A New Jersey judge last month handed down a landmark decision that marked the first time a U.S. court found that homosexuality is not a disease or disorder.
A jury in New Jersey last summer reached a unanimous verdict finding that a firm that promised to convert young gay men into heterosexuals through “conversion therapy” violated New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act. The case was a first-of-its-kind lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on behalf of four men and two of their mothers who alleged that the firm Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, known as JONAH, engaged in fraud, made false claims and was emotionally abusive.
Last month, in granting a permanent injunction against JONAH, New Jersey Superior Court Judge Peter F. Bariso Jr. ruled that the premise of conversion therapy that homosexuality is a disorder and can be cured has been scientifically discredited, “like the notion that the Earth is flat and the sun revolves around it.”
Bariso ordered Jersey City-based JONAH to cease all operations by Feb. 1 and barred it from “engaging, whether directly or through referrals, in any therapy, counseling, treatment or activity that has the goal of changing, affecting or influencing sexual orientation, ‘same sex attraction’ or ‘gender wholeness.'”
David Dinielli, SPLC deputy legal director and an attorney for the men, said, “JONAH’s conversion therapy program harmed countless LGBT people and their families.”
“The practice of conversion therapy, at base, constitutes fraud,” Dinielli said. “It is premised on the lie that homosexuality is a disease or disorder. This case proved it to be a lie.”
Dinielli added: “JONAH peddled discredited, pseudo-scientific treatments to people who weren’t sick, who weren’t broken, and who needed nothing but love and support. The end of JONAH signals that conversion therapy, however packaged, is fraudulent plain and simple.Other conversion therapy providers would be well-advised to examine what happened to JONAH, and to abandon their foolish efforts to make gay people straight.”
It has been 46 years since the American Psychiatric Association ceased recognizing homosexuality as a mental disorder.
JONAH was founded in 1999 by Arthur Goldberg and his wife, along with another New Jersey Jewish couple who had discovered their sons were homosexual. Drawing their beliefs from a Jewish text known as the Talmud, which conceptualizes homosexuality as being led astray and therefore having the ability to return, the non-profit used Richard Cohen as a blueprint for their treatment.
Cohen, an unlicensed counselor who promotes conversion therapy through psychotherapy, coaching, teleconferencing classes and healing seminars, used disturbing techniques to assist patients in overcoming their homosexual urges. Methods included undressing in front of other men, beating a symbol of one’s mother and reenacting traumatic childhood experiences.
Benjy Unger, one of the plaintiffs, gave a first-hand account of his therapy. Unger said he was forced by his therapist, Alan Downing, to cut off all communication with his mother for the duration of his conversion therapy because, according to Downing, they have too close of a relationship. Among other tactics Unger was exposed to were being asked by Downing, who has no mental health license or psychology degree, to strip naked, hold men in darkened rooms and frolic naked through a field. Methods such as these are common in gay conversion therapy.
Arthur Goldberg’s criminal history of fraud did not start with JONAH. A decade prior, the JONAH founder pleaded guilty to multiple felonies, spanning from federal mail fraud to conspiracy counts on a fake bond-writing scheme. Goldberg was sentenced to 18 months in state prison, on top of a $100,000 fine and a five-year probation sentence following the prison term.The fine was paid in November 1999, the year Goldberg discovered his son was gay. The family found there were no services that centered around the Jewish religion, so the Goldbergs took it upon themselves to establish the first Jewish gay conversion therapy organization.
The topic of conversion therapy has sparked national outrage. Three states banned conversion therapists from working with minors following a transgender teen that committed suicide after participating in this practice. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed a law in 2013 banning licensed therapists from practicing conversion therapy in New Jersey. However, the ban did not apply to JONAH since its employees were not licensed therapists.
During the trial against JONAH, many former clients crystalized the destruction the organization has caused. One plaintiff, Michael Ferguson, stated in court, “Gay conversion therapy stole years of my life, and nearly stole my life; my hope is that others can be spared the unneeded harm that comes from the lies the defendants and those like them spread.”