It's really hard to gain ground for acceptance and equality when so many people still think there's a reverse switch on human sexual orientation. It's just too helpful to bigots to believe that gay people are somehow misguided, or they're just being stubborn in their refusal to pair off with an appropriately opposite sex partner. That they can be talked into a whole other identity like it's a timeshare in Boca.
That's why it's significant that earlier this fall, California became the first state to ban gay "conversion" therapy on minors, because, as Gov. Jerry Brown explained, they have "driven young people to depression and suicide… These practices have no basis in science or medicine, and they will now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery."
And that's why what's unfolding in New Jersey right now represents a similar blow against the absurd – and ridiculously lucrative -- industry of "healing" gay men and women. In a groundbreaking suit the Southern Poverty Law Center filed on their behalf Tuesday, four New Jersey men and two of their mothers charged a gay counseling group with deceptive practices under the Consumer Fraud Act. SPLC attorney Samuel Wolfe said Tuesday, "This is the first time that plaintiffs have sought to hold conversion therapists liable in a court of law."
The target of the suit is Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (known as JONAH), its co-founder Arthur Goldberg and self-proclaimed life coach Alan Downing. JONAH describes itself as "dedicated to educating the world-wide Jewish community about the social, cultural and emotional factors which lead to same-sex attractions … [and working] directly with those struggling with unwanted same-sex sexual attractions." But as one of the men involved in the suit told the New York Times this week, he went through months of sessions – at $100 a clip – before plunging into depression. "It becomes fraudulent, even cruel," Michael Ferguson said. "To say that if you really want to change you could — that’s an awful thing to tell somebody."
But it's not just the warped premise of the endeavor that's so problematic for these former clients. It's what happened when they went there. According to a Reuters report, "The plaintiffs charge that during therapy sessions they were sometimes ordered to remove all of their clothing; in other sessions they were told to beat effigies of their mothers with tennis rackets or were subjected to homosexual slurs … Another JONAH client was instructed to break through a human barricade to retrieve a pair of oranges, drink the juice from them and place them down his pants to symbolize the recovery of his testicles and, by extension, his heterosexuality."
Plaintiff Chaim Levin says he left the organization after a year of expensive weekend retreats and counseling when "Mr. Downing had him remove his clothes and touch himself, saying it would help him reconnect with his masculinity." He now describes his experience with JONAH as "degrading and humiliating," and in a press conference Tuesday said, "What I can tell you is that conversion therapy does not work. My family and I have wasted thousands of dollars and many hours on this scam."
Thought JONAH has issued no public response yet, it's safe to assume rabidly anti-gay groups aren't going to disappear without putting up a fight. Hilariously, in a tragic, pathetic way, two California therapists who say they've successfully converted gays -- and one of their former students -- last month sued California state officials, claiming the state ban on conversion therapy interferes with their rights. Their attorney Matt McReynolds told CNN, with a perfectly straight face, "We have not seen the state of California go this far before in trying to restrict speech."
And as long as there are prominent men who, bound by their religious beliefs, insist, like evangelist Jonathan Merritt, that "I don't identify as 'gay' because I believe there can be a difference between what one experiences and the life that God offers," there are going to be people who believe that homosexuality is something wrong that you do and not something acceptable that you are.
But things are changing. Earlier this year, the Pan American Health Organization condemned gay "cure" treatment, saying it represents "a serious threat to the health and well-being – even the lives – of affected people." The American Medical Association similarly "opposes the use of 'reparative' or 'conversion' therapy that is based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder or based upon the a priori assumption that the patient should change his/her homosexual orientation." And in May, Dr. Robert L. Spitzer recanted his own 2003 study on reparative therapy and announced, "I owe the gay community an apology."
Strides are being made, and at long last, they're coming swiftly. With effort and outspokenness and continued awareness, in time fewer women and men will find themselves paying for what Chaim Levin calls "terrible abuse." There's no cure for ignorance and stupidity, but at least we can keep alleviating the symptoms, and stop the suffering it inflicts.