To his left are Christine Sun, deputy legal director for SPLC,
Sam Wolfe, staff attorney for the SPLC and Laura Booker, licensed clinical social worker.
On Tuesday, Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) announced what they said was the first of its kind lawsuit against practitioners of so-called "gay reparative therapy." The suit contends defendants committed consumer fraud under the state of New Jersey's Consumer Fraud Act by promising to provide counseling that would reorient patients from homosexual to heterosexual attraction.
Plaintiffs included Michael Ferguson, Benjamin Unger, Sheldon Bruck, Chaim Levin, Jo Bruck and Bella Levin, which represented four young men and two of their parents.
Named defendants include Arthur Goldberg, Alan Downing and the New Jersey-based organization Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (“JONAH”), formerly known as Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality.
Counsel Wolfe began his introduction by describing himself as a "survivor" of such therapies, and saying, "Misguided efforts to change or eradicate sexual orientation have included electroshock treatments and lobotomies. Official campaigns have included imprisonment and even death camps, simply because we are gay. Conversion therapy is a part of that tragic lineage of anti-LGBT bigotry." SPLC's deputy legal director Christine Sun said, "In short, conversion therapy is nothing more than junk science that leaves people feeling ashamed of who they are, and believing they need to fix something that isn't broken."
James Bromley, a partner at the firm Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton LLP in New York, speaking as co-counsel, said New Jersey's Consumer Fraud Act, as one of the most stringent laws of its kind in the country, represents one of the best opportunities to strike a blow against this predatory fraudulent practice. New Jersey is fairly unique in that plaintiffs can file their own fraud consumer suits. In many states, plaintiffs must depend on a state attorney to accept and follow through on complaints.
Under New Jersey law, if plaintiffs can show they have been defrauded, they are entitled to a refund of all fees, restitution for costs incurred (in this case, including corrective legitimate therapy) and attorney fees. Damage awards are also subject to being tripled.
Plaintiffs are also asking the court for injunctive relief to close JONAH's doors forever.
(Continue reading below the fold.)
SPLC has asked for a jury trial, and it's easy to imagine some of the allegations against JONAH will not play well, says counsel Wolfe:
Defendants engaged in sessions where participants were instructed to remove their clothes in front of significantly older counselors who were also attracted to men. Defendants instructed our clients to violently beat effigies of their mothers, while screaming at them, blaming their mothers for their gay orientation. Defendants subjected our clients to ridicule, calling them faggots and gay boys.
Defendants like most "gay conversion therapists" are not licensed and likely do not have any sort of malpractice insurance. But, this may be the cases' credit, as the case does not hinge on specific ethical or professional violations, but merely that the claims they used to sell their services were fraudulent claims. It is now becoming very widely well-known that such therapies are at best, ineffective and at worst harmful or fatal. In 2009, the American Psychological Association passed nearly unanimously a resolution condemning their practice. This year, California recently passed a law saying the practicing of such therapies could be grounds for losing your license to practice therapy.
and "Coming Out Straight," two of foundational
books JONAH uses for their "therapies."
Plaintiff Michael Ferguson described some of his experiences under JONAH's care:
"I watched as grown men were frenzied into fits of emotional rage against their mothers and encouraged to act out physical violence against their parents, in order to access their so-called 'true manhood' and become more heterosexual."Plaintiff Chaim Levin describes how as part of group session:
"I was forced to recreate a scenario in which I experienced traumatic childhood abuse as a young person. The exact situation was replayed for the entire group, deeply hurtful language was said over and over to me, and no psychological care was given afterward."He collaborates Ferguson's allegation that they were asked to strip naked for adults:
"Eventually he instructed me to remove all of my clothes in a room alone with him. I told him I was uncomfortable with that and he told me if I really wanted to change this was what I had to do… I didn't know what else to do so I took off my clothes. But the only feelings I had were trauma and humiliation. My sexual orientation remained the same."Ferguson describes a "therapeutic" exercise that is both absurd and disturbing:
"In another exercise, a man had to break through a human barricade that I was a part of in order to seize two oranges that were meant to symbolize his testicles. He was then frenetically instructed to squeeze the juice from them and drink it and to put the oranges in his pants in order to represent 'gaining his testicles' the symbolic absence of them supposedly being the cause of his homosexuality."Ferguson lamented in addition to time, money and energy wasted, the "therapy" had a corrosive affect on familial relationships:
"Mothers are cruelly blamed for causing their sons to become gay, for doing nothing but giving them attention, love, nurturing; things mothers are supposed to do."Laura Booker, a licensed clinical social worker said:
"I'm here to represent the accepted medical consensus that conversion therapy is not in the best interests of patients. Every major mental health association in this country including the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association and the National Association of Social Workers views homosexuality as a normal variation of human sexuality. Because homosexuality is not longer viewed as a pathology, or mental disorder there is no need for a cure anymore than a perfectly good, working leg needs surgery."Because therapists tell patients they aren't trying hard enough, patents often internalize feelings of self-loathing, low self-esteem and deep sense of failure to themselves, their families and their communities when the change inevitably fails to come. "No responsible therapist would treat a patient in this manner." Booker notes the associations she mentioned have released statements dissuading members from participating in these practices, because they cause "serious and life threatening harm."
Levin says of Goldberg, Downing and JONAH, "Vulnerable young people trusted them, and they did nothing but take advantage of this trust to abuse young men like me and Michael."
In addition to money damages, SPLC is also seeking injunctive relief to shut down JONAH from continuing its fraudulent practices.
I like SPLC's chances to prevail in this lawsuit. We can argue all day and night about whether Christians have a First Amendment right to subject their minor children to "Pray the Gay Away" practices, that's very complicated.
There is not much that is complicated about the failure of any allegedly scientific "therapy" known to man to "cure" the gay. The evidence is overwhelming. And anyone who tells you otherwise is a snake-oil salesman and the false and deceptive claims they make are, in the words of Christine Sun, "manufactured to increase their profits."
Ultimately, this industry has no future, but for their ability to lie to naive and desperate consumers without penalty. We'll see if courts tell them it's okay to keep doing it.
The press conference was hosted in New York City at the Hetrick Martin Institute, the nation's largest LGBTQ youth services organization, serving over 2,000 young people.
SPLC's complaint is posted as a pdf here.