JERSEY CITY, New Jersey -- For years, Benjamin Unger had lived uneasily with the knowledge that he liked other guys, but in 2007, at 19 years old, the expectations of adulthood were looming. For religious Orthodox Jews in Unger’s community, this meant two things: marriage to a woman, and having children. So Unger called JONAH.
JONAH, or Jews Offering New Alternatives For Healing, is a counseling center that offers a controversial service. Through a variety of “scientific” techniques referred to by the vaguely Orwellian name of “Psycho-Educational Model for Healing Homosexuality,” JONAH claims to help gay men become straight. For the next several weeks, a jury in New Jersey, where JONAH is based, will hear -- at times in excruciating detail -- about the practices that constitute this ostensible treatment. “Many of these processes involve nudity,” David Dinielli, a lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center who is representing the plaintiffs, said at the outset of the trial. “Some involve cuddling between older counselors and young men, and some involve various props such as oranges, baby powder, handcuffs and duct tape.”
No, this is not a gay spin-off of Fifty Shades of Grey. Welcome to the bizarro world of conversion therapy -- and to a case that is shaping up to be its death knell.
The case, Ferguson v. JONAH, stems from a 2012 lawsuit filed by Unger, three other young men and two of their mothers. The plaintiffs have accused JONAH of fraudulently claiming its services could "cure" a person's sexual orientation. Although the mainstream mental health establishment firmly supports the plaintiffs’ view that sexuality can’t be changed through therapy, the defense argues that the plaintiffs left too soon to achieve the promised results. Unger was told his treatment would take two to four years. After a year, more depressed and anxious than when he started, and just as attracted to men, he dropped out. Charles LiMandri, the defense attorney, compared him and the other plaintiffs to unsuccessful dieters who drop out of Weight Watchers.
“They lose five pounds and then they are going to do, what, sue Weight Watchers?” he said at the outset of the trial. Continuing in the voice of this failed dieter, LiMandri, president and chief counsel of the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, a legal advocacy group whose stated mission is to “defend religious freedom,” chalked up the lawsuit to bitterness. "Hey, I didn't lose all the weight I wanted because I left early! And, by the way, I want to stop everybody else from joining 'cause I don't like all these skinny people making me feel bad about myself! So I'm going to stop this program so nobody can go!”
For the first two days of the trial, Unger sat in the witness box and recounted the details of his experience. He recalled beating an effigy of his mother with a tennis racquet until his hands were bleeding. He recalled his therapist, Alan Downing, a named defendant in the suit, asking him to undress during a therapy session. (Unger said he took his shirt off, but fled when Downing asked him to remove his pants.) And he recalled Downing asking him in detail about his erections. According to Unger, Downing asserted that Unger’s erections were caused not by an ongoing attraction to men but by a sort of unconscious memory of past attractions. Eliciting an audible gasp from the courtroom, Unger testified that Downing likened these erections to what happens when “your nephew sits on your lap.”
On the second day of the trial, Arthur Goldberg, the man who co-founded JONAH, took the stand. He began JONAH in 1998 because, he testified, his son was “struggling with homosexuality.” The biggest conversion therapy center in the country was in California and run by a Catholic psychologist named Joseph Nicolosi. Goldberg, an Orthodox Jew, wanted to start a center that catered to Jews, and patterned his program after Nicolosi’s. Both programs are based on the discredited idea that homosexuality is an illness caused by childhood trauma, and that same-sex attraction will diminish once those childhood wounds are healed.
There is scant legitimate scientific research on whether conversion therapy ever works. According to the American Psychological Association, however, the risks appear to outweigh the benefits. Dr. Judith M. Glassgold, chair of APA's task force, addressed the lack of "methodologically sound studies" in a statement on the group's findings in 2009. "Psychologists cannot predict the impact of these treatments and need to be very cautious, given that some qualitative research suggests the potential for harm," she warned. Potential harms, according to the APA, include depression, anxiety and even suicide.
Despite the lack of rigorous scientific research, Goldberg told each of the plaintiffs that he had helped “hundreds” of men go from gay to straight. He has already admitted on the stand that JONAH keeps no records, and that it does not systematically follow up with clients to see whether they have, in fact, changed. “The data I have is the data that people come and tell me what they have, you know, the wedding announcements we get, the birth announcements we get. I mean one of the happiest days is when my wife and I go to a lot of the weddings of our guys.”
In court, Goldberg and LiMandri attempted to position Goldberg as a progressive civil rights activist who came to the work out of a lifelong desire to help “people who are in pain,” as Goldberg put it. “I kind of assumed, as a New York Jewish liberal so to speak, that they were born that way and then when I started reading material, I realized all of this comes about from various emotional wounds,” Goldberg testified.
But the plaintiffs’ attorney have painted a different picture -- that of a lifelong con artist. About a decade before Goldberg became the co-director of JONAH, he was charged with 52 counts of bribery, fraud and conspiracy by a federal grand jury for his role orchestrating a massive municipal-bond fraud scheme. He was ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and sentenced to 18 months in federal prison. On the stand he admitted that he has, at various times, described himself as a doctor, a rabbi and a professional counselor, even though the only degree he has is a law degree, and he has been disbarred.
But whether Goldberg is found to be a con artist is almost besides the point. As LiMandri put it in his Weight Watchers comparison, the larger question for both sides is whether conversion therapy will continue to exist. The treatment, strange and ineffective as it may be, has served a critical role for opponents of gay rights who use it to argue in courts, legislatures and in the media, as presidential candidate Ben Carson did in March, that gay people do not deserve legal protections or marriage because because being gay is a “choice.”
Regardless of how the lawsuit is decided, the future of conversion therapy is looking grim. Four states have already banned licensed therapists from offering the service to minors, and many more are considering similar laws. Last month, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) introduced legislation known as the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act, which is based in part on the lawsuit against JONAH. If passed, the law would classify conversion therapy as a fraudulent practice that would be illegal under the Federal Trade Commission Act. The law would also ban all advertising that claims the therapy can successfully change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Before the trial even began, the judge for the case, Peter Bariso Jr. of the Hudson County Superior Court, issued a damning ruling: Five out of six of JONAH’s proposed expert witnesses are barred from testifying at the trial because their opinions are based on the belief that homosexuality is a mental disorder. “The theory that homosexuality is a disorder,” Bariso wrote, “is not novel but -- like the notion that the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it -- instead is outdated and refuted.”
But without that theory, what's left? As Mathew Shurka, a former client of JONAH who spent five years attempting to change his sexuality put it, "the industry is just gone."
"There’s no more excuse or reason," he continued. "Its just, you are gay and you have to now face that for the first time."