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Discussion looks at proposed gay conversion law

Mathew Shurka, co-leader of the

Mathew Shurka, co-leader of the "Born Perfect" campaign, speaks during a meeting of PFLAG about his experiences undergoing conversion therapy in Commack on the afternoon of April 12, 2015. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Mathew Shurka, a gay man who spent five of his teenage years in therapy trying to change his sexuality, said Sunday Long Island will be key in determining whether New York State legislation to ban conversion therapy for minors will be successful.

He said the legislation could mean life or death for gay and transgendered children.

"There's a big urgency," Shurka said at a meeting of PFLAG, a support group for friends and family members of gay people, held at the Suffolk Y Jewish Community Center in Commack. "There are children who are committing suicide."

Conversion therapy is based on the premise gay people can become straight or, in some cases, homosexuality doesn't exist.

Those who oppose the New York legislation or restrictions on conversion therapy argue that it's a freedom of speech issue and it would prevent some children and teens from getting help that they want and need.

"Youth that seek therapy for unwanted same-sex attractions or gender identity conflicts believe there are specific causes for their attractions, such as sexual abuse, and this therapy helps them resolve those causes and the desires that are a consequence," Christopher Doyle, a counselor and director of the International Healing Foundation in Maryland, said in a statement.

"Counselors are not converting gay youth -- they're actually affirming their clients' desires to live a heterosexual life," Doyle continued. "These laws would be a grave disservice to young people who wish to access counseling from licensed mental health care providers. No government intervention should seek to hinder this sincere desire for help."

Nathan Schaefer, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, agreed with Shurka, saying, "We need Long Island's support."

Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) have major influence over whether the legislation makes it out of the Senate Higher Education Committee and onto the state Senate floor for a vote before June 17, Schaefer said.

He noted a similar bill passed the Assembly last year with the support of several moderate Long Island Republicans, and some of those lawmakers have pledged to talk to Senate Republicans in their districts about the proposal.

Neither Skelos nor LaValle could be reached late Sunday for comment.

Shurka, a Great Neck native who lives in Brooklyn, told PFLAG attendees the past week has been "a turning point" as President Barack Obama and U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy vocally opposed the therapy.

Shurka said he considers himself a survivor after going through depression, anxiety and isolation during years of trying to change his sexuality. The process required him to avoid women -- including his own mother -- to avoid picking up effeminate mannerisms. He didn't speak to her for three years, which he described as painful.

Several groups with some 600 people in total are going to lobby lawmakers in Albany on this issue and the legislation April 28.

Shurka said New York is closer to a conversion therapy ban even though similar legislation failed in 2014, because lawmakers may be more willing to support the issue in a non-election year.

The issue also became more visible after the December suicide of a 17-year-old Ohio transgendered girl named Leelah Alcorn. She wrote an online suicide note saying she wanted her death to mean something and for trans people to be accepted. She also discussed Christian therapy she underwent, which told her she was wrong for what she was feeling.

In addition, a group of former patients and families, including three from New York, have an ongoing consumer fraud lawsuit against New Jersey-based Jews Offering New Alternatives To Healing (previously Jews Offering New Alternatives To Homosexuality).

In that case, the judge issued a partial summary judgment in February concluding it was a violation of the Consumer Fraud Act for JONAH to characterize homosexuality as a mental illness and for using success statistics "with no factual basis."

The convergence of all of these moments is giving the anticonversion movement new momentum, Shurka said. As co-leader of the #bornperfect campaign to end conversion therapy, an initiative of the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights, Shurka said he has made a commitment to outlaw conversion therapy for minors by 2019.

"That's the promise we created," he said.


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