Mathew Shurka knows first-hand the horrors of “conversion” therapy. Despite what he says were good intentions on the part of his parents, five years of the practice he calls “particularly cruel and damaging” with a licensed therapist who claimed he could make gay people straight took a heavy toll.
Shurka now works as an anti-conversion therapy activist with the Born Perfect Campaign. He’s co-founder and strategist for the project that’s part of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Based in New York, he’s one of four full-time staff members working on the project.
Shurka knew “Boy Erased” author Garrard Conley years before he wrote his memoir which has been adapted into the movie of the same name (see review here). Shurka and the Born Perfect team were involved throughout the making of the film as consultants to ensure accuracy and sensitivity.
“They really kept us in the conversation the whole time,” Shurka says. “Myself and two other representatives were on the set in, we gave feedback on the script through each round of edits, and then actually involved in the editing rooms. Every time they did a big round of edits, they wanted to make sure it would still make sense to a viewer who’s never even heard of conversion therapy. And then also down to the marketing and stories of survivors. They really kept us in the conversation the whole time.”
Shurka says seeing a major screen production devoted to the topic and being involved in its creation has been powerful.
“I contemplated suicide for two years,” the 30-year-old New York native says. “Conversion therapy was a trauma that I survived and it altered my life forever so to be part of this movie has been really surreal.”
Shurka’s work with the campaign involves keeping tabs on where conversion therapy-related legislation is in the works throughout the country. It’s still legal for minors in most of the U.S. Shurka visits states considering bans and works with regional LGBT groups to ensure passage. He’s not a lobbyist but says his personal story as a survivor gives him credibility with legislators. The campaign was launched in 2014.
Shurka says conversion therapy is alive and well in the U.S. and flourishing in places people might not expect.
“There’s actually a concentration of it in Los Angeles and New York which people can’t even imagine,” he says. “Think, ‘Oh yeah, it’s in Arkansas, that makes sense,’ but actually the biggest organizations are in big cities. … In Los Angeles, they’re in Orange County or in L.A. proper, they’re in urban areas and we’ve seen new ones open in Manhattan in the last two to three years. They’re disguised as therapists and they use different terminology. They sell it as a form of addiction and are very sneaky about it.”
Shurka says that although 2018 has been his organization’s most successful year, 2019 is “looking scarier than ever.”
He says “Boy Erased” provides unprecedented exposure for the issue.
“I think this has great potential to shift or transform hears and minds,” he says.
Find out more about the Born Perfect Campaign at nclrights.org/born-perfect.