JERSEY CITY -- Columbia Journalism student Bryan Koenig sent us his story about the Southern Poverty Law Center's recently announced lawsuit against a "conversion therapy" organization in Jersey City. The suit was announced last week. Here is the article:
He’d been promised a normal life, a cure from what he was told was an abnormality. Tuesday morning, Michael Ferguson tried to reclaim his sense of self.
Ferguson is one of six plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed Tuesday against Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, or JONAH, a Jersey City organization that provides "conversion therapy" in an effort to turn gay men and women straight. The lawsuit is the first to target an organization that pursues conversion therapy, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is the main force behind the lawsuit.
Of the plaintiffs, four, including Ferguson, are men who went through JONAH sessions. Two are mothers of the plaintiffs. The lawsuit was filed in New Jersey and is seeking damages against JONAH, founder Arthur Goldberg and counselor Alan Downing, under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act. The act protects consumers from business practices that are false, deceptive or fraudulent. While several of the plaintiffs are based in New York City, JONAH is located in Jersey City.
At a press conference in Manhattan announcing the lawsuit, Ferguson expounded on the practices he encountered over more than a year of JONAH sessions. “Those who perpetuate the falsehoods must be held accountable for their actions. Reparative therapy is multidirectional abuse and the abuse has to stop,” he said. Nearing tears, “It’s been a long journey for me, and I haven’t gotten here by myself,” he said of his time since leaving the ‘ex-gay’ organization.
JONAH founder Arthur Goldberg vehemently decried the lawsuit as without merit. “I believe that the lawsuit is really an attempt to totally deny individuals the freedom to seek help for their own unwanted same-sex attraction,” he said in a phone interview. Rejecting the ‘conversion therapy’ title in favor of a ‘Gender Affirming Process,’ he compared individuals seeking out JONAH services with those trying to lose weight through Weight Watchers. “I didn’t lose 50 lbs., what am I going to do, sue Weight Watchers?”
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s deputy legal director called JONAH’s practices “junk science,” which have been criticized or discredited by just about every major psychological and scientific organization. “The false and empty promise that a person can be cured of being gay harms not only individuals who undergo conversion therapy, but also perpetuates stigma against gay men and lesbians,” Christine Sun said.
The lawsuit was announced at the Hetrick-Martin Institute, a major advocacy group that serves youth who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
If the plaintiffs win in court, the Law Center plans to request reparation for fees paid to JONAH as well as for therapy that plaintiffs subsequently sought to undo the damage they feel JONAH inflicted. The ultimate goal of the suit, attorney Sun said, is to shut JONAH down.
Unlicensed and thus little regulated, nearly 70 conversion therapy practitioners currently work in the United States, the Law Center has found.
Conversion therapy has long been a controversial practice. In September, California’s Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation banning conversion therapy for those under 18, a ban that goes into effect Jan. 1. A similar ban was proposed in New Jersey last month by State Assemblyman Timothy Eustace, a Democrat.
“All major national mental health organizations have officially expressed concerns about therapies promoted to modify sexual orientation,” the American Psychological Association states on its website. “To date, there has been no scientifically adequate research to show that therapy aimed at changing sexual orientation (sometimes called reparative or conversion therapy) is safe or effective.”
Goldberg called the American Psychological Association’s stance ambiguous, arguing that there is a large amount of evidence and organizations supporting JONAH’s practices, including the American College of Pediatricians. “There’s lots of science out there. The problem is that there’s a propaganda campaign trying to create a chilling effect for people who are looking for alternatives,” he said.
Goldberg pointed to testimonials on JONAH’s website and the websites of other organizations that feature individuals who believe their sexual orientation was successfully changed. “We have a lot of very, very happy people who feel that we’ve saved their lives,” he said.
A registered nonprofit, according to the New Jersey Charitable Registration Directory, JONAH took in over $111,000 in direct public contributions and another $31,000 in ‘program service revenue’ in 2010, the last year for which results are available. According to Goldberg, JONAH therapists operate as independent contractors, with 15-20 worldwide.
On its website, JONAH says its mission is to educate “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.”
Formerly called Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality, JONAH claims that the conversion process to heterosexuality is a “journey towards wholesomeness.” The website laments “the current politically correct climate,” one that sees “homosexuality as merely an alternative life style.”
When asked about the website’s stance on heterosexuality as wholesomeness, Goldberg stated: “If someone is happy being gay, they’re more than entitled to be gay. But if someone is unhappy being gay, then they have to know they have options to change,” he said. “We coerce nobody.”
While promoting itself for Jewish men, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit claim JONAH offers its services to those of any religion. According to Goldberg, the therapy is based on science, while religion only comes into play for religious individuals.
While some of his fellow plaintiffs are Jewish, Ferguson was raised Mormon and currently lives in Salt Lake City.
“I come from a religious background,” Ferguson said, one that instilled in him a need “to live the dream,” by marrying a woman and fathering her children.
In desperation, Ferguson agreed to try therapy his pastor recommended. As a student in New York, he went to a reparative therapy weekend in 2008, where he encountered JONAH, he said. Thereafter he paid $100 a week for individual sessions and $60 a week for group sessions.
Ferguson and other plaintiffs describe therapy sessions that humiliated and traumatized them. “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,” he said. The violence played out in effigy beatings of pillows that represented their mothers. The suit also alleges that JONAH sought to blame mothers for their son’s homosexuality and encouraged nudity and physical contact between clients and JONAH ‘therapists.’
“In retrospect, these practices fall on a range between absurd and disturbing,” Ferguson said. “And yet I believed and trusted the message that I was given repeatedly.”