Jewish Gay ’Conversion’ Group Sued for Fraud
Four gay men are suing a New Jersey conversion therapy group that claims it can turn gay men straight, CNN reports.
Michael Ferguson, Benjamin Unger, Sheldon Bruck and Chaim Levin have filed a lawsuit in Hudson County, N.J., Superior Court against the New Jersey City-based organization Jews Offering New Alternatives of Healing. They claim the group’s practices don’t work and that its methods constitute fraud under New Jersey’s consumer protection laws.
"This is the first time that plaintiffs have sought to hold conversion therapists liable in a court of law," Samuel Wolfe, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said.
Jonah co-director Arthur Goldenberng, listed as a co-defendant, told Bruck when he was 17 that the organization "could help him change his orientation from gay to straight."
According to Jonah’s website, officials from the group say the therapy works and even posted success stories from patients and family members. Two of the men’s mothers, Jo Bruck and Bella Levin, are also named as plaintiffs and say they paid for fraudulent therapy sessions that could cost up to $10,000 a year.
The lawsuit claims Jonah officials insisted that "being gay is a mental disorder" that could be reversed by "conversion therapy," which has been repudiated by major psychiatric societies. According to the lawsuit, the men underwent the treatments when they were in their teens or early 20s.
The therapy, they claim, put them at risk for "depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior" and did not yield any benefits. The suit goes on to say that the American Psychiatric Association has rejected such "therapy" as long as 40 years ago.
The men claim they were asked to go through several treatments that made them extremely uncomfortable. They were asked to get naked in group sessions and cuddle and hold other men. They were also instructed to attack statues with a tennis racket that represented their mothers, visit batthouses "in order to be nude with father figures"; and were "subjected to ridicule as ’faggots’ and ’homos’ in mock locker room scenarios."
Goldberg allegedly told Bruck in the summer 2009 that if you "put in the effort, you’re going to change." Thaddeus Heffner, a counselor with Jonah, blamed Bruck’s lack of transformation on his own failures. Bruck was simply "not working hard enough to change." He also blamed his father for being "too distant," and his mother for being "too close to him."
"It’s definitely cruel and unusual and doesn’t work," Wolfe said. "They are peddling bogus techniques that have no foundation in science and are basically ridiculous and even harmful."
The SPLC has long stood against conversion therapy. In March, the group announced that the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, a leading "ex-gay" therapy organization, is the "preeminent source of what many regard as ’junk science’ for the religious right. Every major American medical authority has concluded that there is no scientific support for NARTH’s view" and many of the organizations say that "ex-gay" therapy can even cause harm.
The SPLC has also identified 70 conversion therapy groups in the country as well, CNN notes.
During a news conference on Tuesday, Levin, who is from Salt Lake City, Utah, said that he was "manipulated into believing" that he could change himself to be straight" and was "subjected to terrible abuse that mirrored the traumatic assault that I expressed as a young person."
"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," he added.
Levin, who was 18 at the time, was at JONAH’s New Jersey City, N.J., headquarters for 18 months and worked with Alan Downing, an unlicensed JONAH counselor who claims he is a "life coach," according to the suit. Levin has apparently been speaking against conversion therapy for sometime now. In February, he talked about his experiences at a press conference during the National Coming Out Day event.
"I was made to believe that there was something wrong with me and I needed to change," he said. "I was hopeless and was looking for a way to ’cure’ being gay, but the therapy didn’t work," he said. "It left me feeling even more depressed since they made me believe I failed. I finally accepted that there is nothing wrong with me and I don’t need to change."
The suit notes that Unger now has trouble with having physical and emotional relationships with men and was unable to work for a year. The other men are "adjusting well" four years after undergoing their last conversation therapy session, Wolfe said.
"We really want to bring this lawsuit to bring attention to this practice that takes place in many parts of the country, preying on vulnerable young people," the lawyer added.
According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the state’s first out senator, attorney Scott McCoy, is representing the men in the lawsuit. Then men are seeking declaratory, injunctive and undisclosed amount of monetary relief in addition to court costs, the lawsuit notes.
In a statement, New Jersey Democrat Assemblyman Timothy J. Eustace expressed his support for the men. "The bravery and determination of the four men and their families seeking damages against a Jersey City-based conversion counseling group should be applauded," he said in a statement. "If what they allege in their complaint is true, then these young men most assuredly did not receive counseling. Instead, it would seem they were conned into paying to be tortured because of their sexual orientation."
Conversion therapy saw a massive defeat in October when California became the first state to ban the controversial treatments on gay teens, the Associated Press reported. Gov. Jerry Brown signed a measure that prohibits performing sexual orientation change efforts for anyone under 18. The law will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2013.