The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), pro bono co-counsel Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP and the law firm of Lite DePalma Greenberg, LLC filed a lawsuit today against Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), its founder, Arthur Goldberg, and a counselor, Alan Downing, for peddling 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 the defendants violated New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act through fraudulent and deceptive claims that their counseling services could cure customers of being gay. Those claims include so-called scientific methods invented by Joseph Nicolosi, a founder of the National Association of Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), the leading secular organization promoting conversion therapy.
The lawsuit is the first of its kind to directly sue a conversion therapy provider for fraudulent practices. It describes how the plaintiffs – four young men, three of whom are New York residents; and two of their parents – were lured into JONAH’s services through misleading commercial practices.
JONAH’s website indicates its mission is to “educat[e] the world-wide Jewish community about the social, cultural and emotional factors which lead to same-sex attractions. JONAH works directly with those struggling with unwanted same-sex sexual attractions (SSA) and with families whose loved ones are involved in homosexuality.” The group claims “Rabbinical sages” insist people can “journey out of homosexuality.”
“JONAH profits from shameful and dangerous attempts to fix something that isn’t broken,” said Christine P. Sun, deputy legal director for the SPLC, a nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry. “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.”
Formerly known as Jews Offering New Alternatives for Homosexuality, JONAH was founded by Arthur Goldberg, a former Wall Street executive and attorney convicted of three counts of mail fraud and one count of conspiracy to defraud the federal government before he founded JONAH. Goldberg was ultimately disbarred from being an attorney.
Customers of JONAH’s services typically pay a minimum of $100 for weekly individual counseling sessions and another $60 for group therapy sessions.
An essential element to the conversion therapy industry’s scheme is the lie that gay people are “broken” and need to be “cured.” The industry seizes on prejudice against homosexuality and perpetuates the myth that gay orientation is a psychological disorder and that there is no hope of a full, happy life as a gay person. Four decades ago, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the list of psychiatric disorders. It is the longstanding consensus of the behavioral and social sciences that homosexuality is a normal and positive variation of human sexual orientation.
“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.”
When JONAH’s program does not produce the promised results, counselors manipulate clients by telling them they are not sufficiently invested in JONAH’s techniques. The services often leave clients emotionally devastated to the point of contemplating, or even attempting, suicide.
“People who are told repeatedly that they are innately defective are being abused and traumatized,” said Laura Booker, a licensed clinical social worker who helps survivors recover from conversion therapy’s effects. “The cost of conversion therapy to gay men and lesbians may be nothing less than emotional devastation. They may spend years recovering from the trauma inflicted upon them.”
Downing and other counselors at JONAH also use techniques that leave clients alienated from family. These techniques encourage clients to blame their parents for being gay. Clients also participate in violent role play exercises that include beating effigies of their parents.
“These counselors are skilled at manipulating you into believing just about anything,” said Benjamin Unger, another plaintiff in the case. “During my time with JONAH, they told me constantly that my mom had made me gay. I was so convinced that I refused to have any contact with her for several months, which caused a great deal of damage to our relationship.”
The dangers of conversion therapy reach far beyond the harm caused to the customers receiving treatment. It promotes the belief that homosexuality is a behavioral issue, that something is wrong with LGBT people – that they are deviants who are voluntarily engaging in pathology they can cure. The idea is often used to justify hate and bigotry against the LGBT community.
“We are proud to be partnering with the Southern Poverty Law Center on this groundbreaking case, which addresses an important issue facing the LGBT community,” said James Bromley, partner at Cleary Gottlieb.
In October, California became the first state to ban the practice of conversion therapy, also called reparative therapy, on minors.