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Amherst teen's journey through gay conversion therapy prompts county ban

Bojidar Kandar was a senior at Amherst Central High School when he finally told his mother he was gay.

"She thought something was wrong that she couldn't fix," said Kandar, now 30.

His mother found a Christian counseling service a half hour away that offered to make Kandar straight. The weekly therapy sessions were rough, said Kandar, who described feeling increasingly fragile, insecure and depressed during the yearlong stretch. He remembered one counselor probing and magnifying small childhood slights to find the source of his homosexuality.

"I remember I would break down and cry for no reason," Kandar said.

The Erie County Legislature on Thursday unanimously passed a law banning such conversion therapy practices on minors in Erie County.

The law makes conversion therapy a misdemeanor crime punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or one year in jail. County Executive Mark Poloncarz will sign the bill into law, his spokesman said.

"It was clearly the right thing to do," said Legislator Patrick B. Burke, D-Buffalo, who sponsored the law and called its passage one of the highlights of his career. "It was a relief to make a promise to people who've been victimized and to see it through."

Conversion therapy – premised on the belief that homosexuality is a mental disorder – attempts to change an individual's sexual orientation into a heterosexual one.

A study released last month by the UCLA Williams Institute estimates some 77,000 more LGBT youth will be subjected to the practice from either a licensed health care professional or religious adviser – even though such programs have been discredited by every major health and mental health association in the country.

There are no certified conversion therapy programs in Erie County, but local advocates of the ban call it an underground practice that happens everywhere.

Kandar said he's a living example. His mother forced him to participate in the program while he was a senior at Amherst High School.

At a recent public hearing on the issue, he shared his struggles with conversion therapy and its impact on his family.

Kandar graduated in 2005 and came out to his friends, who were supportive, a year before he finally told his mother during his senior year.

"I was a shy kid, much shier than I am now," he said. "But after I came out to my friends, I was more outgoing."

He knew his mother, an immigrant from Bulgaria, would have more difficulty accepting the news. When she told him she was taking him to counseling to change his orientation, Kandar said he resisted and argued with her. Ultimately, he had no choice but to go.

"I remember being very upset at my mom for taking me," he said.

He wasn't too bothered by the first counselor he talked with, describing the conversations they shared as superficial.

"Mostly, it would turn into arguments about the Bible," he said.

Advocates speak in favor of banning gay conversion therapy in Erie County

But his second counselor proved much more probing.

She asked him to recollect early memories from his childhood, asked questions about his parents' divorce when he was 10, and questioned his beliefs about men and women, convinced he had formed incorrect beliefs about gender roles when he was younger. She attempted to tweak and reshape his memories until they fit the framework she wanted, he said.

He summed up her efforts as trying to "rip small wounds until they're big ones."

"If someone is well-adjusted and they seem fine, but you're convinced something is wrong with them, if you pry enough, you're going to find something," he said.

"This therapy made me feel fragile, insecure and depressed," Kandar told legislators. "I'm not naturally prone to depression."

He was being hurt, he said, yet everyone thought they were helping.

After a year of counseling that he deeply resented, Kandar finally confronted his mother.

"I said that she could either accept this instead of trying to change this, or she could lose me," he said.

That finally brought an end to it.

He was lucky, he said. He was strong enough to resist therapy, strong enough to demand his mother cease his counseling sessions.

Many other LGBT children aren't that strong, he said. They don't have the friends he had who supported him and kept him grounded while his counselor tried tirelessly to dig up the roots of his homosexuality.

"No child should have to endure this kind of medical malpractice," he said.

Kandar went on to college, completed a master's degree in cancer biology and now works as a researcher at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The Cheektowaga resident married his partner last year in a small civil ceremony because he and his spouse couldn't get their act together to plan anything more elaborate, he said. They're still working on some sort of ceremony or reception.

Mathew Shurka, 29, drove from his home in New York City last week to lobby the Erie County Legislature in support of the conversion therapy ban.

Conversion therapy is legal in New York State. But it has been banned in nine other states and 31 cities and towns, said Shurka, who travels the country as the lead adviser and spokesman for the #BornPerfect campaign to ban the practice. The New York City Council approved a gay conversion therapy ban, which is currently awaiting the mayor's signature. Nassau County is deliberating a law.

The suicide risk for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens is much higher for those who are subjected to conversion therapy than those who aren't, Shurka said. And even if the law leads to no prosecution of conversion therapy programs in Erie County, he said, it educates the public, makes a statement about the values of leaders in this community and could lead to a decline in the suicide rate locally.

"When public leaders take a stand, it makes a difference," he said.

The legislation approved Thursday has been repeatedly introduced in various forms over the past four years.

In 2014 and 2015, Burke introduced resolutions – all died in committee – urging the state to ban the practice. In 2016, he proposed a local law to ban the practice in Erie County.

"A young man in Texas sent me a letter explaining that he was considering suicide because he had experienced this and because it was destroying his life," Burke said. "And the actions in this body, he said, gave him hope. Frankly, it was probably my best moment as a legislator."

Burke's proposed law received national attention because he originally named it PENCE – Prevention of Emotional Neglect and Child Endangerment.

Burke chose PENCE because of Vice President Mike Pence's perceived position in support of federal funding for gay conversion therapy. In March, Burke renamed the bill as the Erie County Conversion Therapy Ban.

Despite the long road the bill has traveled, he said, it's been worth it because it sends a far-reaching message.

"It's not just for people here," Burke said. "It's for the broader community, for people throughout the state and throughout the country."

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