to the national stage. And something when I made that video with you, Nathan, conversion therapy really was this underground issue. And I’ve watched it year after year become a national conversation and it’s something that both Republicans and Democratic platforms discuss whether they’re in favor of. It’s discussed in universities across the world. it’s just been, yeah, I think that’s what media and education to the public has been able to do with the campaign.
Nathan: That’s amazing. So Mathew, y’all literally go state to state and work on creating, you know, helping states overturn – or not overturned, make it illegal to practice conversion therapy and those states, right?
Nathan: Is there any specific experiences or conversations that you had that you remember that really stand out to you?
Mathew: So it was not easy. Just to put that out there. And I will say that it has been the key to our success. You know, we don’t advise any elected official to introduce a bill unless – so yes, for most part, it’s Democrats that introduced these bills, we’ve had… we have had Republicans introduced these bills now. But we make sure that there’s a… the bill’s always has someone from the other side, the other side of the aisle, to co-sign the bill from the beginning. Otherwise it’s gets, like, branded as a partisan bill.
And so like, usually that first step is the struggle of, like, make sure that someone from each party is backing the bill and then working our way forward until it goes through the legislature and gets passed.
Yeah, there’s been so many conversations where elected officials change their mind, whether it was – for most, there’s like two common questions that come up, which is, Is conversion therapy real? Like no way do psychologists or licensed professionals do this. And it’s like, Well, wait till the hearing. And at every hearing, all these conversion therapists show up and argue against the bill. And that actually works in our favor ‘cause it shows me all the elected officials Here are all the conversion therapists working in your state. And like, it’s actually like a great moment. It’s sad. Don’t get me wrong. But, like, in the strategy to outlaw conversion therapy, you see how many conversion therapists there really are every single time.
But I wanted to give you like an example. When I was working in Hawaii, which is actually a very democratic legislative body. But it doesn’t mean they’re liberal. It’s, you know, it’s a military state. It’s like very conservative in its roots. And because there’s only very few elected Republicans, there’s a lot of very conservative Democrats there. And it was specifically in Hawaii, a lot of the elected officials are former military men. And so those are, like, very difficult conversations to have. And there was one elected official who was not going to vote in favor of the bill who changed his mind and literally said, “You know, I know there were closeted men in my part of my platoon or in my troops. And I’ll say this, I know that in the end of the day, we bleed the same blood and, and that’s who they are. And I love them. And I gave my life to trusting these individuals. And so supporting a bill, I’ll be proud to do it.”
And then, you know, that was like the final, I mean, fast forward and that was like the final moment when he gave us his word. But that was like five or six conversations in, you know, what – the harms of conversion therapy, how there’s a whole fraudulent act hat’s happening here with – where these therapists make money and how families and parents are misguided. And when he, like, took it down to his heart and he’s like, “I also knew that like my fellow members in the military were… they were just being themselves.”
And so, yeah, like there’s been so many great moments with elected officials. You have, you know, it’s just those conversations of them having to untangle their own experiences, to like, you know, just to get to where they needed to be in order to support the legislation.
Nathan: Yeah. And just to “in-summary” sort of, this doesn’t work. You know, the therapists, they don’t change people with sexual orientation or sexuality or sexual identity. All it does is lead to depression. It leads to, you know, more difficult and challenging lives. There’s no happy ending to conversion therapy and it doesn’t work. And that’s why so many States are now making it illegal to even do the practice. Is that…
Mathew: Of course. Yeah. We did a study with the UCLA Williams Institute that shows 700,000 people live in the United States today have gone through conversion therapy. At least half of them were under the age of 18 when they were placed in conversion therapy. They are eight times more likely to commit suicide or have suicidal ideation compared to straight individuals and that’s – which is also five times more likely than an LGBT person who did not go through conversion therapy.
You know, and everything from homelessness to drug abuse, to depression, of course, and we talked about suicide, but, yeah, the harms and… harms and effects are so clear and so obvious. And of course that’s what – it also made a difference that we’ve had every major mental… mental health and medical association in the country, sign on… sign on to their support for these bills.
Nathan: Amazing. So what’s next for you and Born Perfect?
Mathew: So, you know, we’re not done. You know, it’s 20… we’d passed a hundred pieces of legislation since we started. And that’s 20 States and about 80 cities, across the United States. And we are working internationally now in partnership with the UN. Countries like Germany have passed, the bill, France is working on theirs. The UK is almost there. But like, you know, there’s real movement now globally.
So I think what, you know, what we are – I guess the short term goals is how do we grant support to these conversion therapy survivors, giving them more access to bring claims against their conversion therapists. There’s a whole, like, filing a complaint process that is very, very difficult for any survivor to do. There’s actually, I mean, I hate to make this analogy, but it’s similar to rape victims. You know, a lot of rape victims, there’s a… there’s a campaign which I really think is speaks the truth to those individuals, which is why they didn’t report it. And we see something really similar with conversion therapy survivors. And so how do we allow survivors to know that there was nothing ever anything wrong with them, that their claim that they’re mentally ill is not true? How do we empower them to come forward and feel safe coming forward? And how do we get them the treatment they need to overcome the harms that they went through?
And we’re starting to see a lot of these overlaps where… where survivors really have a lot more in common. Just to throw in there because it happened recently, the Paris Hilton documentary, if you hadn’t seen it, she herself was put into a troubled teen program where she was around other people who went through conversion therapy.
And so the movement and conversion therapy is growing, and people are speaking up more how their own lives have made – have been impacted by conversion therapy, without them ever even knowing they were in conversion therapy in the first place.
Nathan: Hmm. Wow. That sounds like you have really done some amazing work these past six years. I can’t believe, well, I can believe, but thank you for all the work that you’re doing for the community and it doesn’t look like you’re slowing down at all. Is there anything else that you wanted to share with our viewers about the work that you do or how they can get involved?
Mathew: Yeah, like support our work and support the campaign by signing up at BornPerfect.org. You can follow us on social media on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook, @BornPerfect. And I guess just a final thing to say, you know, for anyone who has an ambition to really be part of a movement, it’s been a hell of a ride and, like, such a rollercoaster. There’s been so many days of disappointment, but the commitment to always see it through is, like, this is literally like a result of six years later. And I would just say, go for it. Don’t, like… don’t hesitate.
Nathan: All right, Mathew, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us and especially thank you for all the work that you’ve done these past six years for the community and for the country and for the world. And if anyone has any questions for Mathew, you can just leave them in the comments and, maybe you can, Mathew, you can check back and answer some of them periodically. And we’ll see all next week for next week’s Story Update. Thanks for watching.