Amy Sussman / AP Images for Southern Poverty Law Center
From left, Michael Ferguson, Chaim Lavin, Ben Unger and Sheldon Bruck are suing a New Jersey organization for consumer fraud for offering "gay conversion" therapy services.
Four young men who say they underwent therapy that sought to “convert” them from gay to straight are suing a New Jersey provider known as JONAH, alleging fraud and accusing it of using dangerous sham tactics to try to “fix something that isn’t broken.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center on Tuesday filed the lawsuit in Superior Court of New Jersey on behalf of the men and two of their parents against Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), its founder, Arthur Goldberg, and counselor Alan Downing.
The lawsuit alleges the defendants violated New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act by providing “conversion therapy” that falsely claims to “cure” gay clients.
It is the first time a “conversion therapy” provider has been sued for fraudulent business practices, according to the SPLC, a Montgomery, Ala.-based civil rights organization that fights hate and bigotry.
Suing are Michael Ferguson, 30, of Salt Lake City; Benjamin Unger, 25, of Brooklyn, N.Y.; Chaim Levin, 23, of Brooklyn, N.Y.; and Sheldon Bruck, 20, of New York City, along with Levin’s mother, Bella Levin, and Bruck’s mother, Jo Bruck.
The lawsuit says clients of JONAH’s services typically paid a minimum of $100 for weekly individual counseling sessions and another $60 for group therapy sessions.
Ferguson was in his 20s and Unger, Levin and Bruck were in their late teens when they underwent the therapy, according to the lawsuit.
The four men say they were lured into JONAH’s services through deceptive practices and then subjected to humiliating and emotionally damaging therapy techniques, including group sessions in which they were instructed to stand naked in a circle with their counselor, who was also undressed.
“JONAH profits off of shameful and dangerous attempts to fix something that isn’t broken,” Christine P. Sun, deputy legal director for the SPLC, said in a statement. “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.”
JONAH, based in Jersey City, did not respond to telephone messages and emails from NBC News for comment.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages as well as revocation of JONAH’s business license and an order to stop its employees and associates from continuing reparative therapy practices.
In the lawsuit, Ferguson said he participated in one session in which clients took turns trying break past a human chain to wrest away two oranges, which were used to represent testicles, from another individual – all the while being taunted with statements such as “you’re such a fag, homo, queer boy.”
“They play blindly with deep emotions and create an immense amount of self-doubt for the client,” Ferguson was quoted as saying in a press release from the SPLC. “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.”
Unger said his counselor advised him to spend more time at the gym as well as to get naked with his father at bathhouses to “get in touch with his masculinity.”
“These counselors are skilled at manipulating you into believing just about anything,” said Unger. “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.”
In another exercise, according to the lawsuit, clients were blindfolded in sporting scenes as counselors and others dribbled basketballs and hurled anti-gay slurs at them.
JONAH, formerly known as Jews Offering New Alternatives for Homosexuality, was founded by Goldberg, a former Wall Street executive and attorney.
The organization describes itself as “a non-profit international organization dedicated to educating the worldwide Jewish community about the social, cultural and emotional factors which lead to same-sex attractions.”
JONAH’s mission statement adds:
"Our Rabbinical sages explain that because mankind has been endowed by our Creator with a free will, everyone has the capacity to change. Furthermore, the Rabbis emphasize that parents, teachers and counselors have a special responsibility to educate, nurture, and provide an opportunity for those struggling with unwanted same-sex attractions to journey out of homosexuality.
Through psychological and spiritual counseling, peer support, and self-empowerment, JONAH seeks to reunify families, to heal the wounds surrounding homosexuality, and to provide hope."
The SPLC says the essential premise of conversion therapy, sometimes also called “reparative” or “ex-gay” therapy – that it will “convert” a gay person into a straight person – has no basis in scientific fact. Such therapy has long been discredited by mainstream mental health and medical professional organizations, including the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association, according to the law center.
Two months ago, California became the first state in the nation to ban gay conversion therapy for minors when Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1172. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, called gay cure therapy "quackery" and said parents were never informed of its potentially dangerous aftereffects.
Also, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier , D-Calif., said that on Wednesday in the U.S. House, she plans to introduce a resolution, called Stop Harming Our Kids, aimed at stopping reparative therapy practices on minors.
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