Over the past week, a trial has been underway in New Jersey. Several former clients of the Jewish ex-gay organization JONAH filed suit, alleging consumer fraud for being sold the idea that they could change their sexual orientation. The trial has not gotten much mainstream press, but some conservatives are trying to spin the proceedings to smear the young men and defend the harmful treatment they received.
For example, Christopher Doyle, an ex-gay therapist and head of the “ex-gay pride” outlet Voice of the Voiceless, called the case the “trial of the century.” Doyle had sought to testify as an expert in defense of ex-gay therapy, but the judge disallowed such testimony, claiming it would be no more scientific than expertise on why the earth is flat. The ex-gay therapist, unsurprisingly, insists otherwise — that there is “no compelling scientific evidence that suggests gay-affirmative therapy is more effective than efforts to resolve unwanted homosexual feelings.” This ignores multiple studies showing that conversion therapy is harmful or just plain ineffective, and the fact that mainstream medical organizations recommend affirming a person’s sexuality as a best practice for professional psychologists.
What these JONAH clients experienced is at the heart of the case. They argue that these treatments were violating — that they were unfounded therapeutic practices. Doyle proceeded to defend one of these questionable methods, an exercise in which JONAH therapist Alan Downing asked plaintiff Benjamin Unger to begin stripping while staring at himself in front of a mirror. Testifying last week, Unger described how Downing stood behind him, close enough that he could feel his breathing on his neck, and put his hand on his shoulder. After taking off his shirt and undershirt, Unger explained, “Then I was told to look at my body, feel my masculinity and then I was told to go a step further which is to take my pants off.” Unger refused to take that step and said he “felt violated” by the experience.
Unger testified that he didn’t even have any body shame issues, but Doyle went so far as to characterize him as an exhibitionist. He defended the fact that after the suit was filed, Downing searched Unger’s Facebook page for pictures of him shirtless — taken years after he left JONAH’s therapy — which somehow prove, as Doyle puts it, that he “had no problem baring his half-naked body.” He’s essentially juxtaposing being in public with friends with being in a private, vulnerable setting with a much older ex-gay counselor who had admitted to Unger he still had same-sex attractions. “While this is not a mainstream technique used by licensed counselors working with clients who experience unwanted SSA,” Doyle admitted, “these practices have been used for decades in experiential healing weekends helping gay men feel better about their bodies” — a problem Unger didn’t even have.
Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), has also been tracking the trial for Breitbart.com. After Unger testified last week, Ruse emphasized the perspective of JONAH’s lawyer, Charles LiMandri of the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, who called Unger a liar. At the heart of this accusation is the notion that when clients like Unger left the treatment, they were originally satisfied — or convinced that they were satisfied — by the steps they’d taken to try to change their sexual orientation. The fact that they eventually realized that they weren’t — Unger testified that he got to the point where he “was actually praying every night that I do not wake up in the morning” — is immaterial. If anything, the fact that they then partnered with LGBT groups like Truth Wins Out that oppose ex-gay therapy proves that this case, as LiMandri told Breitbart, “is not really about little JONAH. It is about closing down all counseling.”
Ruse claimed in another post that “science is on trial,” defending an exercise like “holding” as “a respected technique in the mental health professions.” Holding is a series of cuddling exercises that take place between different clients and between clients and counselors. As described in the trial, the goal is for men to learn how to touch other men without it being sexual, so this holding is intended to replicate non-sexual intimacy. “When a man is feeling in his heart, whether love and affirmation or lust and sexual desire, it is a better indicator of whether the touch is healing than whatever is going on in a man’s groin,” a document from JONAH affiliate People Can Change explains. Ruse offers no citations to back up his claim that this cuddle therapy is respected by any mental health professionals.
Same-sex attraction, JONAH argues, is somehow caused by “an emotional break in childhood,” trauma, sexual abuse, an absent or abusive father, or an overbearing mother, but that emotional break and stunted growth can be healed and the same-sex attractions made to go away. “This was the standard understanding in the mental health professions until they came under sustained pressure and even attack from gay activists to take this out of the diagnostic manual in the 1970s,” Ruse wrote. “While the psychological guilds have changed their view on homosexuality, they do not reject the idea of treatment for unwanted same sex attraction or the possibility of its success” — except that they explicitly do. Decades of research on sexual orientation, with no research supporting the viability of ex-gay therapy, provide significant reason for these positions.
Ruse has also attempted to villainize one of the plaintiffs this week. “Chaim Levin,” he wrote, “comes off in his testimony and his actions as a young man hungry for attention.” As with Unger, Ruse believes Levin is part of a “conspiracy” — his word — to bring down the ex-gay therapy group.
“It was only after contacting a gay activist group for gay Orthodox Jews that Levin decided he had been harmed under JONAH’s care.” Because Levin had to be convinced after the fact that what he had experienced was abuse, Ruse seems to reason that it wasn’t really abuse at the time. Testifying Wednesday, Levin described one of these treatments from a retreat he attended called “New Warriors”:
It was Saturday night and we were in a room. Someone came into the room and started handing out garbage bags and said that this next process is going to be done without clothes on. So we took our clothes off and then they blindfolded us, and we were instructed to link arms, and we walked through the woods into another room.
Once we got into the room, we were able to take our blindfolds off, and there was a bunch of people standing around. There was like a — there were some — there were candles on a table, and I think they called it an initiation ceremony. There was people dancing, and there was a lot going on.
Everyone was naked, including Downing, Levin’s counselor. Several other exercises similarly involved group nudity. These exercises made Levin feel “horrible.” Levin was also subjected to the same stripping-in-front-of-the-mirror exercise as Unger, but he actually proceeded with it until he was fully nude. He was then asked, “Where is your masculinity on your body?” and asked to feel it, i.e. touch his penis and his buttocks in front of Downing. “I told myself that I wouldn’t speak about it ever,” Levin testified. “I thought that maybe if I pretended that it never happened, maybe — maybe that would be real for me.”
But, as part of a “conspiracy” — or more accurately, with the support of people who affirm him for who he is — Levin is speaking about his experiences. The suit that he, Unger, and others filed (with support from the Southern Poverty Law Center) is exposing JONAH’s bizarre shame-based treatments and paving the way to save others from enduring the same harm. Their case already shows promise. In addition to refusing to allow ex-gay “experts” to testify, Judge Judge Peter F. Bariso, Jr. already ruled against JONAH earlier this year in a partial summary judgment, asserting that the court “now takes judicial notice of the general consensus in the mental health field that homosexuality is not a mental disorder, but is instead a normal variation of human sexuality.”
The trial is ongoing.