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Performer Mayyadda singing at the University of Minnesota Juneteenth Celebration “We Are The Noise: The Echoes of Our Ancestors” captured on Saturday, June 15.
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Published June 23, 2024

Minn. moves forward with conversion therapy ban

After failing in previous sessions, the bill aiming to protect LGBTQ+ children and vulnerable adults in the state passed the state Senate on April 21.
Gov.+Tim+Walz+signed+the+bill+into+law+on+Thursday.
Image by Alice Bennett
Gov. Tim Walz signed the bill into law on Thursday.

The Minnesota Senate passed a bill in a 36-27 vote on April 21 to ban conversion therapy for LGBTQ+ youth and vulnerable adults in the state.

Conversion therapy is any practice from mental health practitioners aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Minnesota would become the 21st state to ban the practice, which is widely opposed by medical organizations including the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The bill, which Gov. Tim Walz signed into law on Thursday, will subject anyone who administers conversion therapy to disciplinary action from professional licensing boards.

Kat Rohn is the executive director of OutFront Minnesota, the state’s largest LGBTQ+ advocacy organization. Rohn countered critics’ arguments that the bill restricts free speech and said the ban will instead protect Minnesotans from a practice that continues to negatively impact people’s lives.

“Broadly, folks understand that the historical practices of conversion therapy are just blatantly illegal and awful,” Rohn said. “Our approach to this bill is that it’s not about restricting speech or what somebody can say about a certain thing, it’s about restricting medical practices that are simply not effective and are harmful.”

Rohn said creating shameful feelings about a person’s identity rather than accepting them creates lasting trauma for victims, which often leads to suicide and substance abuse.

Minneapolis banned conversion therapy in 2019 after publishing a report describing the practice as dangerous, with no scientific basis, and recommended the city “stand up to protect our youth and vulnerable communities.” Additionally, Walz issued an executive order in 2021 restricting access to the practice.

Conversion therapy’s impact on mental health

Although similar bills have failed in previous sessions, the bill will help not only to protect LGBTQ+ kids from conversion therapy, but it will also help validate their identities and promote acceptance in Minnesota, Rohn said.

“The joy of seeing this work finished, that LGBTQ Minnesotans have been trying to push for year after year is tangible, especially at a moment when we’re seeing so much anti-LGBTQ legislation passing elsewhere,” Rohn said. “That alone is worth it.”

The Trevor Project is a nonprofit aimed at ending suicide among LGBTQ+ youth. Troy Stevenson, director of state advocacy campaigns for the Trevor Project, said despite decades-long efforts to eradicate conversion therapy, the practice has returned to prominence in many places, including Minnesota.

“One of the biggest pieces of misinformation is people believe that this is something that ended years ago,” Stevenson said. “Instead, there was an underground effort from people that really kicked it up.”

When he was 15, Stevenson and his first boyfriend were chased out of their high school after a group of students saw them holding hands. After talking to him on the phone, Stevenson’s boyfriend kept saying “he couldn’t go back.”

Stevenson’s boyfriend committed suicide that night.

“I thought he couldn’t go back to school, but what he meant was he couldn’t go back to the conversion therapy situation his parents sent him through,” Stevenson said.

According to a 2022 survey from the Trevor Project, 43% of LGBTQ+ youth in Minnesota seriously considered suicide in the past year, including 52% of transgender and nonbinary youth. Additionally, 15% of LGBTQ+ youth in Minnesota reported being threatened with or subjected to conversion therapy in the past year.

A 2022 Minnesota Department of Health report also found among teenagers and young adults, those who had experienced conversion therapy were more than twice as likely to attempt suicide or have multiple suicide attempts.

Minnesota’s ban will hopefully serve as a “beacon of hope” for LGBTQ+ people in other states and encourage other legislatures to pass similar bans, Stevenson said.

“When the elected body of their state, the people that represent them and make their laws, affirm them and say, ‘We believe you are who you are and we‘re here to protect and support you.’ That sends an amazing message,” Stevenson said. “It’s not all darkness and hopelessness.”

“You know who you are”

After telling his family he had a crush on a boy at 16 years old, Mathew Shurka’s father insisted he see a therapist, who told him being gay was a mentally ill choice that would ruin his life. Shurka, terrified of losing his family and community, spent the next five years of his life in conversion therapy.

Shurka knew he was attracted to boys throughout his childhood and realized he was gay in high school. However, Shurka’s sexuality “petrified” him after being told it would result in his family not accepting him, being unable to find a job and likely ending up homeless.

“I’m 16 years old and a therapist looks me in the eye and tells me, ‘Don’t worry, you’re going to be okay,’ and makes me feel comfortable, tells me I don’t have to suffer,” Shurka said. “You can obviously see the manipulation and how horrific it is for any child to hear, but in that moment, I really believed the therapist, and I trusted my parents.”

Shurka’s family did not know what conversion therapy was at the time and Shurka said he believes in a way, they were “doing their due diligence” as parents by getting a licensed therapist to help him.

It is a common misconception to think of conversion therapy solely as physical abuse by people with no medical credibility, according to Shurka. However, the practice often includes conversations with therapists that can be difficult to distinguish from legitimate therapy.

“The reason it’s so dangerous is it’s not like this horrible place where kids are being thrown into,” Shurka said. “Most of the conversion therapy stories we hear when it’s working with a therapist is that it’s in a really nice setting.”

For the next three years, Shurka was his therapist’s “best student,” following every instruction he was given.

His therapist ordered him to stop communicating with any girl in his life to promote male bonding. As a result, Shurka did not speak to his mother or sisters for nearly three years.

“I was told I was having same-sex attraction because of my mom, because I was too close to her as a mother and son,” Shurka said. “There were times where she would be at home and cry and beg to me and say, ‘I know you’re gay, it’s okay to be gay, I love you so much.’ When she did that, I would, in response, throw a tantrum at her, even cursing, ‘how dare you.’”

When his therapist allowed him to go on dates with women, the teenage Shurka had to report the details to his therapist, including whether he “succeeded” in having sex. Shurka’s therapist prescribed him Viagra and gave advice on masturbation techniques and how to use pornography. Shurka was also told to report any gay thoughts or feelings he had.

After conversion therapy hurt his mental health and family relationships, Shurka said he resented that he was still a gay man because he feared losing people he cared about.

“The fact that I knew it’s not working means I’m failing at the therapy,” Shurka said. “I really believed I was never going to be able to overcome my same-sex attraction.”

Panic attacks began creeping in, followed by suicidal ideations. His last two years involved moving to several states to receive conversion therapy from three more therapists, Shurka said.

After five years of conversion therapy, Shurka left in 2009 after questioning his therapists on the effectiveness of the practice and asking to speak one-on-one with people whom therapists considered “success stories.”

Many of these men were in their 40s and 50s, some with wives and children, Shurka said. However, every person told him being gay was something impossible to change.

“They all said that the feelings or homosexual feelings never went away,” Shurka said. “It was a big revealing moment that all of those men are just gay men forcing themselves to suppress their feelings. I didn’t want to be that, and they felt confident that I could find a different answer.”

Although he was terrified of his therapist being right about his sexuality ruining his life, Shurka said going out and seeing LGBTQ+ people accepting themselves and living happy, successful lives inspired him to eventually come out.

Since then, Shurka became the co-founder of Born Perfect in 2014, an organization aimed to end conversion therapy that helped Outfront advocate for Minnesota’s ban. Additionally, Shurka rebuilt his relationship with his family and is scheduled to marry his fiancee this winter.

His experiences in conversion therapy still trigger him, especially regarding trust and dating, Shurka said. However, he is now happily living by “going against everything I was taught in those five years.”

“Because of conversion therapy, [kids] are being shamed, basically, and told to doubt everything that is core to who they are in their foundational development,” Shurka said. “You do not have to doubt yourself. You’re actually very clear. You know who you are and you’ve got to trust that.”

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