Gay 'Conversion Therapy' Faces Test in Courts

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Gay "conversion therapy," which claims to help men overcome unwanted same-sex attractions but has been widely attacked as unscientific and harmful, is facing its first tests in the courtroom.

In New Jersey on Tuesday, four gay men who tried the therapy filed a civil suit against a prominent counseling group, charging it with deceptive practices under the state's Consumer Fraud Act.

The former clients said they were emotionally scarred by false promises of inner transformation and humiliating techniques that included stripping naked in front of the counselor and beating effigies of their mothers. They paid thousands of dollars in fees over time, they said, only to be told that the lack of change in their sexual feelings was their own fault.

In California, so-called ex-gay therapists have gone to court to argue for the other side. They are seeking to block a new state law, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September and celebrated as a milestone by advocates for gay rights, that bans conversion therapy for minors.

In Sacramento on Friday, a federal judge will hear the first of two legal challenges brought by conservative law groups claiming that the ban is an unconstitutional infringement on speech, religion and privacy.

Since the 1970s, when mainstream mental health associations stopped branding homosexuality as a disorder, a small network of renegade therapists, conservative religious leaders and self-identified "life coaches" has continued to argue that it is not inborn, but an aberration rooted in childhood trauma. Homosexuality is caused, these therapists say, by a stifling of normal masculine development, often by distant fathers and overbearing mothers or by early sexual abuse.

An industry of "reparative therapy" clinics and men's weekend retreats has drawn thousands of teenagers and adults who hope to rid themselves of homosexual urges, whether because of religious beliefs or family pressures.

But leading scientific and medical groups say that the theories of sexuality are unfounded and that there is no evidence that core sexual urges can be changed. They also warn that the therapy can, in the words of the American Psychiatric Association, cause "depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior" and "reinforce self-hatred already experienced by the patient."

Those conclusions will be at the center of the coming legal fights in the state and federal courts.

In the spotlight in New Jersey are a counseling center called Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, or Jonah; along with its co-founder, Arthur Goldberg; and an affiliated "life coach," Alan Downing.

Mr. Goldberg helped found Jonah in 1999, after he finished serving a prison sentence and probation for financial fraud he committed in the 1980s. The group describes itself as "dedicated to educating the worldwide Jewish community about the social, cultural and emotional factors that lead to same-sex attractions," and says it "works directly with those struggling with unwanted same-sex attractions," including non-Jews.

While many Orthodox Jews consider homosexual relations to be a violation of divine law, Mr. Goldberg's group has no official standing within Judaism, and many Jews accept homosexuality.

Neither Mr. Goldberg nor Mr. Downing is licensed as a therapist, so they are not subject to censure by professional associations.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a rights group based in Montgomery, Ala., is bringing the suit on behalf of four former patients and two of their mothers, who say they paid not only thousands of dollars for useless therapy for their sons but also for more counseling to undo the damage.

"The defendants peddled anti-gay pseudoscience, defaming gay people as loathsome and deranged," said Sam Wolfe, a lawyer with the group.

The suit, filed in Superior Court in Hudson County, calls for monetary compensation and for a shutdown of Jonah.

Mr. Goldberg and Mr. Downing did not respond to telephone and e-mail requests for comment.

One former patient in the suit, Michael Ferguson, 30, who is now a doctoral candidate in neuroscience at the University of Utah, sought help from Jonah in 2008. He tried to battle his homosexuality, he said, when he was a practicing Mormon who believed that only those in a heterosexual marriage could achieve eternal bliss.

Mr. Ferguson attended a retreat called Journey Into Manhood, where he shared what he called his "dark secret" with 40 other men. To be accepted among men who were also struggling with homosexuality was euphoric, he said, but that temporary high was not the promised first step toward becoming heterosexual.

After months of $100 therapy sessions with Mr. Downing at Jonah's offices in Jersey City, and after suffering from depression that led him to see a licensed psychotherapist elsewhere, Mr. Ferguson said he realized that he was not changing.

"It becomes fraudulent, even cruel," he said in an interview. "To say that if you really want to change you could -- that's an awful thing to tell somebody."

"I was encouraged to develop anger and rage toward my parents," he added. "The notion that your parents caused this is a horrible lie. They ask you to blame your mother for being loving and wonderful."

Another former patient in the suit, Chaim Levin, 23, grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn where, he said, being gay seemed unthinkable.

Referred to Jonah by a rabbi when he was 18, Mr. Levin began attending weekend retreats at $650 each. For a year and a half, he had weekly private sessions with Mr. Downing as well as weekly group sessions. He quit, he said, after Mr. Downing had him remove his clothes and touch himself, saying it would help him reconnect with his masculinity. Mr. Goldberg has defended Mr. Downing's methods as sometimes appropriate for men dealing with body image problems.

But Mr. Levin called the episode "degrading and humiliating."

Mr. Levin said that he was sexually abused by a relative between the ages of 6 and 10 and that Mr. Goldberg and Mr. Downing blamed the abuse for his homosexual attractions. "Saying the abuse made you gay is terrible," Mr. Levin said. "Once I accepted that I was gay, I was able to focus on the more serious problem of a history of sex abuse."

Many of the same issues surrounding conversion therapy will be argued before federal judges in California as therapists, some represented by Liberty Counsel and others by the Pacific Justice Institute, seek to prevent the state ban from taking effect in January.

Responding to the accusations of constitutional violations, a brief by the California attorney general's office cited the extensive professional literature that discredits conversion therapy and said the new law barred harmful conduct but not speech or religion. Since the ban applies only to licensed therapists, religious counselors will not be affected.

Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional expert and dean of the law school at the University of California, Irvine, said, "The law is clear that the government can prohibit health care practices that are harmful or ineffective."

If the court accepts the scientific evaluation put forward by the state, he said, "the government is likely to prevail in the end."

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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