The fraudulence of ex-gay conversion therapy is no longer just a matter of overwhelming medical consensus: In New Jersey, is it also a matter of legal fact. Last February, a New Jersey judge ruled that describing homosexuality as a curable illness constitutes a “misrepresentation” in violation of the state’s consumer protection statute. In June, a jury found an ex-gay conversion therapy group called JONAH guilty under that law, deciding that JONAH’s advertisements were fraudulent and its business practices “unconscionable.” Now, in a landmark settlement, JONAH has agreed to compensate its former patients, paying out $72,400 in damages and $3.5 million in legal fees. As part of the settlement, JONAH will permanently cease operations, deactivate its website, dissolve as a corporate entity, and liquidate its assets. JONAH’s “therapists” are forever barred from engaging in or promoting commercial conversion therapy in New Jersey.
This slam-dunk victory is entirely the result of an ingenious lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC recognized that, whatever else conversion therapy is—medical quackery, religious oppression, psychological torture—it is also, quite plainly, consumer fraud. Conversion therapy just doesn’t work, and while the First Amendment may protect private, religious conversion attempts, commercial efforts typically fall under consumer protection laws. That means conversion “therapists” are barred from making false claims or, in some states, engaging in “unconscionable business practices.” Here are some of the “unconscionable” activities that JONAH practiced on its victims—including Chaim Levin, a key plaintiff:
In one group activity, clients held hands to create a human chain while one person stood behind the chain holding two oranges, meant to represent testicles. Clients then took turns standing on the other side of the chain while the rest of the group shouted anti-gay slurs at them. The goal was to goad clients into pushing through the chain and grabbing the oranges. At one particularly atrocious session, a counselor instructed Levin to select someone from the group to role-play his past abuser. The selected participant was made to yell abusive statements that Levin’s abuser had made, such as “I won’t love you anymore if you don’t give me blowjobs.”
Individual sessions were just as disturbing. [A counselor] appears to have asked most of his clients to undress while he watched. He also instructed at least one client to beat an effigy of his mother with a tennis racket while screaming, as if murdering her. Another JONAH counselor told a client to wear a rubber band around his wrist and snap it every time he felt attraction to a man. And JONAH counselors frequently told their clients to go to bathhouses with their fathers in order to be naked in their presence.
The triumph over JONAH is already having a ripple effect in other states. Illinois’ recently enacted ban on conversion therapy for minors is rooted in the idea that such therapy constitutes consumer fraud. Violators of the law will be held liable under the state’s Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act.
On Monday, I asked Levin what he made of the settlement.
“This lawsuit has been one of the most difficult things that I’ve ever been through,” he told me. “I’m thrilled that they won’t be able to hurt anyone ever again—but at the same time, I can’t help but think about the thousands of people that they’ve already hurt, including myself. The silent victims of JONAH will never be forgotten by me and the amazing team of people that were part of this effort. I hope that they too find some measure of closure and peace.”