The Southern Poverty Law Center on Tuesday filed a first-of-its-kind lawsuit accusing a New Jersey organization of consumer fraud for offering conversion therapy services – a discredited practice that claims to convert people from gay to straight.
The lawsuit, filed in the Superior Court of New Jersey, charges that Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), its founder, Arthur Goldberg, and counselor Alan Downing violated New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act by providing conversion, or “reparative,” therapy claiming to cure clients of being gay.
It is the first time a conversion therapy provider has been sued for fraudulent business practices.
The lawsuit alleges that the plaintiffs – four young men and two of their parents – were lured into JONAH’s services through deceptive practices
“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. “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.”
The lawsuit describes how the underlying premise of conversion therapy – that a person can “convert” to heterosexuality – has no basis in scientific fact. Conversion therapy has been discredited or highly criticized by all major American medical, psychiatric, psychological and professional counseling organizations. It is the longstanding consensus of the behavioral and social sciences that homosexuality is a normal and positive variation of human sexual orientation.
Customers of JONAH’s services typically paid a minimum of $100 for weekly individual counseling sessions and another $60 for group therapy sessions.
The lawsuit describes sessions that involved clients undressing in front of a mirror and even a group session where young men were instructed to remove their clothing and stand naked in a circle with the counselor, Downing, who was also undressed. Another session involved a subject attempting to wrest away two oranges, which were used to represent testicles, from another individual.
“Sadly, there is no accountability for those who practice conversion therapy,” said Michael Ferguson, a conversion therapy survivor and plaintiff in the lawsuit.
“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.”
JONAH, formerly known as Jews Offering New Alternatives for Homosexuality, was founded by Goldberg, a former Wall Street executive and attorney. Before founding JONAH, Goldberg was convicted of three counts of mail fraud and one count of conspiracy to defraud the federal government. He was ultimately disbarred from being an attorney.
SPLC’s lawsuit is based on JONAH and Downing’s “misguided and erroneous belief that that being gay is a mental disorder – a position rejected by the American Psychiatric Association four decades ago.”
The APA has expressed concern that the positions espoused by some of the leading advocates of conversion therapy, such as the National Association for Research Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), “create an environment in which prejudice and discrimination can flourish.”
“Defendants claimed that their services were scientifically proven to be effective, citing the work of Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, one of the primary opponents of conversion therapy, and Richard A. Cohen, who was permanently expelled from the American Counseling Association in 2002 for multiple ethics violations related to his conversion therapy services,” according to the SPLC complaint.
“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,” said Truth Wins Out’s Executive Director Wayne Besen.
“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.”
The SPLC has previously filed complaints against conversion therapists with the American Psychiatric Association and the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.
More information about the SPLC’s campaign to end conversion therapy, including an interactive map showing the location of therapists who advertise conversion therapy, can be found here.
Earlier this year, California Governor Jerry Brown signed landmark legislation banning conversion therapy, making California the first state in the nation to prohibit licensed mental health professionals from engaging in sexual orientation change efforts of any kind for a minor patient.
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