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Gay men, parents sue ‘ex-gay therapy’ group for fraud

Former patients petition N.J. court for refund of ‘counseling’ fees, damages



JONAH, a Jewish ex-gay conversion therapy group, gay news, Washington Blade

A screenshot of the website belonging to JONAH, the Jewish ex-gay conversion therapy group that is now being sued for fraud under New Jersey law by four gay men and two mothers of gay men. (Screen Shot from

Four gay men and two mothers of gay men filed a lawsuit in a New Jersey court on Tuesday charging a Jewish counseling organization with committing fraud by “falsely” promising to convert the men from gay to straight through a controversial practice known as conversion therapy.

An attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is representing the plaintiffs, said the lawsuit is a first of its kind case seeking to invoke a state anti-fraud statute to stop an organization and its counselor-therapists from performing the therapy.

The lawsuit charges the Jersey City, N.J., based Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH); its founder Arthur Goldberg; and an affiliated counselor who performs conversation therapy on the group’s clients, Alan Downing, with violating the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act.

“JONAH profits off of shameful and dangerous attempts to fix something that isn’t broken,” said Christine P. Sun, deputy legal director for the SPLC. “Despite the consensus of mainstream professional organizations that conversion therapy doesn’t work, this racket continues to scam vulnerable gay men and lesbians out of thousands of dollars and inflicts significant harm on them.”

JONAH, Goldberg, and Downing engaged in “unconscionable practices, deception, fraud, false pretenses, false promises, [and] misrepresentations” against the plaintiffs in flagrant violation of the fraud statute, the lawsuit charges.

It argues that virtually all established metal health experts, including leaders of the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association, have called conversion therapy harmful to the mental health of patients and ineffective in changing someone’s sexual orientation.

Despite these findings, which are based on longstanding scientific research, JONAH subjected the four gay clients to a form of therapy that caused them to suffer emotional and psychological distress, depression, and for one of the plaintiffs, thoughts of suicide, according to the lawsuit.

In a statement released Tuesday morning, SPLC said JONAH was formerly known as Jews Offering New Alternatives for Homosexuality. The statement says JONAH founder Goldberg, a former Wall Street executive and attorney, was convicted of three counts of mail fraud and one count of conspiracy to defraud the federal government before he founded JONAH. The statement says “Goldberg was ultimately disbarred from being an attorney.”

Neither Goldberg nor another JONAH spokesperson could immediately be reached for comment on the lawsuit.

On its website, JONAH describes itself as “a non-profit international organization dedicated to educating the worldwide Jewish community about the social, cultural and emotional factors which lead to same-sex attractions.”

The JONAH website adds, “JONAH works directly with those struggling with unwanted same-sex attractions (SSA) and with families whose loved ones are involved in homosexuality.”

SPLC attorney Sam Wolf said the lawsuit also represents the first time former patients of a group conducting conversion therapy and their parents are seeking a refund of the fees they paid for the therapy and reimbursement of the costs of conventional psychotherapy treatment needed to reverse the harmful effects of the conversion therapy.

Three of the four former JONAH clients who are plaintiffs in the case – Benjamin Unger, Chaim Levin, and Sheldon Bruck – were raised in Orthodox Jewish families, Wolf said. He said the fourth plaintiff, Michael Ferguson, is Mormon as is defendant Downing.

Unger, Levin, and Bruck currently live in New York City. Ferguson, a former New York City resident, currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“They especially target the Orthodox Jewish community in particular but you don’t have to be of any specific religion or anything at all,” said Wolf in discussing JONAH’s alleged practices. “They’ll take pretty much anybody who comes and sort of agrees to pay the money and follow the program.”

Also named as plaintiffs in the case are Levin’s mother, Bella Levin, and Bruck’s mother, Jo Bruck. The suit says the two mothers were harmed, among other things, for having to pay the fees for their sons’ conversion therapy sessions, which came to thousands of dollars.

In Bruck’s case, the suit says Jo Bruck should be compensated for having to pay for “legitimate mental health services that her son required to overcome damage caused by defendants’ ‘treatments.’”

Therapy sessions included nudity, beating mothers in ‘effigy’

The lawsuit provides a glimpse into some of the specific techniques the JONAH counselors used in their effort to convert the gay plaintiffs into heterosexuals, claiming the techniques instead were damaging to the men’s self-esteem.

JONAH counselors instructed at least three of the gay plaintiffs to remove their clothes during a therapy session while standing in front of a mirror, for the stated purpose of boosting their sense of masculinity by admiring their bodies, the lawsuit says.

“During a private session in or about October 2008 [for] then-teenaged Levin, Downing initiated a discussion about Levin’s body and instructed Levin to stand in front of a full-length mirror and hold a staff,” the lawsuit says. “Downing directed Levin to say one negative thing about himself, remove an article of clothing, then repeat the process. Although Levin protested and expressed discomfort, at Downing’s insistence, Levin submitted and continued until he was fully naked,” the lawsuit states.

“Downing then instructed Levin to touch his penis and then his buttocks. Levin, unsure what to do but trusting in and relying on Downing, followed the instructions, upon which Downing said ‘good’ and the session ended,” says the lawsuit.

The suit says JONAH counselors often claimed that a main cause of male homosexuality is “the failure of mothers to maintain “appropriate boundaries” with their sons.

“On one occasion, Downing instructed plaintiff Unger to beat an effigy of his mother with a tennis racket as though killing her, and encouraged Unger to scream at his mother while beating her in effigy,” the lawsuit says.

“Sadly, there is no accountability for those who practice conversion therapy,” said plaintiff Ferguson in a statement on Tuesday. “They play blindly with deep emotions and create an immense amount of self-doubt for the client. They seize on your personal vulnerability, and tell you that being gay is synonymous with being less of a man. They further misrepresent themselves as having the key to your new orientation.”

The suit calls on the Hudson County, N.J., Superior Court to declare that the “acts of defendants constitute multiple instances of unlawful practices in violation of the Consumer Fraud Act” and to order the revocation of JONAH’s business license.

The lawsuit also asks the court to permanently enjoin the defendants and JONAH’s “officers, directors, founders, managers, agents, servants, employees, representatives, independent contractors and all other persons or entities directly under their control, from engaging in, continuing to engage in or doing any acts or practices in violation of the Consumer Fraud Act, including, but not limited to, the acts and practices alleged in this complaint.”

It makes these additional requests of the court:

-The assessment of restitution amounts to plaintiffs for “all of their payments to defendants for individual and group conversion therapy.”

-The assessment of restitution amounts to plaintiffs for reasonable costs of repairing damage resulting from defendants’ unlawful acts.

-The “assessment against defendants, jointly and severally, of treble plaintiffs’ ascertainable losses.”

-The assessment of costs to cover the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is being assisted in its filing of the lawsuit on a pro bono basis by two New York law firms — Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP and Lite DePalma Greenberg, LLC, who are serving as co-counsels in the case.

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  1. The Legendary Dave

    November 29, 2012 at 1:02 pm

    …and this is why I do my work. To help people become more Sex Positive – in whatever form that takes – is an immensely satisfying effort for me. Organizations like JONAH squelch sexual freedom in the worst possible way. Mental intimidation, and warped exercises like yelling at effigies of one’s own mother, are unconscionable. I read this article in a public space, and realized I kept saying “oh my God” out loud, over and over again. My heart goes out to these men and their families.

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U.S. Catholic theologians call for LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections

Joint statement says church teachings support equality



More than 750 of the nation’s leading Catholic theologians, church leaders, scholars, educators, and writers released a joint statement on Sept. 14 expressing strong support for nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people.

The six-page theological statement, “A Home for All: A Catholic Call for LGBTQ Non-Discrimination,” was scheduled to be published along with the names of its 759 signatories as a four-page advertisement on Sept. 17 in the National Catholic Reporter, a newspaper widely read by Catholic clergy and laypeople.

The statement was initiated by New Ways Ministry, a Mount Rainier, Md., based Catholic group that advocates for equality for LGBTQ people within the church and society at large.

“As Catholic theologians, scholars, church leaders, writers, and ministers, we affirm that Catholic teaching presents a positive case for ending discrimination against LGBTQ people,” the statement says. “We affirm the Second Vatican Council’s demand that ‘any kind of social or cultural discrimination…must be curbed and eradicated,’” it says.

“We affirm that Catholic teaching should not be used to further oppress LGBTQ people by denying rights rooted in their inherent human dignity and in the church’s call for social equality,” the statement adds.

The statement notes that its signers recognize that a “great debate” is currently taking place within the Catholic Church about whether same-gender relationships and transgender identities should be condoned or supported.

“That is a vital discussion for the future of Catholicism, and one to which we are whole-heartedly committed,” the statement continues. “What we are saying in this statement, however, is relatively independent of that debate, and the endorsers of this statement may hold varied, and even opposing, opinions on sexual and gender matters,” it says.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministries executive director, said his organization and the signers of the statement feel the issue of nondiscrimination for LGBTQ people can and should be supported by Catholic leaders and the church itself even if some are not yet ready to support same-sex marriage and sexual and gender identity matters.

“LGBTQ non-discrimination is being debated at all levels in our society, and the Catholic perspective on this is often misrepresented, even by some church leaders,” DeBernardo said. “Catholics who have studied and reflected deeply on this topic agree that non-discrimination is the most authentic Catholic position,” he said. 

DeBernardo said those who helped draft the statement decided it would be best to limit it to a theological appeal and argument for LGBTQ equality and non-discrimination and not to call for passage of specific legislation such as the Equality Act, the national LGBTQ civil rights bill pending in the U.S. Congress.

The Equality Act calls for amending existing federal civil rights laws to add nondiscrimination language protecting LGBTQ people in areas such as employment, housing, and public accommodations. The U.S. House approved the legislation, but the Senate has yet to act on it.

“We wanted this to be a theological statement, not a political statement,” DeBernardo said.

He said organizers of the project to prepare the statement plan to send it, among other places, to the Vatican in Rome and to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has expressed opposition to the Equality Act.

Among the key signers of the statement were 242 administrators, faculty, and staff from Sacred Heart University, a Catholic college in Bridgeport, Conn. New Ways Ministries says the statement was circulated by the school’s administration and eight of its top leaders, including President John Petillo, are among the signers.

Some of the prominent writers who signed the statement include Sister Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking;” Richard Rodriquez, author of “Hunger of Memory;” Gary Wills, author of “Lincoln at Gettysburg;” and Gregory Maguire, author of “Wicked.”

The full text of the statement and its list of signatories can be accessed at the New Ways Ministry website.

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Activists reflect on Black Trans Lives Matter movement resurgence

Blade speaks with Alex Santiago, Jasmyne Cannick



An I Am Human Foundation billboard along Atlanta's Downtown Connector expressway on Feb. 22, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The world came to a standstill last year as a video surfaced online that showed then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd. The video went viral and sparked numerous protests against racism and police brutality in the U.S. and around the world as many people felt it a potent time to relay their frustrations with and to their governments.

For the LGBTQ community, these protests brought to light the need for human rights for transgender individuals as the murders of people like Tony McDade in Florida and Nina Pop in Missouri reawakened the flame within the Black Trans Lives Matter movement.

A tribute to Tony McDade in downtown Asheville, N.C., in June 2020. McDade was a Black transgender man who was shot and killed by a white police officer in Tallahassee, Fla., on May 27, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Washington Blade more than a year later spoke with Alex Santiago, executive director of the I Am Human Foundation in Atlanta, and Jasmyne Cannick, a Democratic political strategist and journalist in Los Angeles, to reflect on last year’s Black Trans Lives Matter movement, how far it has come, and what’s in store for the future. 

Uplifting voices often silenced

Participating in the Black Lives Matter protests was an easy decision for Santiago. He is a member of the Legendary House of Garcon, a ballroom house headquartered in D.C. 

Although the house is composed mostly of LGBTQ members, Santiago still felt the need to center trans voices and experiences by visually representing them during Black Lives Matter marches. 

“[I decided that] when I go I’m going to have signs that say ‘Black Trans Lives Matter.’ After talking to a couple of the people in the house, they said it was a great idea. So, they got these t-shirts made that incorporated the trans colors [baby blue, baby pink and white],” says Santiago.

Out of the 250 people in the Legendary House of Garcon, 175 showed up to D.C. from other states to march in solidarity with Black trans people. Santiago says that from what he was told, his was the largest group of activists representing Black trans lives at protests. 

“At first I thought people were going to look at us crazy, like, ‘Why are you separating yourselves or being exclusive?’. But, we got a great response from the general population that was there that day. It was a good day,” says Santiago.

Cannick, who was in Los Angeles during the protests, lent her efforts to platforming pertinent issues. She identifies herself as an ally and a “friend” to the LGBTQ community. 

“I’m active in the LA community and everybody knows me. So, whenever something happens, someone is hurt, someone is killed or someone needs to get the word out about something that’s going on particularly as it relates to the trans community, I’m always asked to get involved, and I do,” says Cannick. 

Over the past year, she reported on multiple LGBTQ issues including the trial of Ed Buck, a Democratic political fundraiser who was convicted in the deaths of two gay Black men who he injected with methamphetamine in exchange for sex.

What happened to the BTLM movement and what needs to change?

The nature of many social movements is that as the intense emotion surrounding them fades, people’s fervor for change wanes as well. This is especially true with allies who are not directly linked to the cause.

“Fatigue and frustration at the relatively slow pace of change to a growing backlash on the right against efforts to call out systemic racism and white privilege — has led to a decline in white support for the Black Lives Matter movement since last spring, when white support for social justice was at its peak,” US News reports about the Black Lives Matter movement.

Cannick believes this is the same for the Black Trans Lives Matter movement. She says Americans allow the media to dictate how it behaves and responds to issues. Thus, when stories “fall out of our media cycles … they fall out of our memories.”

“I think that’s not going to change, and that’s a psychological thing, until we learn how to not let the media necessarily dictate our issues,” says Cannick. 

She suggests that individuals remain plugged into their communities by “doing anything to make sure they keep up with an issue” including following the “right people” on social media and setting up Google alerts for any breaking news. 

Jasmyne Cannick (Photo courtesy of Jasmyne Cannick)

Santiago also echoes Cannick’s sentiments. 

“We wait until something happens before we do something. And, I don’t want to be retroactive; I want to be proactive. I want people to see me when things are going well [and when they’re not going well],” says Santiago. 

Upon returning to his home in Atlanta after the D.C. protests, Santiago contacted a billboard installation company and paid for a billboard labelled, “Black Trans Lives Matter” to be displayed on University Avenue near downtown Atlanta. He says that the billboards got attention and helped to spread much-needed awareness. Following this success, he is now in the process of installing a new billboard labelled, “Black, Trans and Visible. My life Matters.”

“Unless you’re in people’s faces or something drastic happens, people forget. Unless you’re living it, people forget,” says Santiago.

As time progresses, both Santiago and Cannick nest hope for the Black Trans Lives Matter movement. However, this hope can only persist when crucial steps are taken to ensure Black trans individuals around the country are protected, most importantly through legislation.

The New York Times reports there are close to 1,000 elected LGBTQ officials in the U.S., with at least one in each state except Mississippi. 

“We need to have more legislation. We need more voices in power like the council Biden has right now,” says Santiago. 

“You know that [Biden] has a lot of trans people and Black trans people [involved], and a part of that’s a positive step in the right direction, but we need that times 10,” says Santiago.

He believes that political representation should extend to local governance where ordinary Black trans individuals can be trained to assume leadership roles. 

Cannick’s focus is on the Black community. 

“[Trans women] are usually murdered by Black men. If we ever expect that to change, we need to start talking about that,” says Cannick.

She’s open to having conversations that put people, including her as a cis-identifying woman, in uncomfortable and awkward spaces. 

She hosts a podcast titled “Str8 No Chaser” and recently aired an episode, “Why Are Black Men Killing Trans Women,” where she discussed with three Black trans women about the gender and sexuality dynamics within the Black community and their perils. 

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Evangelical Lutheran Church installs first Trans prelate

The bishop will lead one of the church’s 65 synods, overseeing nearly 200 congregations in Northern California and northern Nevada.



The Rev. Megan Rohrer (Photo Credit: Vince Donovan)

SAN FRANCISCO – The Rev. Dr. Megan Rohrer was installed as the first openly transgender bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on Saturday, in services held at the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. The presiding bishop of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton, led the installation ceremony.

“My call is to be up to the same messy, loving things I was up to before,” Rohrer told those gathered in the cathedral. “But mostly, if you’ll let me, and I think you will, my hope is to love you and beyond that, to love what you love.”

The bishop will lead one of the church’s 65 synods, overseeing nearly 200 congregations in Northern California and northern Nevada.

Rohrer, who uses the pronouns they/them, was elected to serve as bishop after the retirement of their predecessor. The Sioux Falls, South Dakota native had moved to the Golden State to pursue master and doctoral degrees at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. In 2010, they became one of seven openly out LGBTQ pastors accepted by the Evangelical Lutheran church after it allowed ordination of pastors in same-sex relationships.

The bishop and their spouse are raising two children and prior to installation, Rohrer was pastor of the Grace Lutheran Church and served as a chaplain coordinator for the city of San Francisco’s police department. Rohrer has assisted in ministering to the city’s homeless and LGTBQ community for a number of years.

“I step into this role because a diverse community of Lutherans in Northern California and Nevada prayerfully and thoughtfully voted to do a historic thing,” Rohrer said in a statement. “My installation will celebrate all that is possible when we trust God to shepherd us forward.”

The synod Rohrer leads is part of the largest Christian denominations in the United States with about 3.3 million members.

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