Sides clash in ‘conversion therapy’ trial

Sides clash in ‘conversion therapy’ trial

Two highly different views of homosexuality are being heard in Hudson County Superior Court in Jersey City, where four gay men and two of their mothers are suing a local Orthodox-based group that claims to help individuals conquer their homosexual desires.

The plaintiffs, three former Orthodox Jews and one Mormon, alleged that promises made by JONAH leaders to undo their same-sex attractions failed, causing them misery and embarrassment. 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. Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation in 2013 banning gay-to-straight conversion therapy for minors. 

The plaintiffs are suing under a tough New Jersey statute against consumer fraud. They argue that treatment methods used by JONAH’s counselors were not only ineffective but painful, humiliating, and torturous.

The group, formerly called Jews Offering New Alternatives for Homosexuality, marketed its services to young Orthodox men.

One plaintiff, a former Lubavitcher hasid named Chaim Levin, told the jury that at a weekend therapy session, JONAH participants “reenacted a scene from my childhood abuse,” in which an older cousin demanded oral sex. Levin said rabbis and representatives of JONAH told him that the abuse had caused him to become gay.

On June 11, the former president of the American Psychiatric Association testified that “generally, it is unethical to engage in gay conversion and reparative therapies because of the potential of harm to patients.” 

“Any treatment that is based on the assumption that homosexuality is a mental disorder or is based on the assumption that the patient should change his or her sexual orientation is by its nature unethical,” said Dr. Carol Bernstein. 

She said traumatic reenactments, along with the use of nudity, blindfolding, and shouting obscenities, could harm patients “and would be grounds for expulsion” from the APA.

The next day, an unlicensed life coach who said he treated hundreds of Orthodox Jewish clients of JONAH defended the treatment methods he used, despite Bernstein’s branding them as “unethical.”

“Why does the therapy include being naked with other men?” plaintiffs’ attorney James Bromley asked Alan Downing.

Downing, a Mormon with a bachelor’s degree in musical theater, replied, “to overcome bodily shame.”

Downing said the blindfolding and shouting of obscenities were helpful tools to “trigger old memories and experiences” connected with clients’ same-sex attractions.

Elaine Berk, a cofounder of JONAH and supervisor of its e-mail and website components, told the jury last Friday that she had a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Rutgers University but had no formal training in psychology, biology, neurology, or genetics, although she has written extensively about the science of homosexuality.

She said she founded JONAH after her son, “who was about 16 or 17 at the time, started changing his habits, his dress, and who his friends were.” She said it made her “hysterical most of the time.”

Convinced that her son was “not born gay,” Berk located secular and Christian but no Jewish organizations that proffered help in changing men’s same-sex attractions.

She said a Protestant minister offered to help “Judaicize” his Christian theology so it would be relevant to Jews who sought such treatment.

Berk acknowledged using the term “gay deathstyle,” and said, “The statistics prove that homosexuality is a very dangerous lifestyle.”

She likened same-sex attractions to “other disorders and/or addictions and/or problems of obesity, alcoholism, gambling, etc.,” adding that “the Torah does not believe that anyone is born gay. It believes we are all born males and females who grow up into men and women, and anybody can feel a same-sex attraction, but you are prohibited from acting on it.”

As of press time, the plaintiffs planned to wrap up their case with testimony from Michael Ferguson, a Mormon who also alleges mistreatment at the hands of JONAH and its affiliated counselors.

The defense is then expected to call witnesses, including leaders of marathon weekend therapy sessions aimed at helping men overcome their same-sex attractions.

In addition, a JONAH-connected counselor who worked with plaintiff Sheldon Bruck and the wife of a so-called “ex-gay” man are scheduled to testify.

Leading the defense is Charles LiMandri, president and chief counsel of the California-based Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, a public interest group that takes cases consistent with its “family values” philosophy. The FCDF regards the JONAH case as one of religious liberty. “Individuals with same-sex attraction have a right to seek counseling to live their lives as they choose. It is a matter of self-determination,” LiMandri told an interviewer earlier this year.

The defense is planning to introduce live and video testimony from JONAH clients whom they describe as “success stories,” who have overcome their homosexual attractions.

The trial is expected to continue for another week. 

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