Competing claims of success and failure of efforts to change the sexual orientations of gay men took center stage on June 16 and 17 in a Jersey City courtroom.
At issue is whether a local group called JONAH committed consumer fraud by promising to “convert” its religious Jewish clients who felt trapped between their same-sex desires and their religious belief that homosexuality is an “abomination.”
Using a tough New Jersey consumer fraud statute, three Jewish men, the mothers of two of them, and a Mormon, allege that JONAH had failed in its promises to “convert” them from gay to straight.
The lawsuit is the latest court battle over “conversion therapy,” a practice gay rights groups are trying to ban in more than a dozen states. NJ Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation in 2013 banning gay-to-straight conversion therapy for minors.
Like his formerly Orthodox Jewish co-plaintiffs, Michael Ferguson, a Mormon from Utah, said he was troubled by the religious implications of his sexual attractions to other men.
“If you are gay, you are celibate for the rest of your life” in the Mormon faith, he told the jury in testimony this week.
When he sought treatment from JONAH, its co-director Arthur Goldberg and an unlicensed life coach affiliated with the program named Alan Downing urged him to participate in weekend therapy sessions called Journey Into Manhood. The intense weekends are aimed at overcoming men's same-sex attractions.
During one weekend, Ferguson said he was especially troubled by an incident involving an Orthodox Jewish man who had been “bullied and picked on very severely during grade school, so we were going to recreate that.”
Ferguson said he and several other participants wrapped the man in a blanket, tied him up tightly with duct tape, then put him on the floor and rolled him onto his back. After shouting obscenities about his manhood, “we called him ‘Shrimpy’ to taunt him about his size. At that point he started to become very emotional and the leader told us ‘don't stop, keep going, keep going,’”
“How did this young man react?” asked plaintiffs’ attorney David Dinielli
“He started crying harder and harder. We were told ‘don't stop. This is good, he needs this. Don't stop. He needs to get in touch with his manhood.’ We kept shouting louder and louder at him.”
During one weekend session, Ferguson said he and a group leader at the marathons began meeting on weekends, and had sexual contact at the group leader’s instigation.
“We were sitting on my bed and we were talking about the Torah. I felt conflicted about having sex with a group leader,” Ferguson testified.
When he mentioned the relationship to Downing, “his immediate reaction was to jump to the defense of” the group leader, Ferguson told the jury. “After that, he became accusatory toward me and then he concluded by saying this behavior showed why I needed JONAH more than ever.”
On cross-examination, Ferguson told JONAH’s attorney, Charles LiMandri, that he used to date women as well as men and was rejected by a girlfriend after he told her he also felt same-sex attractions.
In 2013, Ferguson and Seth Anderson became the first same sex couple to be married in the state of Utah.
’I don’t want to be gay'
In day one of its defense, JONAH’s attorneys presented testimony from a man they consider a “success story.”
Jeffrey Bennion, 44, who had no direct connection with JONAH, described himself as “a happily married man with a good relationship with my wife and a healthy sex life.”
Bennion, a Mormon from a suburb of Salt Lake City, enrolled in a Journey Into Manhood weekend because of “my same-sex attraction in relation to my faith.”
Bennion said he took part in Journey Into Manhood weekends so he could “align my religious values and my commitment to my wife.” Bennion said as a result of hisparticpation, the “emotional and sexual parts [of his same-sex attractions] diminished to almost nothing.”
He said he “chose to participate” in group sessions involving total nudity.
“I realized sitting in that circle with these men with no pretense, in the raw, I felt accepted by them,” he said.
On cross-examination, plaintiffs’ attorney Lina Bensman asked Bennion if he still “experienced sexual attraction to men.”
“Yes,” he answered.
“In fact, you are predominantly sexually attracted to men?” she asked.
“I would say so,” he responded.
Although Bennion said on direct examination he had “a healthy sex life,” he said he suffers from occasional impotence and the inability to have orgasms.
Questioned again by JONAH’s attorney, Paul Jonna, he said his impotence occurs “very rarely” and that his relationship with his wife “isn’t all about sex…I just have to make an agreement with myself that it is about her. It is about us being together. It is about us sharing each other a sacred experience. It is about a connection.”
Testifying earlier for the defense was Thaddeus Heffner of Franklin, Tenn., who holds a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, and a license to practice in the state of Tennessee.
Heffner said he had received several referrals from JONAH to treat Jewish and non-Jewish men concerned about their same sex attractions.
One of his clients was plaintiff Sheldon Bruck, an Orthodox Jew who sought treatment when he was 17, one of some 70 percent of his clients “who present with unwanted homosexuality. “
Bruck had told him “’I don’t want to be gay.’ He said he wanted to be married.”
Heffner, a Mormon, said he discussed his religion with Bruck, ”but I didn’t want to proselytize him” even though Bruck said “he wanted to leave his religion,” and had spoken with his rabbi about his homosexual feelings.
He said at no time during five sessions did Bruck ever object to the treatment Heffner was providing
Contradicting Ferguson’s testimony about the taunting of the man they called “Shrimpy,” Heffner said he had never seen anyone unable to break loose from the duct tape they had been restrained with.
On cross-examination by plaintiffs’ attorney James Bromley, Heffner said he had treated adolescents as young as 13 for same-sex attractions.
Unlike treatments offered by coaches and counselors endorsed by JONAH, Heffner said he had never asked clients to disrobe.
“That would be unethical?” Bromley asked
“I’m not sure that would be unethical. I’ve read articles where some therapists have done that…but it opens up the potential for liability,” he said
“That’s why you don’t do it?”
In questioning by LiMandri, Heffner said, “I’ve known people who have done work over nudity but I’m not going to do that for the very reason we are here today.”
The jury is expected to begin deliberations by the fourth week in June.