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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.


The White House

Biden’s Pride month proclamation: ‘Our nation faces another inflection point’

States across the country have passed anti-LGBTQ laws



The White House was lit in rainbow colors following the Respect for Marriage Act signing in December 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Just as the 1969 Stonewall riots marked a transformational time for LGBTQ civil rights in America, the country now faces another critical inflection point, President Joe Biden said in the White House’s proclamation Wednesday honoring Pride month.

This moment is precipitated by the wave of hateful anti-LGBTQ legislation moving through state and local legislatures across the country and amid the escalating violence and threats of violence against the community, the statement notes:

“In 2023 alone, state and local legislatures have already introduced over 600 hateful laws targeting the LGBTQI+ community. Books about LGBTQI+ people are being banned from libraries. Transgender youth in over a dozen states have had their medically necessary health care banned. Homophobic and transphobic vitriol spewed online has spilled over into real life, as armed hate groups intimidate people at Pride marches and drag performances, and threaten doctors’ offices and children’s hospitals that offer care to the LGBTQI+ community. Our hearts are heavy with grief for the loved ones we have lost to anti-LGBTQI+ violence.”

Biden drew parallels between the “LGBTQI+ protestors” who “bravely stood their ground” against the law enforcement dispatched to arrest them more than 50 years ago and the youth organizers leading walkouts in response to discriminatory education laws, along with the “young people and their parents [who] are demonstrating unimaginable courage by testifying in state capitols in defense of their basic rights.”

The statement reaffirms the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to standing “proudly with the LGBTQI+ community in the enduring struggle for freedom, justice and equality,” chronicling some of the major steps the administration has taken on this front.

Biden highlighted his issuance, on his first day in office, of an executive order prohibiting anti-LGBTQ discrimination, along with his signage last year of the Respect for Marriage Act, which codified protects for the rights of same-sex couples that might otherwise be jeopardized by the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority.

The statement then noted the administration’s moves to protect LGBTQ youth by ordering federal agencies to: Combat conversion therapy, “end the crisis of homelessness among LGBTQI+ youth and adults,” and address anti-LGBTQ discrimination in foster care.

Meanwhile, Biden said, the Justice Department is fighting against discriminatory laws targeting transgender youth, while the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services have drafted rules that would better protect anti-LGBTQ discrimination “in healthcare, at school and in sports” and the White House is developing ways to combat online harassment and abuse that “disproportionately target LGBTQ people.”

Finally, the White House noted: Its rollout last year of the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline for LGBTQ youth, who can now reach specially trained counselors by dialing 988 and then three; the administration’s appointment of historic numbers of LGBTQ appointees at all levels of the federal government; and its repeal of bans preventing trans people from serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.

From passing federal nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ Americans via the Equality Act to addressing “the crisis of violence against transgender women and girls of color,” Biden acknowledged the work that lies ahead.

“This month and every month,” his proclamation concludes, “let us celebrate the pride that powers the movement for LGBTQI+ rights and commit to doing our part to help realize the promise of America, for all Americans.”

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Defense secretary orders cancellation of drag show at Nev. Air Force base

Event was to have taken place at Nellis AFB on Thursday



Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force Public Affairs)

A previously scheduled drag show to kick off Pride month on the sprawling Nellis Air Force Base, an advanced combat aviation training facility for the U.S. Air Force northeast of Las Vegas, was cancelled Wednesday according to a Pentagon official, after U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stepped in.

A Pentagon source familiar with the matter told the Washington Blade that Milley informed Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., that it is not Pentagon policy to fund drag shows on bases and the show needed to be canceled or moved off base. 

The issue over drag performances was a focus at a House Armed Services Committee hearing earlier this year on March 29, when anti-LGBTQ Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) demanded in an angry tone that Austin and Milley explain why drag queen story hours were being hosted on U.S. military installations. The Florida Republican mentioned bases in Montana, Nevada, Virginia and Germany.

In a highly publicized incident in May 2022, Stars and Stripes reported that the Commanding General of the 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany had a drag queen story time, that was to be held in honor of Pride month cancelled. 

According to Stars and Stripes, the 86th Air Wing’s public affairs sent a statement to a radical-right anti-LGBTQ news outlet in Canada, the Post Millennial, which had requested comment to its article about the event and also accused the Air Force of pushing a more “woke” agenda among servicemen. 

In a press release, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) took partial credit for the cancellation.

Rubio sent a letter to U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall regarding the Air Force Library at Ramstein hosting a “Drag Queen Story Time” event for young children of servicemembers. 

Rubio urged him to cancel the event, discipline the staff involved in planning and hosting the event and respond to questions on whether other installations both at home and around the world have done similar events. Following receipt of Rubio’s letter, the Air Force canceled the event. 

“The last thing parents serving their nation overseas should be worried about, particularly in a theater with heightened geopolitical tensions, is whether their children are being exposed to sexually charged content simply because they visited their local library,” Rubio wrote.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin, III, and Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, meet with U.S. Army Gen. Scott Miller at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on July 14, 2021. (Photo by Carlos M. Vazquez, Department of Defense)

A Pentagon official referring to the drag show at Nellis said Milley was visibly angry about the decision to host the event on base after being informed about it earlier this week.

The drag show was scheduled for Thursday, but Maj. Gen. Case A. Cunningham, the commander of the U.S. Air Force Warfare Center at Nellis was informed in the past few days that it must either be canceled or moved off base. 

On May 23, Gaetz sent a letter to Austin and Milley, alleging that the “pervasive and persistent use of taxpayer dollars for drag events,” had a June 1 Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., event scheduled.

Gaetz went on to write that “Nellis Air Force Base has announced a so-called ‘family-friendly’ drag organized by the Nellis LGBTQ+ Pride Council for June 1, 2023. In this latest outright attack on children, this event is being advertised as having no minimum age requirement.” 

In his letter Gaetz also demanded to know: 

  • Does the DoD feel it’s appropriate for children to attend a sexualized drag performance?
  • Why are base commanders defying your intent and direction by facilitating drag events?
  • If this event goes forward, whether on June 1 or a later scheduled date, please provide an explanation regarding your justification for why you allowed the event to take place.

According to a spokesperson for the U.S. Air Force Warfare Center, Nellis, in June 2021 the base had hosted a Pride month drag show titled “Drag-u-Nellis.” The spokesperson noted the 2021 show was intended to promote inclusivity and diversity. 

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Ala. extends ban on transgender female athletes to universities

Republican Gov. Kay Ivey signed bill on Tuesday



Alabama Capitol (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Governor Kay Ivey on Tuesday signed House Bill 261, which limits transgender students to playing sports in public colleges and universities only with “their biological sex assigned at birth.”

“Look, if you are a biological male, you are not going to be competing in women’s and girls’ sports in Alabama. It’s about fairness, plain and simple,”  said Ivey in a statement released by her office.

House Bill 261 was approved 26-4 in the Alabama Senate and 83-5 in the House of Representatives. In the vote in the House more than a dozen lawmakers abstained from the vote.

Ivey had previously signed legislation in 2021 banning trans female athletes from competing in K-12 girls sports. At the time she signed that bill the governor had noted that “Alabama remains committed to protecting female athletes at all levels and upholding the integrity of athletics.”

Carmarion D. Anderson-Harvey, Alabama state director of the Human Rights Campaign, said the legislation is part of a “systematic attack against LGBTQ+ people” in Alabama and elsewhere.

“In just two years, [Ivey] and extremist lawmakers in Alabama have passed four anti-LGBTQ+ bills. From dictating what bathrooms we can use to blatantly ignoring the actual problems in women’s sports, these politicians are making Alabama an increasingly hostile place for transgender people and the LGBTQ+ community as a whole,” Anderson-Harvey said.

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