By Albert Lin
In what many are calling a landmark decision, a New Jersey judge has ruled that people who, in advertising conversion-therapy services, describe homosexuality as a disorder that can be cured are committing consumer fraud. It is the first time a United States court has found that homosexuality is not a disorder.
The ruling by New Jersey Superior Court Judge Peter F. Barsio Jr. was on a motion in a suit filed against Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), a Jersey City organization that believes people can “journey out of homosexuality.” Barsio also ruled that touting success rates is fraudulent because “there is no factual basis for calculating such statistics.”
“This ruling is monumental and devastating to the conversion-therapy industry,” said David Dinielli, Deputy Legal Director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is a party to the suit. “For the first time, a court has ruled that it is fraudulent as a matter of law for conversion therapists to tell clients that they have a mental disorder that can be cured. This is the principal lie the conversion-therapy industry uses throughout the country to peddle its quackery to vulnerable clients. Gay people don’t need to be cured, and we are thrilled that the court has recognized this.”
This is the latest blow to the conversion-therapy movement. In 2012, California became the first state to ban conversion therapy for anyone under 18. That law was upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2013, New Jersey became the second state to pass a ban. Several other states are either working on or considering legislation to ban conversion therapy.
Moreover, in June 2013, Exodus International, the nation’s leading “ex-gay” organization, disbanded because of growing skepticism about the efficacy of conversion therapy. “Any good we could do in the future would be greatly overshadowed by the real stories of trauma and real stories of shame,” President Alan Chambers said. “So we decided, we can’t do anything but close this down.”
A Myth That Belongs in the ‘Dustbins of History’
Barsio’s order includes the following passages:
• “It is a misrepresentation in violation of the CFA [Consumer Fraud Act], in advertising or selling conversion-therapy services, to describe homosexuality, not as being a normal variation of human sexuality, but as being a mental illness, disease, disorder, or equivalent thereof.”
• “It is a misrepresentation in violation of the CFA, in advertising or selling conversion-therapy services, to include specific ‘success’ statistics when there is no factual basis for calculating such statistics, e.g., when client outcomes are not tracked and no records of client outcomes are maintained.”
“The judge’s determination today that it is a misrepresentation to tell consumers that homosexuality is a disorder is an important step forward in this case and also a victory for showing that conversion-therapy proponents lack any valid basis to continue to promote their abusive practices,” said James L. Bromley, a Partner at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP, one of the plaintiffs’ co-counsels. “The harmful myth that gay people are sick or damaged belongs in the dustbin of history.”
Charles LiMandri, President and Chief Counsel for the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, which is representing JONAH, told NJ.com that JONAH did not make money from conversion therapy and merely referred people to private therapists, nor did it advertise any sort of success rates.
He added that the therapists are not licensed and often are clergy, so they are not qualified to identify homosexuality as a disorder “in a scientific sense.”
“This is not a situation in which people are forced into something they don’t want to do. They are trying to deprive plaintiffs of freedom of choice. Americans want people to have the right to free self determination,” he said. “I believe when the jury hears all the facts, they will ultimately decide in favor of our clients.”
Barsio previously ruled that JONAH would not be able to call five expert witnesses because “the overwhelming weight of scientific authority concludes that homosexuality is not a disorder or abnormal … [so] expert opinions to the contrary must be barred.”
The plaintiffs in the case say that in therapy sessions they were coerced into behavior such as stripping naked and beating images of their mother. They were also called homophobic slurs as part of locker-room and gym simulations.
The case will go to trial this summer.