‘Conversion Therapy’ Aimed at Queer People Remains Legal in Texas
By Austin Cheatham
With gay marriage now a constitutional right and the strides made in LGBTQ+ acceptance in American society, it might be hard for some to imagine that just 50 years ago, homosexuality was still considered a mental illness.
It took until 1973 for the American Psychological Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. However, many still view queer people as abnormal or sinful and make attempts to convert them, often even their own children, to being straight.
This practice, known as conversion therapy, emerged in the late 19th century and remains legal in 22 U.S. states, including Texas. And despite several legislative hearings, bills to outlaw the practice in Texas remain elusive.
“I have introduced a bill to ban conversion therapy every legislative session,” Texas state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, said.
Therapeutically speaking, Mathew Shurka, co-founder and chief strategist of the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ Born Perfect campaign, said there is no actual practice recognizing conversion therapy aimed at LGBTQ+ people. Instead, he said, it is “an umbrella term of anyone who attempts to change another person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”
Bob Sanborn, the current president and CEO of Children at Risk, a non-partisan advocacy group, condemned conversion therapy in an opinion piece for the Houston Chronicle.
“This is a clear form of child abuse,” Sanborn said in an interview. “There’s nothing good about it—there’s only bad about this and I think if parents truly understood the background and what was happening, there’s no way any parent would put their child into this situation. People need to understand how horrible this is and how this is sort of the torture of young people. When you do conversion therapy, you’re increasing the risk for young people of suicide—of a need for mental health help.”
Conversion therapists can range from licensed therapists to pastors to unlicensed life coaches.
“You hear so many different stories of abuse and different ways these so-called ‘therapists’ are trying to change another person and its horrific, all the different versions you hear of what trauma people have been through in this ‘therapy,’” Shurka said.
While practices, such as electroshock therapy, was common in the past, modern conversion therapists have developed a more subtle and psychological approach. Shurka cites a theoretical model that says there is no such thing as LGBTQ and everyone is innately heterosexual – that homosexuality is caused by childhood traumas.
“They called it deviations in sexual orientation or deviations in the person’s psyche,” Shurka said. “Very simply, if you take a gay person, bring them into therapy, and heal them of whatever their trauma was in their childhood, they would naturally overcome their same-sex attraction and begin to feel attraction to the opposite sex.”
Shurka, who now lives in New York, experienced the modern form of conversion therapy firsthand from ages 16 to 21.
“For my case I was told I specifically needed to spend as much time as possible with other boys and other men, and I needed to feel a connection to them as though they are my peers and not my opposites—someone I would be attracted to. They would actually have me be distant from women until they believed I was ready to have romantic relationships with them. And I did all these actions and I really thought they were working.”
Shurka wasn’t even allowed to speak to his mom or sister for three years, despite still living in the same house, all because his therapists believed he was too close to them.
“As you can imagine it was very awkward and weird. And my mom in the beginning went along with it and she wasn’t told that I wasn’t allowed to talk to her. I would just really ignore my mom—I actually followed the instructions—I really wanted my father’s approval. I guess any typical morning looked like me waking up in the morning, mom was making breakfast, come downstairs, eat breakfast, and walk out the door without ever saying a word to her.”
The treatment created a rift at home as Shurka’s mom began to disagree with the practices. Shurka’s attraction to the men didn’t wane.
“I thought maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough, my therapist said it was messed up and for many young LGBTQ people they start to see that they can’t actually succeed. And that’s where the possibility for self-harm or suicidal ideation starts to sink in,” Shurka said.
Curtis Galloway, the founder and president of the Conversion Therapy Dropout Network, or CTDN, grew up in southern Illinois and also underwent conversion therapy after coming out to his parents at 16. A few days later, his parents found a Christian counselor in Kentucky who tried to convert him.
“One of the things conversion therapists do is they try to isolate people,” Galloway said. “From their family, from their friends, from whoever it might be because when you have someone isolated it’s easier to control them. In my case I had my family and I was supposed to have God. I could have friends, but I couldn’t talk to friends who were gay-affirming.”
The therapist insisted on knowing Galloway’s every move. Essentially, the less affirmation Galloway received, the more likely he’d accept the homophobic ideas projected onto him. Whenever Galloway attended a session, his parents would first talk to the therapist for an hour.
Ultimately, it was his parents who decided to end the whole process.
“They saw that it was just making me recede further into myself and they didn’t actually want to go either,” Galloway said. “The entire time they were in there talking to him he was berating them on stuff they’re not doing right … telling them it’s their fault.”
Despite the damage from six months of therapy, Galloway found a positive take on the whole experience.
“I always say that I’m glad that I went through it because that means I was taking two hours of his time that he could’ve done it to somebody else.”
Galloway founded CTDN when a survivor reached out to him during a conference asking if there were any organizations for conversion therapy survivors. While organization such as The Trevor Project and Born Perfect advocate against conversion therapy and fight for legislation, they didn’t provide the kind of space for survivors that CTDN would become.
Similarly, Shurka created Born Perfect, after his experience with conversion therapy gained their attention.
Both Shurka and Galloway have shared their stories during legislative hearings in Texas and Illinois, respectively. Galloway’s testimony even successfully convinced former Illinois Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner to sign a conversion therapy ban for the state into law in 2015.
While Born Perfect advocates for legislation across the U.S., in 2019 it worked alongside, Celia Israel, the Texas lawmaker, to hold an informational hearing and introduce bills to ban conversion therapy in Texas.
“This was a historic moment,” Shurka said. “The fact this was the first time the Texas state government was even willing to have the hearing where survivors could come in and share their stories.”
However, in 2021 several bills were introduced but none of them received a hearing, leaving them dead in the House of Representatives. Israel says new bills will be introduced in the next legislative session. Other headline-grabbing anti-LGBTQ+ bills moving through the Texas legislature, such as those banning transgender athletes from young women sports, took attention away from the conversion therapy bills.
“Young people who are already going through the tough times of growing up are then presented with politicians who try to make it a little bit harder on them and it pisses me off,” Rep. Israel said. ” So, I feel like the bill and the hearing, and me and my colleagues speaking up for them on the House floor, makes a difference.”
Sanborn said neither religion nor partisanship matter when it comes to banning these practices, but the safety and health of the children and LGBTQ+ people needs to be the priority.
“Every legislator—the governor, the lieutenant governor—they all know Children at Risk because of our record,” he said. “They know we don’t try to be partisan—we just try to tell them what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s a matter of us showing that this is good or bad for kids.”