In a groundbreaking ruling, a judge has declared that conversion therapy — the practice of "curing" gay people through counseling and extreme lifestyle restrictions — constitutes consumer fraud because it falsely defines homosexuality as a disorder.
A New Jersey Supreme Court judge issued the ruling in a partial summary judgment in a lawsuit filed against Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), a conversion therapy provider that allegedly had clients beat effigies of their mothers, get naked in a circle with their counselor, and even wrestle two oranges — that supposedly represented testicles — away from another individual.
The company lured people into the treatment — which cost $100 per weekly individual session and another $60 per weekly group session — on the false claim that homosexuality was an illness, four former clients claim in the lawsuit.
Judge Peter Bariso said any company that labels being gay a disorder is committing fraud. He also refused to hear the testimony of conversion therapy "experts" wishing to defend JONAH, saying the field is junk science. The trial in the civil lawsuit is scheduled to begin June 1.
Currently, there are no laws that prohibit conversion therapy for adults in the United States. But Sam Wolfe, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the New Jersey case, told VICE News the judge's opinion paves the way for a crackdown on the destructive practice.
'This is a warning for conversion therapists everywhere.'
"This is a warning for conversion therapists everywhere," Wolfe, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center, told VICE News.
The judge's declaration does not necessarily mean JONAH will be found guilty of consumer fraud. JONAH's attorney, Charles LiMandri, told VICE News the Jewish organization had only considered homosexuality a disorder "according to God's plan," and that every group is entitled to its own religious freedom.
"We're not happy with the ruling but we don't think it's going to change the outcome of the case," LiMandri told VICE News. He also said that JONAH's clients paid a secular counselor who referred patients, not the organization itself. The attorney also claimed the counselor never used the term "disorder."
"The counselor is doing what's called life coaching for these people," LiMandri argued.
The American Psychiatric Association stopped calling homosexuality a disorder back in the 1970's, but only in the past 10 years have most leading medical associations formally denounced conversion therapy, Shannon Minter, the legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, told VICE News.
More recently, California, New Jersey and Washington, DC passed legislation prohibiting conversion therapy for minors. More than 20 states are now considering similar bills, Minter said.
"There is a particular urgency about protecting minors because they're not making their own decisions," Minter said, noting that the sessions often continue for years. "The average age people identify as LGBT has dropped precipitously. We now have people who are eight or nine identifying as that, and many parents are not prepared. This has created an excruciating level of vulnerability for young people."
The psychological damage can indeed be devastating. Former patient Mathew Shurka, who began weekly sessions at age 16 in Great Neck, New York, went years without speaking to his mother and sisters on the orders of his therapist. He told VICE News that he eventually reached such a grave point of depression that he felt suicidal.
At his father's suggestion, Shurka started the "treatment" and became obsessed with recovering his straightness, wholeheartedly following the advice of his counselor. He refused to exchange more than a few words with his mother after his therapist told him to limit any contact with women in order to reduce his propensity for feminine qualities.
"I was a police officer in my home because I really believed it was a life or death situation and that I had to give it my best," the 26-year-old Shurka said. "There were times my mom would try to speak to me and I would throw a tantrum, saying, 'Don't break what I'm trying to work for.'"
Shurka's therapists — he had four different ones during his five years of treatment — also encouraged him to watch ample straight pornography and to masturbate any time he had an erection, particularly if he was feeling attracted to another male.
"If I had a hard-on they'd tell me go find the nearest bathroom and release and ejaculate because they didn't want me to linger correlating my erection with a guy. They'd rather me go masturbate," he recalled. "As a teen I was masturbating all the time. I would have done it a lot already, but on top of that I was being guided."
As he grew older, he began sleeping with women to prove to himself he was straight, but he said he eventually developed such anxiety related to the forced sexual encounters that he could no longer get an erection. The therapist prescribed him Viagra.
Meanwhile, Shurka's attraction to other men only continued to grow. He fell in love in his late teens, but his therapist told his father to speak privately with Shurka's boyfriend and convince him to leave Shurka. Months later, a heartbroken Shurka learned of the ploy and stopped speaking to his dad and therapist.
But he returned again to treatment, this time with his first JONAH therapist, who told him he would never feel love if he didn't fall in love with a woman.
"I walked out of the therapy session and I didn't pay," recalled Shurka, who is now an activist fighting to end the practice.
Ryan Kendall, Shurka's friend and a former conversion therapy patient, also now campaigns to end the practice, which he told VICE News left him with "lasting wounds." When he was 14, Kendall's parents — conservative Christians in Colorado Springs — started sending him to a specialist. By age 16, he ran away from home.
"I spent the better part of 10 years suicidally depressed, and my education was derailed," Kendall said. Now 23, he recovered and recently graduated from Columbia University.
"This almost killed me," he said. "And after I got out of the immediate need to survive it became very clear to me this was happening to other people, and it needs to stop."
Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter: @merhoffman
Photo via Wikimedia Commons