SPLC files groundbreaking lawsuit accusing conversion therapy organization of fraud
The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a first-of-its-kind lawsuit today accusing a New Jersey organization of consumer fraud for offering conversion therapy services – a dangerous and discredited practice that claims to convert people from gay to straight.
The lawsuit, filed in the Superior Court of New Jersey, charges that Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), its founder, Arthur Goldberg, and counselor Alan Downing violated New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act by providing conversion therapy claiming to cure clients of being gay.
It is the first time a conversion therapy provider has been sued for fraudulent business practices. The lawsuit describes how the plaintiffs – four young men and two of their parents – were lured into JONAH’s services through deceptive practices.
“JONAH profits off of shameful and dangerous attempts to fix something that isn’t broken,” said Christine P. Sun, deputy legal director for the SPLC. “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.”
The lawsuit describes how the underlying premise of conversion therapy – that a person can “convert” to heterosexuality – has no basis in scientific fact. Conversion therapy has been discredited or highly criticized by all major American medical, psychiatric, psychological and professional counseling organizations. It is the longstanding consensus of the behavioral and social sciences that homosexuality is a normal and positive variation of human sexual orientation.
Customers of JONAH’s services typically pay a minimum of $100 for weekly individual counseling sessions and another $60 for group therapy sessions. The lawsuit describes sessions that involved clients undressing in front of a mirror and even a group session where young men were instructed to remove their clothing and stand naked in a circle with the counselor, Downing, who was also undressed. Another session involved a subject attempting to wrest away two oranges, which were used to represent testicles, from another individual.
“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.”
Downing and other counselors at JONAH also use techniques that leave clients alienated from their families. These techniques encourage clients to blame their parents for being gay. Clients even participate in violent role play exercises where they beat effigies of their mothers.
“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.”
JONAH, formerly known as Jews Offering New Alternatives for Homosexuality, was founded by Goldberg, a former Wall Street executive and attorney. Before founding JONAH, Goldberg was convicted of three counts of mail fraud and one count of conspiracy to defraud the federal government. He was ultimately disbarred from being an attorney.
“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 people recover from conversion therapy’s devastating 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.”
Conversion therapy also promotes the idea that gay men and lesbians choose their sexual orientation, a position that encourages a climate of anti-gay bigotry.
The American Psychological Association has expressed concern that the positions espoused by some of the leading advocates of conversion therapy, such as the National Association for Research Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), “create an environment in which prejudice and discrimination can flourish.” JONAH’s practices include so-called scientific methods invented by NARTH co-founder Joseph Nicolosi.
The law firms of Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton LLP and Lite DePalma Greenberg LLC are serving as the SPLC’s co-counsel on the case. The SPLC has previously filed complaints against conversion therapists with the American Psychiatric Association and the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.
More information about the SPLC’s campaign to end conversion therapy, including an interactive map showing the location of therapists who advertise conversion therapy, can be found here.