A first-of-its-kind lawsuit has been filed against a prominent ex-gay therapy group claiming that, in accordance with scientific opinion, ex-gay therapy is fraudulent and damaging.
The lawsuit, filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on behalf of four men and their mothers, contends that the New Jersey-city based organization Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), a well known ex-gay therapy group, violated New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act by offering ex-gay therapy when it is not recognized as being effective or appropriate for treating anxiety related to sexual orientation.
The suit also points out there is a strong body of research that ex-gay therapy can be extremely harmful.
“JONAH profits off of shameful and dangerous attempts to fix something that isn’t broken,” said Christine P. Sun, deputy legal director for the SPLC in a press statement. “Despite the consensus of mainstream professional organizations that conversion therapy doesn’t work, this racket continues to scam vulnerable gay men and lesbians out of thousands of dollars and inflicts significant harm on them.”
This is the first time ex-gay therapy, and crucially its efficacy, has ever been put on trial in this way.
JONAH, formerly known as Jews Offering New Alternatives for Homosexuality, describes itself as “a non-profit international organization dedicated to educating the world-wide Jewish community about the social, cultural and emotional factors which lead to same-sex attractions.”
The group’s mission statement continues: “Our Rabbinical sages explain that because mankind has been endowed by our Creator with a free will, everyone has the capacity to change. Furthermore, the Rabbis emphasize that parents, teachers and counselors have a special responsibility to educate, nurture, and provide an opportunity for those struggling with unwanted same-sex attractions to journey out of homosexuality.”
The group is headed by Arthur Abba Goldberg, a former attorney who was disbarred after being convicted of three counts of mail fraud and one count of conspiracy to defraud the federal government. Also prominent in the organization is self-proclaimed life coach Alan Downing. Both men are named in the suit.
The lawsuit claims that JONAH counselors have directly harmed plaintiffs by exposing them to unnecessary and ineffective therapy sessions.
Practices highlighted in the suit include plaintiffs being told they should blame their parents for their sexual orientation, wherein they were even encouraged to beat effigies of their mothers.
Plaintiffs also contend those in the counselling program were forced to endure ridicule, which included taunts of “faggots” and “homos,” in mock locker room and gym class role playing, supposedly to motivate them out of homosexuality.
The suit also contends subjects were made to participate in what by most any standard would be grossly inappropriate and often bizarre so-called treatments such as being asked to undress in front of a mirror, and group sessions where young men were instructed to remove their clothing and stand naked together in a circle around the counselor, Downing, who was himself also naked.
For this treatment JONAH typically charged a minimum of $100 for its weekly individual counseling sessions and, in addition, $60 for group therapy sessions. JONAH counselors would also push subjects to participate in weekend retreats, for which they would have to fork out $700.
Among the four men represented in the suit is Michael Ferguson, a conversion therapy survivor. He is quoted as saying, “Sadly, there is no accountability for those who practice conversion therapy. They play blindly with deep emotions and create an immense amount of self-doubt for the client. They seize on your personal vulnerability, and tell you that being gay is synonymous with being less of a man. They further misrepresent themselves as having the key to your new orientation.”
Chaim Levin, another plaintiff in the case who spoke in a press conference announcing the suit on Tuesday, described how at 16 he was sent by his parents to JONAH counseling. He attended weekly sessions conducted by Downing for a period of 18 months. “What I can tell you is that conversion therapy does not work. My family and I have wasted thousands of dollars and many hours on this scam.”
JONAH founder Arthur Goldberg told ABC news that he knew “nothing about the suit.” He also claimed to have no knowledge of many details of the counseling practices mentioned above:
“We have a lot of people who were a success and were healed,” he said of JONAH’s 14 years in service. “Hundreds of the clients we serve are satisfied … Our therapy is very conventional.”
When asked about the group’s practices, he said, “I can’t tell you about the methodology.” Goldberg admitted he had “no background specifically in counseling.”
“I am the administrator,” he said. “I used to teach family law.”
When asked about instructing boys to take off their clothes, he said, “I know nothing about that.”
Goldberg also said he had “no idea” how to reach Downing because he was an “independent contractor.”
At the time of writing, JONAH has yet to specifically address the lawsuit.
Truth Wins Out, a group that campaigns against the ex-gay therapy industry, called the lawsuit a critical step in challenging an industry it says preys on the vulnerable and perpetuates the myth that you can “choose to change.”
Said executive director Wayne Besen in a statement, “It is critical that these charlatans be held accountable for malice in the guise of medicine that often exacts psychological wreckage on clients and their families. JONAH and other ex-gay snake oil salesman offer fraudulent products that promise to heal people who are not sick and fix people who are not broken. This industry cruelly mislead ‘patients,’ deliberately misrepresent science, and dangerously plays head games that can cause lasting mental scars. They must be stopped before more lives are ruined.”
California became the first state in the U.S. to specifically ban ex-gay therapy against minors. Ex-gay therapists have taken the state to court alleging that this ban infringes their religious rights and harms children who they say are now unlawfully denied their services.
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