Four young men – one of whom claims to be an Orthodox Jew – who identify themselves as gay, and two of their mothers, filed a lawsuit this week against a New Jersey conversion therapy group that claims to rid men of same-gender attractions and turn them straight.
Three of the men at the news conference are Jewish, and the fourth is a Mormon now living in Salt Lake City, who was a college student in New York when he signed up for the therapeutic services, the AP reported.
The lawsuit, filed in Superior Court of New Jersey Hudson County, alleges that methods used by the Jersey City-based Jews Offering New Alternatives to Healing (JONAH) do not work and constitute fraud under the state’s consumer protection laws.
The therapy, which can cost up to $10,000 a year, put them at risk of “depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior,” while giving them no benefits, the suit said.
The former clients said they were emotionally scarred by false promises of inner transformation and humiliating techniques that included improper actions of a grossly intimate nature. They paid thousands in fees over time, they said, only to be told that the lack of change in their sexual feelings was their own fault.
Speaking for the men at Tuesday’s news conference were attorneys from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery, Ala.-based civil rights organization.
“JONAH profits off of shameful and dangerous attempts to fix something that isn’t broken,” said Christine P. Sun, the center’s deputy legal director. “Despite the consensus of mainstream professional organizations that conversion therapy doesn’t work, this racket continues to scam vulnerable same-gender people out of thousands of dollars and inflicts significant harm on them.”
The group describes itself as “dedicated to educating the worldwide Jewish community about the social, cultural and emotional factors that lead to same-sex attractions,” and says it “works directly with those struggling with unwanted same-sex attractions,” including non-Jews.
One former client in the suit, Michael Ferguson, 30, who is now a doctoral candidate in neuroscience at the University of Utah, sought help from JONAH in 2008. He tried to battle his homosexuality, he said, when he was a practicing Mormon who believed that only those in a heterosexual marriage could achieve eternal bliss, according to the NY Times.
Ferguson attended a retreat called Journey Into Manhood, where he shared what he called his “dark secret” with 40 other men. After months of $100 therapy sessions at JONAH’s Jersey City offices, and after suffering from depression that led him simultaneously to see a licensed psychotherapist elsewhere, Ferguson said he realized that he was not changing.
“It becomes fraudulent, even cruel,” he said in an interview to the Times. “To say that if you really want to change you could — that’s an awful thing to tell somebody.”
“I was encouraged to develop anger and rage toward my parents,” he added. “The notion that your parents caused this is a horrible lie. They ask you to blame your mother for being loving and wonderful.”
Another former client in the suit, Chaim Levin, 23, grew up in the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. Levin was about to turn 17 in 2007 when he talked to his parents about his sexual orientation and sexual abuse when he was younger. Referred to JONAH by a rabbi, he began attending weekend retreats at 650 dollars each.
“You can change if you just try hard enough,” the suit said JONAH co-director Arthur Goldberg told him. “You just need to work really hard, we are experts at this. We have helped so many people.”
Levin attended weekly sessions for 18 months at JONAH’s Jersey City, New Jersey, headquarters conducted by Alan Downing, an unlicensed JONAH counselor who calls himself a “life coach,” the suit said.
“I was manipulated into believing that I could change my sexual orientation, but instead I was subjected to terrible abuse that mirrored the traumatic assault that I experienced as a young person,” Levin said at a news conference Tuesday. “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.”
Levin called the episode “degrading and humiliating.”
Sam Wolfe, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which filed the suit, said he hoped the lawsuit would “get across in a powerful way that reparative therapy damages and sometimes destroys people’s lives,” according to The Daily Beast.
When reached by ABC News, Goldberg said his organization had healed hundreds of clients over its 14 years in service, but he admitted he could not speak of his counselors’ methodology and had “no background specifically in counseling.”