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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

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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 JONAHweb.org)

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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The White House

EXCLUSIVE: Jill Biden to host White House Pride celebration

Event to take place on June 26

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First lady Jill Biden (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

First lady Jill Biden will host the White House Pride Month celebration on June 26, according to a press release previewed by the Washington Blade.

The party on the South Lawn will also feature a performance by singer, songwriter, actress, and record producer Deborah Cox and musical selections by DJ Trifle.

This year’s event comes on Equality Day this year, which honors the anniversaries of three landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions that expanded rights and protections for LGBTQ Americans: Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which struck down sodomy laws, United States v. Windsor (2013), which struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), which made marriage equality the law of the land.

The White House highlighted some of the “historic action” taken by President Joe Biden to “advance LGBTQ+ equality for the community,” including:

  • Signing into law the landmark Respect for Marriage Act which protects the rights of same-sex and interracial couples;
  • Appointing a historic number of LGBTQI+ and transgender appointees, including the first transgender American to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate;
  • Directing all federal agencies to strengthen civil rights protections on the basis of gender identity, resulting in agencies working to strengthen protections in housing, health care, education, employment, the criminal justice system, nutrition programs, and more;
  • Reversing the ban on open service by transgender members of the military;
  • Signing an executive order focused on LGBTQI+ children and families that directs agencies to address the dangerous and discredited practice of so-called “conversion therapy” and finalized rule-making that ends disparities that LGBTQI+ children and parents face in the child welfare and foster care system and protects against disparities in health care; and
  • President Biden continues to call on Congress to pass the Equality Act to enshrine civil rights protections for LGBTQI+ Americans in federal law.

Last year, the president and the first lady hosted the celebration, which was the largest Pride event ever held at the White House.

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National

65% of Black Americans support Black LGBTQ rights: survey

Results show 40% have LGBTQ family member

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(Logo courtesy of the NBJC)

The National Black Justice Coalition, a D.C.-based LGBTQ advocacy organization, announced on June 19 that it commissioned what it believes to be a first-of-its-kind national survey of Black people in the United States in which 65 percent said they consider themselves “supporters of Black LGBTQ+ people and rights,” with 57 percent of the supporters saying they were “churchgoers.”

In a press release describing the findings of the survey, NBJC said it commissioned the research firm HIT Strategies to conduct the survey with support from five other national LGBTQ organizations – the Human Rights Campaign, the National LGBTQ Task Force, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Family Equality, and GLSEN.

“One of the first surveys of its kind, explicitly sampling Black people (1,300 participants) on Black LGBTQ+ people and issues – including an oversampling of Black LGBTQ+ participants to provide a more representative view of this subgroup – it investigates the sentiments, stories, perceptions, and priorities around Black values and progressive policies, to better understand how they impact Black views on Black LGBTQ+ people,” the press release says.

It says the survey found, among other things, that 73 percent of Gen Z respondents, who in 2024 are between the ages of 12 and 27, “agree that the Black community should do more to support Black LGBTQ+ people.”

According to the press release, it also found that 40 percent of Black people in the survey reported having a family member who identifies as LGBTQ+ and 80 percent reported having “some proximity to gay, lesbian, bisexual, or queer people, but only 42 percent have some proximity to transgender or gender-expansive people.”

The survey includes these additional findings:

• 86% of Black people nationally report having a feeling of shared fate and connectivity with other Black people in the U.S., but this view doesn’t fully extend to the Black LGBTQ+ community. Around half — 51% — of Black people surveyed feel a shared fate with Black LGBTQ+ people.

• 34% reported the belief that Black LGBTQ+ people “lead with their sexual orientation or gender identity.” Those participants were “significantly less likely to support the Black LGBTQ+ community and most likely to report not feeling a shared fate with Black LGBTQ+ people.”

• 92% of Black people in the survey reported “concern about youth suicide after being shown statistics about the heightened rate among Black LGBTQ+ youth.” Those expressing this concern included 83% of self-reported opponents of LGBTQ+ rights.

• “Black people’s support for LGBTQ+ rights can be sorted into three major groups: 29% Active Accomplices, 25% Passive Allies (high potential to be moved), 35% Opponents. Among Opponents, ‘competing priorities’ and ‘religious beliefs’ are the two most significant barriers to supporting Black LGBTQ+ people and issues.”

• 10% of the survey participants identified as LGBTQ. Among those who identified as LGBTQ, 38% identified as bisexual, 33% identified as lesbian or gay, 28% identified as non-binary or gender non-conforming, and 6% identified as transgender.

• Also, among those who identified as LGBTQ, 89% think the Black community should do more to support Black LGBTQ+ people, 69% think Black LGBTQ+ people have fewer rights and freedoms than other Black people, 35% think non-Black LGBTQ+ people have fewer rights and freedom than other Black people, 54% “feel their vote has a lot of power,” 51% live in urban areas, and 75% rarely or never attend church.

Additional information about the survey from NBJC can be accessed here.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Club Q shooter sentenced to life in prison for federal hate crimes

Five people killed in 2022 mass shooting in Colo.

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Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. (Justice Department YouTube screenshot)

Anderson Lee Aldrich, 24, formerly of Colorado Springs, Colo., was sentenced to 55 concurrent life sentences to run consecutive to 190 years in prison after pleading guilty to 74 hate crimes and firearms charges related to the Nov. 19, 2022, mass shooting at Club Q, an LGBTQ establishment in Colorado Springs.  

According to the plea agreement, Aldrich admitted to murdering five people, injuring 19, and attempting to murder 26 more in a willful, deliberate, malicious, and premeditated attack at Club Q. According to the plea, Aldrich entered Club Q armed with a loaded, privately manufactured assault weapon, and began firing. Aldrich continued firing until subdued by patrons of the club. As part of the plea, Aldrich admitted that this attack was in part motivated because of the actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity of any person.

“Fueled by hate, the defendant targeted members of the LGBTQIA+ community at a place that represented belonging, safety, and acceptance — stealing five people from their loved ones, injuring 19 others, and striking fear across the country,” said Attorney General Merrick Garland. “Today’s sentencing makes clear that the Justice Department is committed to protecting the right of every person in this country to live free from the fear that they will be targeted by hate-fueled violence or discrimination based on who they are or who they love. I am grateful to every agent, prosecutor, and staff member across the Department — from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado, to the Civil Rights Division, the ATF, and FBI — for their work on this case. The Justice Department will never stop working to defend the safety and civil rights of all people in our country.”

“The 2022 mass shooting at Club Q is one of the most violent crimes against the LGBTQIA+ community in history,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray. “The FBI and our partners have worked tirelessly towards this sentencing, but the true heroes are the patrons of the club who selflessly acted to subdue the defendant. This Pride Month and every month, the FBI stands with the survivors, victims, and families of homophobic violence and hate.”

“ATF will not rest until perpetrators like this defendant are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” said Steven Dettelbach, director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). “I hope today’s life sentence brings at least some peace to the victims and survivors of this senseless, horrific tragedy. That this sentence should come during Pride month reinforces how far we have left to go before all communities, including all LGBTQIA+ communities, are safe here. It also shows how far ATF and all our partners will go to ensure hatred does not win.”

“The defendant’s mass shooting and heinous targeting of Club Q is one of the most devastating assaults on the LGBTQIA+ community in our nation’s history. This sentence cannot reclaim the lives lost or undo the harms inflicted. But we hope that it provides the survivors, the victims’ families, and their communities a small measure of justice,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “Our message today should be loud and clear. No one should have to fear for their life or their safety because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. The Justice Department will vigorously investigate and prosecute those who perpetrate hate-fueled, bias-driven attacks.”

“Hate has no place in our country and no place in Colorado” said Acting U.S. Attorney Matt Kirsch for the District of Colorado. “I hope that today’s sentence demonstrates to the victims and those connected to this horrific event that we do not tolerate these heinous acts of violence.”

The FBI Denver Field Office, Colorado Springs Police Department, and ATF investigated the case.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Alison Connaughty and Bryan Fields for the District of Colorado and, Maura White of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division prosecuted the case.

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