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State advocates praise Obama stance against conversion therapy

Mathew Shurka, who uses his own experiences with

Mathew Shurka, who uses his own experiences with conversion therapy in campaigning for a ban, said he was "overjoyed" when he heard of President Barack Obama's stance against it. Shurka is seen sitting with his mother Jane at her Great Neck home on Jan. 31, 2015. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Advocates in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in New York hailed President Barack Obama Thursday for speaking out against treatments that seek to change people's sexual orientation.

They hope the president's statement against the practice, known as conversion therapy, will spur efforts to ban licensed mental health professionals from trying to turn gay children straight.

A bill first introduced in the State Legislature last year seeks to modify licensing rules to prohibit mental health professionals from "sexual orientation change efforts" on clients younger than 18 -- a practice that LGBT advocates say survives underground despite its repudiation by professional organizations in the psychology and counseling fields.

The statement Wednesday by White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett backs a ban on conversion therapy, citing its "potentially devastating effects on the lives of transgender as well as gay, lesbian, bisexual and queer youth." It was issued in response to an online petition named after Leelah Alcorn, 17, an Ohio transgender teen who committed suicide in 2014.

Mathew Shurka, who uses his own experiences with the therapy in campaigning for a ban, said he was "overjoyed" when he heard of the president's stance.

"I literally cried for 20 minutes and then laughed for 20 minutes," said Shurka, 26, who grew up in Great Neck and now lives in Brooklyn. "I thought I was alone. I had thought about my own suicide, and to see the president of the United States make a statement, I'll never forget it."

There's no accurate way to quantify how many young people have been affected by such therapy, but LGBT advocate David Kilmnick said he's heard of dozens of local cases, from teens being coached to act their gender to the use of electroshock.

"Hopefully, this will be the impetus to abandon this conversion therapy once and for all so that we don't do any more damage to LGBT folks," said Kilmnick, who heads the Long Island LGBT Services Network.

The New York bill's Senate proponent said he expects the measure to be voted on this session. The bill passed the Assembly last year but did not make it to a Senate vote. The office of Senate Majority Co-Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) did not comment on the bill's prospects.

Obama's support "raises the profile of the issue in a significant way," said state Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan), who introduced the bill with Assemb. Deborah Glick (D-Manhattan).

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said he'd sign a ban bill, according to an administration official.

Dani Lever, a Cuomo spokeswoman, said, "New York has always been a leader when it comes to standing up for the rights of the LGBT community. Gay conversion therapy is an outrageous and discredited practice that should not be permitted in New York."

California, New Jersey and the District of Columbia have banned conversion therapy on minors, and similar bans have been proposed in 18 states.

The president's support "is a huge development and one that is sure to move our nation in the right direction," said Nathan M. Schaefer, director of the Empire State Pride Agenda group that advocates on LGBT issues.

Those opposed to banning the therapy say measures against it fly in the face of speech, parental and religious rights.

"We are strongly opposed to this bill, which we refer to as the counselor coercion bill," said Stephen Hayford, legislative director of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, a statewide advocacy group for evangelical Christians. He said the ban tramples "on the principle of client autonomy" as well as on the ability of parents and families to decide "what type of counseling is appropriate."

"All that we are saying is that for a family who doesn't come at this issue from the same angle that Senator Hoylman does, a family that is evangelical Christian, a family that is devout and observant Roman Catholic, a family that is Mormon, a family that is Muslim, a family that really participates in any creedal faith tradition where same-sex activity is frowned upon, that family should have the freedom to find a counselor for their son or daughter," Hayford said.

The number of state licensees offering conversion therapy is unknown, as the therapy is not widely advertised. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights advocacy group in Montgomery, Alabama, identified one place in New York -- Christian Counseling Center in upstate Johnson City.

Melissa Ingraham, a mental health counselor there, said counselors are maligned under the "conversion therapy" label. She does talk therapy combined with prayer.

Ingraham said that she and her husband, a Christian pastor, each were attracted to the same sex but have built lives as heterosexuals. She sees a ban as government intrusion.

"We would say that for some people who are motivated, usually by their faith . . . that some people are able to come out of their attraction, but as a therapist, ethically, I can't force anybody to do anything," she said.

The therapy, the bill's proponents said, is based on the conviction that there's something wrong with youths who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender -- a notion long disavowed by professional medical, therapy and counseling groups, including the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics."They are talking about therapy to change a natural variation," said David Levine, a pediatrics professor in Atlanta, Georgia, who is a member of the academy's Committee on Adolescence.

"Conversion therapy is a harmful type of intervention and should not be done," said Levine, adding that any therapy should be directed at problematic behavior, not sexual identity. "Is there actually any dysfunction going on? Is this an adolescent using substances or who has other disorders or who is having unprotected sex? That's when you think about getting an adolescent into supportive counseling."

Shurka has sought to change minds by telling his story.

He was 16 and a junior at Great Neck North High School when he told his father that he liked boys. His father reassured him that he loved him but started looking into therapists.

Shurka said that was the beginning of a five-year ordeal through unconventional practices with therapists in New York and three other states. The therapies shattered his self-confidence, damaged relationships and dragged him to the verge of suicide, he said.

Therapists told him that he was not gay, he said, but rather a traumatized boy with "a psychological void," and that "gay men live a loveless, hopeless life of sex and promiscuity."

He was instructed to avoid girls, including his mother and sisters, and become masculine. When he was older, he was given medication for erectile dysfunction in order to be intimate with women. He did it all, he said, and felt guilty about failing.

Years later, Shurka said, he met gay and lesbian people who were well-adapted and in relationships, and found acceptance. He went to therapy and self-affirmation seminars to undo the damage.

His mother said she quickly realized it had all been a mistake, but her son already was committed to the therapy.

"We were the uneducated parents on this issue. It's not a good thing to have this professional telling us it would be OK and it just got progressively worse for my son," said Jane Shurka, 62, a Great Neck resident who now is an advocate for the ban. "It's hard enough in life to have security and whatever, and if you don't accept your child as a parent that just makes it worse."

Shurka said he "lived a life of fear" because of conversion therapy.

"The bill to protect minors is very significant -- and it will save lives," he said.

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