Gay rights advocates are celebrating two recent ruling from a New Jersey judge that could be pivotal in the fight to end the controversial practice of using therapy in an attempt to make a gay person straight.
The rulings are part of a first-of-its-kind consumer fraud case that will go before a jury in June. In 2012, four young men and two of their parents filed a lawsuit against Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, or JONAH, accusing the nonprofit conversion therapy center of violating New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act by claiming that its counseling services could cure clients of being gay.
In the lawsuit, the young men say they were emotionally scarred by the false promise of change and by the techniques employed in the therapy -- including being forced to strip naked in front of their counselor and to participate in disturbing role-playing exercises. In one instance, one of the plaintiffs was instructed to beat an effigy of his mother with a tennis racket, “as though killing her,” the lawsuit said.
Over the last week, Hudson County Superior Court Judge Peter Bariso Jr. issued two rulings that will hurt JONAH’s defense strategy while bolstering the work of those who are trying to ban the practice nationwide.
Last Thursday, Bariso ruled that five out of six of JONAH’s proposed expert witnesses will be barred from testifying at trial because their opinions are based on the belief that homosexuality is a mental disorder. (The one witness who is allowed to testify is also barred from discussing matters stemming from his belief that homosexuality is a mental disorder.) In the ruling, the judge cites the broad consensus of the mainstream medical and mental health communities that homosexuality is not a disorder, and compares that notion to the idea that “the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it.”
“The overwhelming weight of scientific authority concludes that homosexuality is not a disorder or abnormal,” the ruling reads. “The universal acceptance of that scientific conclusion -- save for outliers such as JONAH -- requires that any expert opinions to the contrary must be barred.”
On Tuesday, Bariso went one step further, ruling that conversion therapists who advertise their services by claiming that homosexuality is a mental disorder are violating the state’s consumer protection laws. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal advocacy group representing the plaintiffs, this ruling marks the first time that a court in the United States has found that homosexuality is not a disease or a disorder, and that therapists who claim otherwise are fraudulent.
"This ruling has reverberations beyond our case because it establishes that the chief advocates for conversion therapy are not fit to provide testimony in a court of law," Sam Wolfe, a lawyer with the SPLC who is working on the case, told The Huffington Post. "Legislators considering protections for minors against conversion therapy should read the court’s ruling excluding these key experts before crediting the testimony of any proponent of conversion therapy."
Charles S. LiMandri, who is the chief counsel for the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund and is representing JONAH, said that he was not happy with the rulings, nor did he agree with them. He said that he still expects the jury to rule in JONAH’s favor. LiMandri said that his clients, JONAH founder Arthur Goldberg and affiliated counselor Alan Downing, never claimed that homosexuality was a mental disorder. In fact, he said, the barring of his expert witnesses could be a “blessing in disguise.”
“We don’t want to talk about homosexuality as being disordered," he told The Huffington Post. "We don’t want anyone to come away with the idea that my clients are anti-gay because they’re not.” However, he added, those who struggle with homosexuality should have “the right to seek help” to try to change it.
“These are adults," he said. "No one is forcing them to do this. And if they are in the program and they say they want to leave early, they’re free to do so, no judging.”
LiMandri characterized the case as the work of gay activists who used JONAH’s former clients to further their political agenda. “The plaintiffs were very happy with the program, they all left on good terms saying they want to come back, and later they gay-identified and that was their choice,” he said. “And then, they fell into the hands of gay activists and got involved in this lawsuit.”
Benjamin Unger, one of the plaintiffs, remembers his time at JONAH very differently. He entered the center when he was 19 and stayed about a year.
“They kept telling me over and over again that I was going to change, but obviously, I didn’t change,” he said. “I left JONAH pretty much suicidal. I’d stay in bed all day, every day, and there were months when I didn’t leave my house at one point.”
Now, he's 27, and has just concluded five years of therapy -- "a way to repair the damage" from JONAH, he said, noting that his life finally feels back on track.
Unger said he is looking forward to the trial in July, but in the meantime, he said he was very happy to hear of the judge’s recent rulings. “One of the worst parts of the post-JONAH process has been the thoughts in my head, constant thoughts and voices saying, 'it is a disorder, you can change,'" he said. "And having an impartial judge say, 'no, it's not a disorder' is tremendously validating."
In California, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., laws have been passed in recent years banning licensed therapists from practicing conversion therapy on minors. Similar laws are proposed in a handful of others states, but some believe that the lawsuit against JONAH could ultimately prove more effective in ending the practice than state bans, since opponents believe that the majority of those who seek the treatment are adults, and the majority of those who offer it are not licensed.
“A consumer fraud law in other states, if NJ sets a precedent with this case, would allow adults to take licensed and unlicensed practitioners to court to seek redress for the harm done,” Jack Drescher, M.D., who is a member of the American Psychiatric Association and a leading voice against conversion therapy, said in an email to HuffPost.
Although a final ruling on the case is not expected until later this year, the suit could already prove to be a turning point in the fight to end the practice, Drescher said.
“For the past twenty years, conversion therapists and so-called ex-gays have appeared in courts and at legislative hearings to oppose civil rights for gay people using the discredited argument that homosexuality is a 'treatable disorder' and not an innate trait deserving of legal protections,” he said. “This judge's decision is the first, to my knowledge, that in plain language calls conversion therapy 'junk science' and its practitioners as being out of touch with the scientific mainstream.”