Op-ed: Gay-conversion therapy should be exposed for what it is, consumer fraud

First Published      Last Updated Feb 17 2016 02:37 pm

Gay conversion therapy went on public trial this summer, with a cast of Mormon and Jewish witnesses testifying about the practice, including plaintiff Michael Ferguson of Salt Lake City. At trial, the Southern Poverty Law Center in the case Ferguson vs. JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing), proved what most people now understand: "Therapies" that purport to change sexual orientation are a sham. They do not work, they're unscientific and can cause serious psychological harm. They also amount to consumer fraud.

A jury in New Jersey unanimously determined that JONAH's conversion therapy amounted to an unconscionable business practice and was consumer fraud. JONAH falsely claimed it had converted hundreds of people from gay to straight. Clients who testified for JONAH about their "success," revealed just the opposite: Despite years of effort and expense, the men generally admitted to remaining primarily sexually attracted to other men, despite sometimes marrying women. JONAH could not offer testimony from a single client whose sexual orientation had transformed through its program.

Witnesses in the closely watched trial included Jeff Bennion and Preston Dahlgren, of TLC's program, "My Husband's 'Not' Gay." They lead North Star, a Utah-based group that serves "same-sex attracted" individuals who don't identify as gay and wish to remain close to the Mormon church.

The two men, like many others from North Star, are linked to People Can Change (PCC), a conversion therapy group. PCC sponsors weekends in the woods called Journey Into Manhood and an "advanced" Journey Beyond weekend. JONAH integrated PCC weekends into its conversion therapy program, making PCC a subject of trial.

Journey Beyond participants begin a weekend of role-play exercises with nude rebirthing, complete with baby powder. Counselors — who later join participants fully naked — hold and nurture the new babies. Participants act out developing to boyhood. They go skinny-dipping and smear mud and cake on each others' naked bodies before taking a group shower with staff to wash off.

Participants also role play going through adolescence, discovering their "masculine" bodies, blindfolded and nude in nature while stimulated by a variety of senses. Eventually, participants reach manhood and explore "the feminine" side by interacting blindfolded with a bolt of soft cloth. Official trial testimony revealed these secret activities to the public for the first time.

If a group of men who are attracted to other men want to spend an intimate weekend together naked and often blindfolded or bound, then they should go have fun. But it shouldn't be sold as part of a scientific or proven program to help gay men become straight. That's a farce, and it's consumer fraud.

For North Star leaders and other proponents of such conversion therapy programs, it's time to come clean. Stop supporting the pernicious myth of sexual orientation change through programs like People Can Change.

Admit, as did most every one of the defense's "success story" witnesses who testified, that despite efforts to change sexual orientation, clients who began as homosexual remain predominantly attracted to men.

Give the whole picture of what is involved for many leaders and members of North Star and People Can Change who enter mixed-orientation marriages and remain active in the Mormon church. Church leaders, LGBT Mormon youth, their families, and the broader LGBT and Mormon community deserve the whole truth.

Be honest that for many affiliated with the North Star group, programs include secret nude men's weekends in the woods and prolonged cuddling sessions with other men.

Instead of clinging to the failed experiment of orientation change efforts, our communities must embrace and support all members regardless of their sexual orientation. It is essential that, as part of this support, these bogus, harmful programs be exposed and abandoned for what they are, consumer fraud.

Sam Wolfe is a staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center.