JERSEY CITY, N.J. — When Arthur Goldberg’s son confided that he was struggling with same-sex attraction, the Goldbergs reached out for help. But no Jewish organization existed to give them authentic information on this complex, sensitive subject.
So, in 1999, Arthur and his wife and another couple founded JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing) to help Jews and others struggling with unwanted same-sex attractions.
“The key word is ‘unwanted,’” said Goldberg, who added that his nonprofit organization’s referrals to therapists, books and other resources to help people change their sexual orientation are “not coercive in any shape, manner or form.”
Now, however, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) — which has adopted same-sex desire as a new “civil right” — is suing the JONAH ministry and its founders for “consumer fraud.”
The SPLC lawyers claim their clients were harmed by “sex-orientation change efforts,” also called “reparative therapy,” practiced by psychologists and other counselors to whom Goldberg refers people who come to him for help.
The SPLC characterizes this type of therapy as “a dangerous and discredited practice that claims to convert people from gay to straight.”
“JONAH profits off of shameful and dangerous attempts to fix something that isn’t broken,” SPLC deputy legal director Christine Sun declared in a press release.
According to JONAH defense attorney Charles LiMandri of the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, the SPLC’s goal is to shut the Jewish ministry down.
If it succeeds, Courage — the Catholic apostolate that ministers to persons with same-sex attraction — may be next in the crosshairs, LiMandri said.
In what some describe as a case of David vs. Goliath, the SPLC has more than $200 million in assets, which the center says comes primarily through donor contributions. LiMandri, a Catholic, is arguing the JONAH case pro bono.
Noting that the SPLC website targets about 70 organizations (including Courage), LiMandri predicted, “If the SPLC wins this case, they’re going to go state by state and shut them all down.”
An American Psychological Association task force report in 2009 concluded that, contrary to some reparative therapists’ claims, “efforts to change sexual orientation are unlikely to be successful and involve some risk of harm.”
Despite this seemingly alarming conclusion, page 83 of the report also stated there are “no scientifically rigorous studies” of recent sexual-orientation change efforts (SOCE) “to make a definitive statement” about whether this therapy “is safe or harmful and for whom.”
This “lack of evidence” — in effect, an empty hole in the scientific research — compounded by anecdotal reports from angry clients claiming to have been hurt by the treatment is now being cited by the SPLC and others as proof reparative therapy is “consumer fraud” that should be outlawed.
An intensely polarized debate has developed primarily around the question, “Does reparative therapy work or doesn’t it?”
The SPLC lawsuit states: “The essential premise of conversion therapy — that it will ‘convert’ a gay person to a straight person — has no basis in scientific fact.”
But psychologist Nicholas Cummings, a past president of the American Psychological Association and lifelong champion of homosexual rights, said the real question people should be asking is not, “Does it work?” but, rather, “Which individuals will most likely benefit from this therapy and which won’t?”
In an affidavit in support of JONAH’s motion before the New Jersey Superior Court to dismiss the SPLC lawsuit, Cummings observed that “only a small minority of patients” want to change their sexual orientation. It is “difficult therapy,” and change is “not easily accomplished,” but it can be done. In fact, he stated, the rate of success is high “if patients are highly motivated and clinically diagnosed as having a high probability of success” before the therapy begins.
As chief psychologist for the Kaiser Permanente health system from 1959 to 1979, Cummings said, “I personally saw over 2,000 patients with same-sex attraction, and my staff saw another 16,000.”
Noting that individuals who identify as homosexual “fall along a very broad spectrum of personalities,” Cummings stated, “contending that all same-sex attraction is an unchangeable or immutable characteristic like race is a distortion of reality.”
In an interview with the Register, Cummings expressed dismay that the American Psychological Association would allow its task force's statements to be misused by the SPLC and others as “proof” the therapy should be outlawed.
“The APA hasn’t flatly come out and said that reparative therapy should be illegal,” Cummings said. “But it is certainly supporting of all those who say that.”
Cummings said that since he was APA president in 1979-80, the organization has been “totally hijacked” by the homosexual/lesbian political lobby. “It’s incredible.”
Having personally seen “hundreds of people change,” Cummings said the view that all homosexuality is “hardwired” and same-sex attraction can never be changed is simply “not supported by scientific evidence.”
Since there is “still no consensus in the scientific community, general population or faith communities about whether or not homosexuality is fixed or changeable,” LiMandri said, “basically, the New Jersey Superior Court shouldn’t even be weighing in on this issue.”
The JONAH case in New Jersey comes on the heels of a highly controversial California law, S.B. 1172, passed last year, which prohibits the use of “reparative therapy” with any client under age 18.
In December, two federal district judges made contradictory rulings about the California law’s constitutionality. One temporarily blocked the ban from going into effect. The other upheld the law. A three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is now deciding whether to let the law take effect.
New Jersey lawmakers are considering a bill that provides prohibitions that are similar to the California statute.
The four male plaintiffs in the JONAH case say reparative therapy offered false promises, failing to change their desires and making them feel worse. Plaintiff Benjamin Unger charges that, after one year of therapy at the age of 19, he was “deeply depressed” and unable to work for about a year. In Unger’s experience, the therapy itself was “psychological abuse.”
Another plaintiff in the JONAH case, Sheldon Bruck, said five weeks of reparative therapy when he was 17 caused him to experience depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
But Cummings dismissed the notion that simply because some patients claim to have been harmed by reparative therapy the treatment should be outlawed.
“Many medical treatments — open heart surgery, for example — work for one person but not for another,” Cummings said. “But that doesn’t mean we outlaw all open-heart surgery.”
Christopher Doyle, 32, is one for whom the therapy worked. After being sexually molested at age 8 by a relative outside his immediate family, Doyle almost immediately began “living the gay lifestyle” and did so for the next 15 years.
After a combination of reparative therapy and prayer healed him from the trauma of childhood sexual abuse, he said, “my sexuality completely changed. I realized, ‘Hey, there’s something more to this story than what we hear in the news. Maybe people aren’t born this way.’”
Doyle has been happily married to a woman for seven years, has three children and runs his own reparative-therapy practice in the Washington area.
Wayne Besen, executive director of the homosexual-activist organization Truth Wins Out, said that, at its very core, reparative therapy “is a lie, and it’s the lie that you can change, that there’s a track record of change.”
But Andrew S., 35, a Hollywood actor who has changed, challenged the assertion that people with unwanted same-sex attraction cannot expect to change their orientation.
Requesting that his real name not be used, Andrew said reparative therapy has helped him heal from the trauma of childhood sexual abuse, break free from the self-destructive “gay lifestyle” and begin to understand what true love means.
He’s also now sexually attracted to women, although he’s still not into eyeing every attractive woman who walks by, as he’s observed many men do.
“Every aspect about this therapy is about building a person’s self-image, letting go of shame and bringing healing into your life,” said Andrew, a Catholic who now attends daily Mass whenever his work schedule permits.
“The media often seem to think this therapy is about suppressing your sexuality,” Andrew added. “But, in fact, I was more suppressed when I was living the gay lifestyle, because I was suppressing who I really was. Now I feel liberated.”
Register correspondent Sue Ellen Browder writes from Ukiah, California.