To the outside world, they were part of a crowd of teenage boys. They hung out together, went to parties and chased girls.
But out of the gaze of their parents and peers, 18-year-old Mathew Shurka and Mark had fallen in love.
For months, the pair hid the nature of their relationship but then, without warning, Mark rang Mathew to say he no longer knew if “the whole gay thing” was what he wanted. From now on, he couldn’t see Mathew at all.
Yet that explanation was far from the truth. For the previous two years, Mathew’s father, a New York businessman, had been paying for his son to undergo “conversion therapy” to “rescue” him from his attraction to other men. But when Mathew’s desire only intensified, and he confided the depth of his feelings for Mark to his therapist, it was decided that the relationship could not be allowed to continue.
Mathew says: “Unknown to me, my father met Mark and told him to call me and end our relationship without telling me why. As a young gay man still in the closet, Mark was so petrified, he agreed. When that phone call came, I was destroyed. He was my first love.”
Ten years on, Mathew, now 28, is an out gay man fighting to ban conversion therapy – a battle that may continue because vice-president-elect Mike Pence has previously appeared to support public funding for it.
But perhaps more surprising is the fact that Mathew has forgiven the father who betrayed him so totally.
We talk while Mathew is in the UK to give a lecture for the Forgiveness Project – an organisation that collects and shares stories to help people move forward with their lives.
In the US, conversion therapy has been outlawed for minors in just a handful of states. In the UK, any therapist is strictly banned from giving such counselling, but Mathew believes it is still happening underground.
From the age of 12, Mathew had “a stomach pit” feeling he was gay. “I created a double life. Though I was one of the popular kids, inside, I was suffering. So I’d use words like ‘gay’ and ‘faggot’ against others, to show I belonged.”
Ironically, when he shouted “fucking faggots” at two local boys during an argument, it was the trigger for him to come out, aged 16. The injuries from the beating he sustained healed, but Mathew was shaken on a deeper level. “I was falling for Mark at the same time as I was trying to look heterosexual to my peers. I was terrified I’d be found out so I started skipping school.
A few weeks later, his father took him for a drive. He asked what was wrong. Mathew cried and told him: “I’m not sure what my sexuality is.”
The response was what every gay young person coming out wants to hear. “He told me he loved me, no matter what.” But panic quickly took over the place of love and his dad started to look for a therapist to find out if it was all just a phase.
His father came across a state-licensed psychologist who subscribed to the widely discredited theory that some gay men form same-sex attractions as a way to make up for troubled relationships with their fathers, or because they have been molested.
“My dad bombarded me with every outdated stereotype of gay life there was. He said I’d never be happy, I’d live a promiscuous, empty life without real love, that I was more likely to commit suicide as a homosexual man. I was only 16 and I loved and respected my father. I believed him.”
The problem was, the sessions led to Mathew not speaking to his mother for three years: “The first guess was that I had too much of a feminine influence in my life from my mother and two sisters. So I was told to distance myself. I’d come down in the morning, eat the breakfast she made for me and leave without saying goodbye.”
But unlike her husband, Mathew’s mother was supportive. “She would say: ‘Matt, you’re gay. It’s OK.’ But I was policing myself. In response, I’d throw the biggest tantrums.”
But then, eight months after Mark was told to get out of Mathew’s life, Mark called and explained the real reason he had dropped out of sight. Mathew confronted his father, who insisted it was for his own good. “So I moved to LA to get away.”
Finally, over the next four years, Mathew started to see for himself that those dire warnings about gay life were unfounded. And in his early 20s, he returned to New York City, where he came across countless happy and successful gay people who made him realise there was nothing to be afraid of.
He also took a self-help course that helped him see his story in a new light. “For five years after our estrangement, I had a filter constantly running in my head which made me see my dad as a hateful homophobe. When I stripped that away, I saw it differently.”
Mathew called his father: “We took a walk. He then proceeded to give me the same speech as always. This time, I listened. I heard what he had to say. For the first time I got his pain. I saw he thought he’d been doing the best for me. I said: ‘Dad, I know what the world is and who I am. I’m going to take life as it comes and it’s going to be great.’ And he looked at me and said: ‘OK.’”
Since then, Mathew and his father have spoken every other day on the phone. They have reached a point of mutual understanding.
But beyond the ethics of a therapy that does little more than create feelings of shame and failure, Mathew believes his story is ultimately about forgiveness: “I hated these people. But when I came to realize parents, therapists and old adversaries are operating out of fear, feelings of rejection or because they think it’s the best thing, I dropped the hatred and started to understand.”
[Mark’s name has been changed]