Jeff Johnston grew up in a conservative Christian home where he was taught that sex is reserved for a man and his wife. So, his life’s plan was to marry a woman and raise a family.
The problem, though, was that he was attracted to men.
Johnston, now an issues analyst for Focus on the Family, explored same-sex relationships in his mid-20s but was in “tremendous conflict” with his faith. Years of therapy from licensed counselors brought him “out of homosexualty,” he said this week in an interview with The Colorado Sun.
Johnston, 58, has been married for 25 years and has three sons. Any residual struggles with same-sex attraction, he said, are weaker than his urges to eat unhealthy snacks.
“I’m not white-knuckling it,” he said. “I may have occasional thoughts. I have memories of things sometimes. I struggle more with wanting to eat sugary foods, or do I want to exercise. I’m not in suppression all the time or repressing.”
Johnston plans to tell his story to Colorado lawmakers next week as he testifies, again, against a proposal to ban “conversion therapy” for minors. His testimony is proof of the divisiveness that remains on the emotional topic, even years after the American Psychiatric Association, American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association declared it ineffective and harmful.
The measure is expected to draw conservative backlash similar to another bill under consideration at the Capitol this session — legislation that would prohibit public schools from teaching abstinence-only sex education.
The proposal marks Democrats’ fifth attempt to pass a ban on conversion therapy, which in prior years was tossed out by a Republican-controlled committee. Now that Democrats control the House, Senate and governor’s office, the measure has a better chance of becoming law.
House Bill 1129 would prohibit a licensed psychiatrist or mental health counselor from providing therapy to minors meant to “change an individual’s sexual orientation” or eliminate “sexual or romantic attraction or feelings toward individuals of the same sex.” Advertising such therapy would become a “deceptive trade practice” under the Colorado Consumer Protection Act.
The legislation targets “licensed, certified or registered” mental health providers and does not address religious counseling from a pastor or minister. It would not ban the therapy for adults.
Johnston, who does not believe people are born gay or straight, says his life is proof that therapy can help a person choose a lifestyle that fits their religious beliefs. Johnston’s counselors helped him recognize that he was “overconnected” to his mother and sisters, and that sexual contact with boys when he was in elementary school had created confusion about his sexuality.
But for others, including Mathew Shurka, who attended conversion therapy for five years and is still gay, stories such as Johnston’s aren’t triumphant — they’re oppressive.
“Their immediate environment was not accepting them as they were,” said Shurka, who co-founded the organization Born Perfect to fight against conversion therapy. “They all admit that their attractions haven’t changed. They have learned and are able to control their behaviors.”
Shurka, who grew up on Long Island, New York, came out to his father when he was 16. “He was really loving in the moment,” Shurka recalled. “He told me he would love me no matter what and he would support me.”
But, as Shurka’s father searched for a counselor for his son, a licensed therapist told him that since Shurka had not yet experienced intercourse, there was a chance to “save him” from homosexuality.
“When I saw my father was so hopeful, a part of me believed it and thought I could really change, that I could be accepted and loved by everyone,” said Shurka, now 30. “He told me how horrible my life would be. It would have been different if my father told me he loved me and everything was going to be OK.”
Shurka had a series of therapists, including one who said he was too close to his mother and three older sisters. He was told to spend as little time as possible with them for three years. His sisters were off at college, and Shurka avoided talking to his mother, an arrangement that caused conflict in his parents’ marriage.
His mother “couldn’t comprehend any therapy where the solution was separating a mother from her child,” Shurka said. But the therapists “wanted me to understand as a young male that males were my peers. Women are not your peers. Do not be that boy with all the girlfriends.”
Later, therapists told him to try having sex with women. Shurka did, but he felt panicked. “Their solution was to give me Viagra pills,” he said. “I didn’t have erectile dysfunction. I was just a young, gay man.”
Shurka originally thought the therapy was “working.” He had more male friends and was dating girls. But he was depressed and, for three years, contemplated suicide. He quit conversion therapy at age 21 and, after therapy to ease his depression, came out as gay at 23.
Shurka has reconciled with his father. “We have a great relationship. He wishes I wasn’t gay, but I have a boyfriend and he likes my boyfriend,” he said. “He’s very accepting and he’s come a long, long way. Both of us are not willing to sacrifice our relationship because of this.”
Shurka plans to testify in favor of the Colorado legislation and is also working to help pass similar bills in Utah, Nebraska, Maine, Florida and Pennsylvania this year. New York was the first state to pass a ban this year, a measure signed last month by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Fifteen states now have such a ban.
Tales of abusive conversion therapy — forced intercourse, ice baths and electric shock while watching gay pornography — exist, but advocates on both sides say those tactics date back years, although they disagree on whether that’s 10 years or 40.
Focus on the Family does not offer conversion therapy, but people can ask for one-time phone consultations with the “relationship services” division. Counselors there specialize in homosexuality, as well as addiction to sex and pornography, Johnston said. People who want ongoing counseling are typically referred to community-based therapists, he said.
For years, Focus on the Family held ex-gay ministry “Love Won Out” events a few times each year at various churches. Focus on the Family in 2009 transferred the ministry to Exodus International, whose leader ended up apologizing to gays in 2013.
Focus on the Family’s website contains several articles about leaving homosexuality, including “Do People Change from Homosexuality? Hundreds of Stories of Hope and Transformation.” Many are written by Johnston.
Johnston and others say the proposal to ban conversion therapy is too broad and could threaten pastoral counseling or talk therapy that is not abusive. It’s an affront to religious freedom and parental rights, said Jeff Hunt, director of the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University.
A ban, for example, could prevent parents from seeking counseling for a teenager who was looking at porn, he said.
“Abusive practices should be banned, and it’s not clear that any licensed counselors are engaging in abusive practices,” Hunt said.
Hunt also criticized the proposed ban for not having a religious exemption. He predicted the U.S. Supreme Court will eventually strike down state bans on conversion therapy, for reasons similar to those the court cited last year when it reversed a California court decision requiring anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers to fully disclose that they seek to prevent abortions.
“There is common ground here,” Hunt said. “If the Democrats are willing to work with us, they can get a bill that is not going to be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Do they really want to test this with the current Supreme Court? I think that’s a bad strategy.”
Silas Musick likes to joke that he “flunked out” of a semester-long Focus on the Family course that explored religion and homosexuality because he “came out gayer” than when he enrolled.
At the time, Musick identified as female and was involved in a secret lesbian relationship at Liberty University, the private, Christian college in Virginia founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. When the relationship was exposed, Musick’s family and college administrators suggested Musick find a way “out of homosexuality.”
Since then, Musick has transitioned to male, realizing after years of depression and therapy that he is transgender.
“Therapy that works allows a person to evolve into the best version of themselves — it doesn’t try to make someone into a person they’re not,” he said.
At Focus on the Family, homosexuality was “a diagnosis,” said Musick, now a program manager for a group of nonprofits in Colorado Springs. “It was deemed wrong, deemed a sin and deemed a choice.”
After studying at Focus on the Family, Musick went on to live as an out lesbian in Colorado Springs but was in misery. “I hated who I was so much,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I could become the person the program and my religion told me I needed to be.”
Musick tried to die by suicide in 2010 and ended up in a psychiatric facility. The therapy that followed was unlike any he had experienced before — a kind without judgment and where he didn’t have to hide how he felt.
Musick married his wife in 2012, had a daughter through a sperm donor in 2013 and came out as transgender in 2016. His relationship with his family back in Virginia, where Musick’s father is a Southern Baptist preacher, is strained.
One of the most important results of therapy has been “letting go of being able to change anybody else’s heart,” he said. “It hasn’t taken away the pain, but it’s allowed me to shed some of that and not carry it around all the time.”
House Bill 1129 — sponsored by Reps. Dafna Michaelson Jenet and Daneya Esgar and Sens. Stephen Fenberg and Dominick Moreno, all Democrats — is scheduled for its first hearing next week.
“It’s just really cool to think that, you know, I’m going to be able to be part of ensuring that practice doesn’t continue in Colorado,” said Moreno, who is gay. “It’s exciting.”