Earlier this year, California banned ex-gay therapy within its state in a landmark decision that seemed to mark a sea change on the subject. Even Exodus International has backed off their claims that gay people can actually be “converted” or “cured.” And now one more nail is being driven into the coffin: The Southern Poverty Law Center is filing a lawsuit against an ex-gay therapy practice in New Jersey, citing fraud and deceptive practices.
The practice in question is JONAH, or Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (formerly the less appealing Jews Offering New Alternatives for Homosexuality). Four men who used JONAH’s services and, shockingly, are still not straight, are suing under the claim that JONAH’s claims to be able to make them straight were fraudulent, making this the first time a provider of ex-gay therapy has been sued for deception. Interestingly, JONAH’s founder, Arthur Goldberg, was convicted of fraud on Wall Street in 1989 and was disbarred.
Although JONAH isn’t Christian-affiliated, like some of the more commonly known ex-gay programs like Exodus International or Love in Action, the experiences of people within it sound familiar. Michael Ferguson, one of the plaintiffs, described bizarre exercises designed to engage with patients’ masculinity and their relationships with their parents (perceived roots of homosexuality) in order to cure it:
“I was part of a group that formed a human barricade and on the other side of that barricade were a pair of oranges meant to represent another man’s testicles. And there was a participant in the exercise who was supposed to break through that barricade and… squeeze them and drink the juice from them, and shove them down his pants. And all this was to symbolize that his homosexuality was related to his lack of masculinity,”
While it should have been clear to anyone that ex-gay therapy is unconscionable and damaging at the very least as soon as the APA removed homosexuality from the DSM and it became obvious that therapists were trying to “cure” something that isn’t a “disease,” new stories in the past few years have made this abundantly clear. Kirk Murphy’s tragic life and death are more than enough testament to how dangerous the thinking behind “gay prevention” and “gay cure” are.
But that isn’t what this lawsuit is relying on; while the fact that ex-gay therapy has been proven to be hurtful and destabilizing to the people it’s practiced on is what generally concerns the gay community, the SPLC’s lawsuit is working from a totally different premise: that ex-gay therapy just doesn’t work. This is just as easily provable: the American Psychological Association has explained very clearly that “there is no evidence to support the claims of some practitioners that sexual orientation can be changed through therapy.” In addition to professional word on the subject, it’s hard to ignore the overwhelming number of “ex-gay” leaders who have either left the community to live a normal (gay) life, or been caught in same-sex interactions. If there was any flimsy evidence at all supporting the practice, it was from a 2001 study conducted by Robert Spitzer; but this year, even Spitzer spoke out to retract his conclusions.
The Family Research Council, embittered after the SPLC designated them a hate group, has claimed this lawsuit is “as ridiculous as suing Weight Watchers because they promised you’d lose weight and you didn’t!” But the only way that would be true is if instead of advocating limited portions of food, Weight Watchers promised you would lose weight by breaking through a human barricade to drink from a pair of symbolic testicles. It’s a proposition that’s just plain illogical and impossible. The plaintiffs aren’t upset because they didn’t become straight; they’re upset because they now realize they can’t just become straight, and that they’ve been lied to about it.
At some point, the voluminous evidence suggesting that ex-gay therapy is not only ineffective and dangerous but impossible has to become the standard by which America assesses this practice, in the same way that “not being real” is our general collective approach to concepts like Santa and the Easter Bunny. And this lawsuit may be a large step towards that future. If the SPLC wins this lawsuit – and Christine Sun, SPLC’s deputy legal director, thinks they will – it will mean “a revocation of JONAH’s business license and a permanent injunction against all JONAH staff from further offering ex-gay therapy through a trial by jury.” But more than that, a court will have made a ruling based on the proven fact that ex-gay therapy doesn’t, and can’t, work – a hugely important legal precedent. It’s unfortunate that these four men had to go through what they did (Ferguson describes battles with anxiety and depression), but their struggles may pay off for the nation as a whole, and for anyone who supports living in a real world instead of a fantasy one.