Mathew Shurka saw four therapists in four states in five years because he didn’t want to be gay.
He started when he was just sixteen years old. He was halfway through high school and focusing most of his energy on getting decent grades, throwing killer parties at his parents’ Long Island home, and having sex — with girls.
At the time, Shurka wasn’t ready to come out as homosexual, and maintaining his party-boy image was one attempt at what he calls “self-curing.” Proving his heterosexuality, at least in public, seemed to border on obsession. But once a week after swim practice — his eyes still bloodshot from the chlorine and the smell of pool still fresh on his skin — Shurka would go to therapy. He’d hop a train from Great Neck to Manhattan to figure out how not to be attracted to guys.
“That whole commute in, that whole commute out, just because there was something that needed to be ‘fixed,'” says Shurka, now 27. “It was a number-one priority in my life — more than school. I started to fail my classes. But I looked at it as life or death.”
Each of his therapists had been recommended by a Jersey City–based gay conversion therapy group called Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, or JONAH. The group’s co-founder, Arthur Goldberg, was a former deputy attorney general in New Jersey, and later a disgraced Wall Street tycoon. JONAH advertised a strong track record of turning gay Jewish boys straight. Though Shurka had been raised Jewish, he says he wanted a therapist with no religious ties. So, at first, JONAH obliged by referring him to several more secular counselors, who suggested a litany of potential cures for his “condition.” One licensed psychotherapist prescribed that he take Viagra as regularly as vitamins and watch straight porn as if it were homework. Another urged him to masturbate each and every time he got an erection, which would allow him to shoo away any gay urges by releasing the thoughts from his mind as quickly as possible.
“It was so frustrating,” he says. “I’d be sitting in pre-calc, and I remember having to go to the basement to a quiet bathroom that wasn’t really used, and I’d just do the job as quickly as possible and then run back to class. Like I was Pavlov’s dog.”
By his third therapist, Shurka was still confused. While he had forced himself to have sex with about ten girls throughout his teens, he always knew that he was attracted to men. (When he watched his daily dose of boy-girl porn, he found himself focusing more on the male actors.) But he was still determined to change, and in the summer of 2009, at age 21, he finally bit the bullet and schlepped from Long Island to New Jersey to seek treatment directly from JONAH.
He attended one session and was horrified. His JONAH counselor reiterated everything he had already heard: There was no such thing as homosexuality; he’d never experience happiness or fulfillment in his lifetime unless he created a child — with a woman he truly loved. That day marked Shurka’s last-ever conversion therapy session. JONAH had been the final straw. “I’d had enough,” he says.
Over the next few years, Shurka slowly started coming to grips with his sexuality. Finally, in October of 2012, he posted a homemade video on YouTube which he called “It Gets Better: I Survived Gay Conversion Therapy.” He had never posted a video before, and his shy, brown-green eyes darted around the webcam as he described his conversion therapy experiences. He wore a close-buzzed mustache and a chinstrap beard wrapped around his mouth. His biceps poked out the sides of a navy-blue T-shirt, his olive skin overexposed through the camera’s lens.
Less than 24 hours later, the video landed on the Huffington Post‘s “Gay Voices” page; from there it quickly went viral. Soon after, Shurka received a Facebook message from Sam Wolfe, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Montgomery, Alabama–based civil liberties nonprofit. Founded in 1971, SPLC is perhaps best known for bringing successful civil cases against the Ku Klux Klan. Over time, though, the organization has expanded to take on civil rights cases from all over the country. And now they wanted Shurka’s help.
In November of 2012, SPLC filed a consumer fraud lawsuit against JONAH, alleging that the center used “deceptive practices” to lure the plaintiffs into “expensive, harmful therapy.” The suit turned some heads — a powerful advocacy group for the disenfranchised was taking on a tiny Jewish nonprofit that had hardly been a blip on anyone’s radar. And, as one of the plaintiffs, Shurka — good-looking and well-spoken — could be the face.
“SPLC has brought the lawsuit against JONAH not because we like beating up on small mom-and-pop shops,” Scott McCoy, an SPLC attorney, said at an April conference on conversion therapy at Cardozo Law School. “We brought it because no matter how big you are, if you do something that is dishonest and harmful to a segment of the population that is traditionally disenfranchised or underrepresented, SPLC will sue you to stop you.”
The case, Ferguson v. JONAH, was brought under New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act, making it the first case of its kind. In 2013, New Jersey Superior Court Judge Peter F. Bariso Jr. of the Hudson County Law Division denied JONAH’s motion to have the case thrown out. Opening arguments began June 3. Shurka ultimately declined to participate in the lawsuit. Instead he opted to be a more visible and vocal critic of conversion therapy, and is working closely with lawmakers and the attorneys at SPLC to push for bans on the practice state by state. But four former JONAH clients and two of their parents are currently testifying against the center in front of a jury. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that this is not some one-off, local lawsuit; SPLC’s attempt to take down JONAH is part of its larger crusade to end conversion therapy altogether.
Gay conversion therapy is an extreme version of a number of more widely accepted therapies used to help people work through their same-sex attractions. One, called affirmative therapy, helps individuals simply confirm whether they’re gay or straight. Sexual identity therapy, which shares similar goals as affirmative therapy, pays particular attention to the client’s religious and cultural beliefs. What makes conversion treatment different is its steadfast pledge that it can permanently turn patients from gay to straight.
During the 1990s peak of the so-called “ex-gay” movement, there were about 120 conversion programs across the country, according to the now-defunct Exodus International, once the nation’s largest referral service and information hub for gay-to-straight therapy. But conversion treatment — which was always most prevalent in Southern, conservative Christian communities — has been on the decline ever since the American Psychiatric Association openly stated its opposition to the practice in 1998. Throughout the 2000s several Christian ministries that touted their successes in “curing” homosexuality shut down their conversion programs. So people were justifiably surprised to find out from the lawsuit that JONAH existed at all, let alone to service Jews — rather than fundamentalist Christians — in the politically progressive greater New York region.
JONAH’s services have always been strictly voluntary, so despite its controversial nature, SPLC is not attacking the organization simply for existing. Rather, the suit alleges that JONAH has falsely advertised homosexuality as a fixable mental disorder and misrepresented its gay-to-straight success rate.
“Empirical evidence is clear that homosexuality is changeable,” JONAH co-director Elaine Berk wrote in a signed statement on the group’s website.
In February, Judge Bariso ruled that these misrepresentations might violate New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act, which prevents businesses or organizations from advertising products or services that, simply, do not work. In a landmark ruling, Bariso allowed Ferguson v. JONAH to go forward as a fraud case. “The JONAH case is the first and only case to date to hold conversion therapists liable for consumer fraud,” says Wolfe, who is also a member of SPLC’s LGBT Rights Project.
Four of the six plaintiffs in the case (two plaintiffs are parents of former JONAH patients) are taking the stand to recount their experiences at the center — some of which are sure to raise eyebrows once they’re described in open court.
According to court documents, one plaintiff was asked to participate in a mock gym class that involved the therapists throwing basketballs around a group of young patients while yelling anti-gay slurs including “faggot” and “homo.” Another described a group being asked to re-enact scenes of traumatic sexual abuse from their childhoods and strip down naked and hold their penises while staring into mirrors. On other occasions, the patients were asked to hold two oranges, representing their testicles, while taunting each other with homophobic insults.
The trial kicked off just weeks after President Obama publicly called for an end to conversion therapy for minors. (JONAH works primarily with adults, but will counsel minors with parental permission.) State legislatures in Oregon, California, New Jersey, and D.C. have already passed bans on conversion therapy for minors by licensed professionals. These bills, which survived years of pushback in federal court over First Amendment concerns, have now come to be seen as a gold standard, paving the way for lawmakers to introduce similar bills in eighteen other states.
But at a recent conference at Columbia University, Dr. Jack Drescher, a New York–based psychiatrist and former president of the American Psychiatric Association’s New York County Psychiatric Society, said that despite these legislative victories, most of the patients seeking conversion therapy are not minors. And most of the therapists who offer it are not licensed professionals.
“This case should be a warning to anyone who is offering so-called conversion therapy service masquerading as a legitimate therapy based on a discredited lie that homosexuality is a disorder,” says Wolfe. “They may face legal liability.”
But conversion therapists may not be the only ones in trouble.
While this consumer fraud prosecution may be a major win for the gay community, it could also have a chilling effect on other, even broadly accepted, forms of psychotherapy, according to Dr. Paul Appelbaum, director for the Division of Law, Ethics, and Psychiatry at Columbia University. Appelbaum says he has never seen a case that uses consumer fraud — rather than malpractice — to challenge a type of psychotherapy.
“The success of this [consumer fraud] strategy opens the door to using such an approach more broadly to shut down the psychotherapy enterprise or at least to severely restrict it in ways that are likely to not be beneficial as a whole,” Appelbaum says. “Therapies that are disfavored for one reason or another — even if there are willing patients who seek them — may be precluded entirely, and once that process begins, it’s a little hard to foresee exactly where it will end.”
There are other forms of “therapy” that aim to change specific behaviors, and if the SPLC case is successful, it could leave any number of those practices — psychiatric therapy or even pastoral counseling — open to similar suits. These issues are all part of a much broader debate about how bans on this one kind of therapy may, in the bigger scheme of things, affect First Amendment rights and religious freedoms.
At the Cardozo Law School gay conversion symposium — which was organized by Shurka — Stephen Hayford, a Christian attorney and legislative director of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, asked why religious families should “not have the freedom to choose a practitioner who fits in with their beliefs and values.”
“What about the teenager coming from a faith tradition that does not encourage same-sex activity?” Hayford asked, addressing the symposium attendees, nearly 100 wide-eyed, caffeinated law students. “What about that family? What about the Orthodox Jewish family? What about the evangelical Christian family?”
Modern gay conversion therapy originated right here in New York, at Columbia University. Sandor Rado, who in 1945 founded Columbia’s Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, believed that heterosexuality was the normal outcome of human development, insisting that homosexuality meant a person had somehow, somewhere, taken a wrong turn. Later, Charles Socarides, an acclaimed psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, conducted a number of studies — also at Columbia — that concluded that homosexuality could, in fact, be “cured” or changed. In his 1995 book, Homosexuality: A Freedom Too Far, he claimed a 35 percent gay-to-straight “cure” rate over his entire career.
Since the 1950s, there has been a steady stream of psychoanalytic theories dismissing homosexuality as a learned disorder. The first two volumes of the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, released in 1952 and 1968, listed homosexuality as a sexual deviation. Edmund Bergler, a psychoanalyst who in 1956 wrote Homosexuality: Disease or Way of Life?, saw homosexuality as “pre-Oedipal,” theorizing that being gay was a direct result of a son being too close to his mother. This theory gave rise to various “curing” techniques — some of which are allegedly used at JONAH — that aimed to create a divide between young boys and their mothers.
During a 1970 APA conference at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, gay activists, who had decided that psychiatry was becoming the enemy of homosexuals, did everything in their power to disrupt the event, charging through conference room doors and ripping the microphones away from speakers. Finally, in December of 1973, the APA Board of Trustees formally removed homosexuality from the list of mental disorders.
But that change, while important, didn’t mean that therapists stopped treating patients who wished to be cured of their sexual urges.
“I don’t believe with an issue like sexuality that we can take the approach that this is something that is hardwired for everyone and that there is no possibility for change,” Hayford, the Christian attorney, said at the Cardozo conference. He pointed to the first lady of New York City, Chirlane McCray, as an example of a woman who came out as a lesbian in the 1970s but is now in a straight marriage. “While we don’t choose our attractions or our feelings, we do choose how we respond to them. We choose whether we make that feeling into an identity, or whether we see it as something that we’re trying to work through [or] overcome.”
Conversion therapy became recognized in a more official capacity in 1992, when Socarides founded and became president of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, a nonprofit that would spearhead the conversion therapy movement that gained momentum during the 1990s and early 2000s. Around that same time, his own son was coming out of the closet: In their tony Upper East Side townhouse, downstairs Dr. Socarides was trying to turn his patients straight, while upstairs his son, Richard, was coming out as gay.
That same year — in March of 1992 — a disgraced former Wall Street titan named Arthur Abba Goldberg was released from jail. Goldberg had landed himself in federal prison as the mastermind behind a major municipal-bond scheme. And among the things he’d do after he got out was to start a gay conversion therapy group for Jews in his home state of New Jersey.
In the Seventies, two decades before Arthur Abba Goldberg started JONAH, he served as deputy attorney general of New Jersey. The Cornell-educated lawyer was already a rising star before entering public office: He taught at the University of Connecticut School of Law and ran the D.C. office of Ohio congressman Michael Feighan, before becoming, himself, one of the most powerful law enforcers in New Jersey.
In the Eighties, he moved through the revolving door from public service to finance, joining the investment bank Matthews & Wright as an executive vice president. He quickly proved to be something of an investment whiz, earning the nicknames Abba Cadabra and Abba Dabba Do. Short in stature, with an unruly gray beard and a friendly smile, Goldberg didn’t look the part of a Wall Street player, but in just a few short years he helped turn Matthews & Wright into a major powerhouse in the municipal-bond market.
“Arthur was really a rainmaker,” says one former Matthews & Wright colleague who began working for Goldberg in 1978 and helped him take the company public in mid-1986.
Goldberg was socially awkward, says the employee, who, not wanting to speak on behalf of the now-defunct Matthews & Wright firm, spoke only on the condition of anonymity. Goldberg would attend dinner parties and barbecues, make lousy jokes to a room of new acquaintances, and sneeze all over everyone else’s plates, says the former colleague, who lived in the same Jersey City apartment building as Goldberg and his wife, Jane. Goldberg was one of the few Orthodox Jews in a business filled with WASP-y, conservative clients from the Midwest. He wore long-sleeve shirts year-round and had a chronically unkempt beard in a world of polished investment bankers. But he was effective in the conference room and had a reputation for getting things done.
In 1987, prosecutors accused Goldberg of orchestrating a massive municipal-bond fraud scheme, essentially selling more than $2 billion in bogus bonds between 1985 and 1986 to finance public works projects in smaller, rural, and often poor communities in the Midwest. Most of the projects were never completed, and Goldberg was eventually charged with 52 counts of bribery, fraud, and conspiracy, among other things, by a federal grand jury. He later pleaded guilty to three counts of mail fraud in California. The scheme cost the U.S. Treasury millions in lost taxes, and Matthews & Wright Inc. lost its license to sell securities and later dissolved completely.
Goldberg, who testified before a jury on June 8, declined on several occasions to speak on the record for this article. One day at the JONAH offices in Jersey City he confronted a Voice reporter, asking her to leave the building and calling her presence “absolutely inappropriate and out of line.” He would later agree to answer a few questions, through his lawyer, via email.
“Over 100 people lost their jobs and a good career because of what Arthur did, and that’s just pure greed,” Goldberg’s former colleague says. “And he never apologized to anyone. I hoped he’d get life [in prison]. If I’d run into him on the street, I’d grab him by the throat.”
“I saw the staff go from 140 to 8 of us, and I couldn’t stand ground on whatever kind of business was left,” adds another employee, Allen Kone, who worked directly for the company from 1984 until the firm closed in 1989. The two men were friendly — Kone says he even attended the bar mitzvah of Goldberg’s son. “Given my position in the firm, most people would not want to hire me because they couldn’t believe that I wasn’t involved in some of the shenanigans that were going on. It ruined a lot of careers — it really did.”
Not only was Goldberg then disbarred, but he was also ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and sentenced to eighteen months in federal prison in Allenwood, Pennsylvania.
To Kone’s surprise, Goldberg called him collect a number of times during his stint behind bars. “It was more to say hello than anything else, but he was always casting the net,” Kone says. “Do I know anybody? Do I know anybody?
“That was real typical Arthur.”
Once released from jail, “I worked as an independent financial consultant for several years,” Goldberg tells the Voice in an email sent through his lawyer.
But his former colleagues say that after Goldberg got out of prison, he spent nearly a decade trying to start a number of less-than-successful business ventures. “I got the feeling that he wasn’t trying to lay low. From the time he got out of federal prison until he started working on [JONAH] he was trying to arrange financing for a whole bunch of things,” Kone says. He remembers Goldberg trying to help broker sales and mergers of for-profit schools in New Jersey and to spearhead a program that provided homestay housing for foreign students learning English.
“Even though he was disbarred and was out of the securities industry,” Kone adds, “he was trying to somehow rebuild a life.”
In the late Nineties, the Goldbergs and another Jewish couple, Elaine and Theodore Berk of Harrington Park, New Jersey, began brainstorming the framework for JONAH after both of their sons, who were friends at NYU, came out as gay. “The Goldberg spiel is, ‘It was too late for my son, so I’m going to help the Jewish children of the world become straight,'” says Shurka, the former JONAH client. “That’s his whole thing.”
“In reading and learning about these issues and realizing there was no ministry in the Jewish community providing these services, they decided in their retirement that they would form JONAH,” explains Charles LiMandri, a JONAH attorney from the legal nonprofit Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, a California-based organization that works on religious-freedom cases.
In 1999, LiMandri says, after years of planning, the Goldbergs and Berks opened the doors to JONAH.
JONAH’s offices are housed in a quaint, three-story brownstone at 80 Grant Street in Jersey City. Its front steps are shaded by floppy, low-hanging branches, which, on a recent spring morning, were lined with light-pink flowers. The sound of children playing outside a nearby elementary school will occasionally enliven the otherwise quiet side street, which seems out of place wedged between a mishmash of shiny skyscrapers and rising condominiums.
From the outside, you’d never know the building houses any type of religion- affiliated group; a yellow flag out front and the big block letters above the entrance advertise the Museum of Russian Art, which operates out of the second floor. Goldberg has a short, three-block commute between his home on Montgomery Street and JONAH. This downtown Jersey City neighborhood, Paulus Hook, is known to be populated mostly by affluent homeowners, with a number of the condos around the block selling for just shy of $1 million.
Inside the JONAH offices, above the front desk, is a small sign, the center’s logo spread across a cartoon image of an ocean. On this day, two signs reading “In Session” on wrinkled pieces of paper hung on the doors off the waiting room. A boombox was covered in dust. A rack of Jewish newspapers was covered in dust. At the time, the trial was weeks away, but the offices were mostly silent.
“The litigation has hurt the business,” says LiMandri, the JONAH attorney, in a phone interview from his office in California. “It’s diverted a lot of time and resources to defending the lawsuit, as opposed to doing the work of JONAH.”
According to court records, JONAH typically charges $100 for hour-long individual counseling and $60 for group sessions — the cost of the services could exceed $10,000 per year, depending on the individual. But Goldberg insists he doesn’t take home a paycheck at the end of the day. “None,” he writes in the email sent to the Voice through his lawyer. “I have worked without any salary or fees since JONAH began. Both Elaine [Berk] and I are volunteers without compensation.”
Goldberg and Berk themselves do not lead therapy sessions, LiMandri adds, because they’re not mental health care practitioners. The classes are taught by JONAH-referred counselors who operate like independent contractors — and who are paid for their services. “Most of the independent referral counselors are licensed but there are a few life coaches,” Goldberg continues in the email. “Because the network changes over time, the numbers are constantly changing.”
Alan Downing, a tall man with a black beard, is an independent referral counselor named in the lawsuit and a co- defendant along with JONAH. Downing is a life coach, not a licensed professional. But “Mr. Downing is a qualified life coach with a great deal of experience helping people successfully overcome their unwanted same-sex attractions,” says LiMandri, adding that later in the trial, the jury will hear compelling witness testimony from people Downing has helped.
Over time, JONAH has come to operate as what LiMandri calls a “referral group,” connecting clients across the country with outside referral counselors who may be closer to them than Jersey City. Mathew Shurka, for example, had been referred by JONAH to therapists in California, Virginia, and New York before he finally tried its facilities in New Jersey. Shurka did meet Goldberg once — he spent time with him at a weekend outing in Virginia called “Journey Into Manhood.”
According to LiMandri, JONAH also refers clients to outside therapists for other types of sexual issues, including porn addiction, or for non-sexual conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. He says JONAH does not charge for referrals, which are typically given out after an initial phone consultation.
LiMandri says the center’s clients are mostly men and mostly adults, but adds that it’s hard to put a number on how many have received conversion therapy over the years. “This is a small mom-and-pop shop — they don’t have a full staff there, and they’re not there to do recordkeeping on how many people call and how many get referred out,” he says.
Also unclear is how JONAH — and the staff it does have — define a “successful” conversion from gay to straight.
“The individual clients of JONAH define success based on when they change either their identity and/or behavior and/or attractions,” says LiMandri, adding that JONAH “never used the term ‘conversion therapy’ because they do not try to convert people; rather they only help people accomplish the goals they set for themselves.”
But Scott McCoy, the SPLC attorney, begs to differ. “The folks at JONAH didn’t say, ‘Come to us, pay us money, come through our program and we will teach you how to re-label yourself from gay to straight, how to repress your attraction to men, and how to live in a mixed-orientation marriage where you may be physically able, with the help of medicine, to have sex with a wife and raise kids, but you’ll still be attracted to men,'” he explained at the Cardozo conference, emphasizing the major distinction between changing who you’re attracted to deep down, versus simply adjusting your behavior on the surface. “To our clients, that’s not a change in sexual orientation.”
Dr. Howard Zonana, creator of the Law and Psychiatry Division at the Yale School of Medicine, says it’s also difficult to pinpoint a success rate for this treatment. “It’s hard to find sharp black lines in this sort of area, but in this field, you can’t just point to a few people who say they went into therapy and changed,” he says. “If you probe it, you may find [a therapist] did a follow-up after three months and found one thing, but a follow-up after five years may show that you didn’t change at all.”
Ben Unger felt helpless. Growing up in a strict Orthodox Jewish community in Borough Park, Brooklyn, he was devastated when his parents announced they were getting a divorce. He was just a teenager at the time, and was already confused about his sexuality. His father noticed Unger’s struggles and one day mentioned JONAH, where Unger, who testified on June 3 as a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the center, underwent therapy in 2007 and 2008.
He describes one session in which Downing, the life coach named as a defendant in the suit pointed to a pillow: “Pretend this pillow is your mother,” Unger says Downing instructed him. “And now beat it as hard as you possibly can, as if you’re killing her.”
The boys had been learning about how being close with their mothers had played a vital role in turning them gay.
Unger, who was nineteen at the time, picked up a tennis racquet. His peers formed a circle around the perimeter of the group therapy room. The high-ceilinged space was filled with comfortable chairs and props including a large mirror, a big wooden staff, and a bookshelf filled with tattered hardcovers from Richard Cohen and Dr. Joseph Nicolosi — two influential psychologists in the conversion therapy movement.
Unger’s peers began clapping and chanting his name. He gripped the tennis racquet with both hands, right fist wedged above left knuckles.
“Mom!” he shouted as he took a swing. He tried hard to imagine the pillow as a stand-in for his mother, though all he saw was a fluffy white cushion, the standard 20 by 26 inches. So he tried again.
“Mom! Mom! Mom!” He kept yelling at the pillow with every swing. His blows became increasingly violent, and his cries became more and more angry.
Unger kept swinging at the pillow, his classmates’ cheers rumbling through the third-floor therapy room on the otherwise quiet Jersey City side street. He continued beating the pillow with his tennis racquet until his right hand started to bleed.
“My mother really regretted me going, because JONAH completely turned me against her,” says Unger, now 27, adding that he became suicidal during and after his time there. His depression and anxiety became so painful that he couldn’t go to yeshiva. He couldn’t work. He put on weight and went on medication. “I didn’t speak with her for months because I felt she was the reason I was gay. I literally tortured [her], simply because I was told that the mother has such an important role in turning the child gay. The only way I could heal myself is to separate from my mother. That’s probably one of the biggest regrets of my life.”
Shurka says he received similar instruction. During his therapy he severed all ties not only with his mother but also with his sister — he was estranged from both for three years.
Shurka would later discover that his father — at a therapist’s request — took Shurka’s then-secret boyfriend out to lunch and told him never to speak to his son again. Shurka then severed ties with his father, too. “I felt conspired against,” he says. “I didn’t know what reality was.”
Over the course of conversion therapy, Shurka went from having a full nuclear family to having no family at all. His sexual turmoil had ripped his family apart, catalyzed his parents’ divorce, and turned him suicidal.
One day in the summer of 2008, Unger got an email to the JONAH listserv, an email support chain for JONAH clients to share stories and stay connected. “There was this one guy who said that he was doing the therapy for fifteen years and was finally starting to sense a sliver of hope,” Unger recalls. “That completely freaked me out — after fifteen years, this guy is just starting to see a sliver of hope? This had made me so depressed, so suicidal, and so anxious that I was thinking, ‘How much longer can I be in this program without actually taking my life and killing myself?’ That’s when I realized this is not for me. This is a fraud.”
Ferguson v. JONAH is a first-of-its-kind suit, says Appelbaum, the Columbia psychology-law expert. The difference between malpractice and consumer fraud is that malpractice suits don’t ban the use of a particular therapy; they simply enable dissatisfied patients — if they can prove they’ve been harmed by the therapy — to obtain compensation for their suffering. Even if a therapist is found guilty of malpractice, he is able to continue offering his services. But classifying a therapy as fraudulent would mean absolute preclusion, or doing away with the service entirely.
In this case, “the fraudulent activity alleged is the way in which this treatment is portrayed,” Appelbaum explains. “So rather than the treatment itself, the speech that accompanies that treatment is what constitutes the fraud.”
On one level, SPLC’s goal is to disallow JONAH from using any language that presents homosexuality as a disorder, JONAH’s services as scientific, or gay-to-straight success rates as concrete. But the SPLC suit also seeks to revoke JONAH’s business license altogether, according to court papers.
And while gay conversion therapy has been discredited by all major medical psychiatric, psychological, and medical groups — there is no empirical or scientific data to prove that it works — there are many other forms of psychotherapy that aren’t backed up by hard numbers. Yet as unpopular — and, in many cases, damaging — as the practice has become, people still actively seek it out.
A map on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website identifies at least 70 conversion therapists across 20 states and Washington, D.C. — though the map does not include the “many providers [who] now discreetly advertise their services and operate by referrals,” says Wolfe, the SPLC staff attorney. The center has not been able to analyze how many of the therapists on the list are licensed professionals.
“In the world of psychotherapy, for better or for worse, there are a large number of approaches that are available, and the majority have been developed on the basis of clinical experience without clear, persuasive empirical data demonstrating their efficacy,” says Appelbaum. “People should be free to decide that they want to pursue even forms of therapy that science might suggest are highly unlikely to be efficacious.”
What’s more, Appelbaum says, is that the line between being deemed a therapist versus a gay conversion therapist is a slippery slope. There’s a dangerous gray area where it’s not clear whether a general therapist, who may be helping a patient discover his or her sexuality or talk through any confusion, can be equated with a gay conversion therapist.
“What constitutes an effort to help a patient work through their confusion about their sexual identity, as opposed to a sexual conversion therapy, is not always crystal-clear,” he says. “And after the fact, therapists are susceptible to claims that they intruded into the realm of [sexual orientation change] therapy, when in fact that was not their intention at all.
“I fear that some [therapists] will protect themselves against that by declining to treat patients for whom confusion of sexual orientation is a real problem.”
It’s now been ten years since Shurka first began conversion therapy. And he’s still gay.
Until now, he says he hasn’t had much luck in the way of relationships. “Intimacy and dating are still difficult for me,” Shurka says. “A lot of what I was taught in conversion therapy comes back to me, so I get really analytical and really in my head, and then I go into a panic because I can’t get out of my head.” One night in January, as he lay alone in his Brooklyn apartment trying to fall asleep, the thoughts worked him into such an extreme panic that Shurka ended up in the hospital with heart palpitations.
He very recently started dating someone new. Just a few weeks ago, the new couple went on a first date at Balthazar in Soho, where Shurka used to work. They dined on steak au poivre, drank champagne, and gazed, starstruck, at actor Ewan McGregor, who was seated nearby. The following week, they spent Mother’s Day together at Shurka’s childhood home in Great Neck, where they shared his bamboo-style Ikea bed for the weekend.
“This is the same room that I was born to, the same room I was brought home to when I had my first crib, the same room where I played my entire childhood,” Shurka says. “The same room where I hooked up with the girls I’ve had relationships with, and the same room where I hooked up with a boy for the first time. It’s the same bed I had when I was going through conversion therapy. And now, it’s the same bed that, on Mother’s Day, I shared with the first guy that I’ve liked in a long, long time.”