Can Sexuality Be Changed?

A trial in New Jersey this week will determine whether telling gay people that they can become straight constitutes consumer fraud. The ruling might mean the end of so-called “conversion therapies” for good.

Lauren Giordano / The Atlantic

For 17-year-old Chaim Levin, despair came in the form of a persistent attraction to men—largely because his Orthodox Jewish community rejected homosexuality. After Levin confided to a friend that he was not interested in women, he says he was thrown out of his religious school.

Levin and his family hoped an organization called JONAH, or Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, could help him become straight. JONAH referred him to an unlicensed life coach named Alan Downing, who began treating him in weekly group and individual therapy sessions beginning in 2007 in Jersey City, New Jersey.

For one session that reportedly cost $100, Downing asked Levin to stand in front of a full-length mirror. According to court documents, Downing told Levin to say a negative thing about himself and remove an article of clothing with each criticism. When he was fully naked, Levin alleges that Downing told him to touch his penis and his buttocks. Eventually, Downing said “good,” and the session ended. Downing allegedly tried similar nudity-based methods on other JONAH clients.

Another time, Downing allegedly made Levin and another client re-enact Levin’s childhood sexual abuse. In front of other group members, the other person was instructed to tell Levin, “I won’t love you anymore if you don’t give me blowjobs,” court documents say. (Downing did not return an email and phone call requesting comment.)

Now Levin and two  other young men who also underwent JONAH-affiliated treatment are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the organization. The case is being brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Alabama-based civil-rights group, which is arguing that JONAH-style treatment—and other “gay conversion therapies” like it—amount to consumer fraud. Quite simply, the SPLC argues, conversion therapy doesn’t work. People can’t become ex-gay, and making promises to the contrary is a false bill of goods.

“These were very young men,” SPLC senior staff attorney Sam Wolfe told me. “They were from communities where they didn't know gay people, and they didn't know that much about it.”

New Jersey’s “Consumer Fraud Act protects people from lies or misleading statements,” Wolfe added. “It doesn't matter if our clients voluntarily signed up ... it was like candy to them, so of course they wanted to sign up for it. They believed and trusted the words and promises of the defendants, which turned out to be false. The defendants sold them modern-day snake oil.”

SPLC lawyers hope that if they prevail, their victory will spur other states to crack down on gay-conversion therapies of all kinds for patients of all ages. Three states, Oregon, California, and New Jersey, as well as Washington D.C., have already banned the practice for minors. Ultimately, the SPLC hopes a court victory will herald the end of ex-gay therapies nationwide. Last month, Congressman Ted Lieu, a Democrat from California, introduced a bill to ban reparative therapy at the federal level. A map created by SPLC currently lists some 70 organizations across 20 states that practice conversion therapy in some form.

Chaim Levin, left, in 2012 (Richard Drew / AP)

The defendants, meanwhile, have relied on an unusual twist of logic. Though most people remain gay or straight for life, sometimes, sexual preferences change. If sexual orientation is mutable, they say, why should it be unlawful to try to help a person change it? Conversion therapy, to JONAH and its supporters, is a matter of personal freedom and patient choice.

“I support the right of an adult to seek help from a licensed professional and to live their life as they choose and not as the SPLC says that they have to,” said Maggie Gallagher, the founding board chairwoman of the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, which is defending JONAH. For some gay people, “their identity in their religious faith is more important to them than their putative sexual identity, and that's a choice that people are entitled to make.”

At the trial beginning this week, a New Jersey jury will determine if she’s right.

* * *

One reason conversion therapy still exists, even in a time of tremendous progress for gay rights, is that the roots of sexual orientation—and of sexual desire in general—have proved devilishly difficult to uncover clinically. Conversion therapists have used this scientific gap to their advantage.

Nobody really knows how people become gay or straight. A complicated stew of genetics, hormones, upbringing, and environment compels a person to desire some humans over others. Lending some credence to the idea that people are “born this way,” Harvard neuroscientist Simon LeVay found that a region of the brain called the INAH-3, which helps to regulate sexual behavior, tends to be much larger in straight men than in gay men. Some studies have shown that men with older brothers are more likely to be gay. But as LeVay told Salon recently, “being gay or lesbian is not an isolated trait, but part of a package of gendered traits that go together.”

What mainstream experts agree on, though, is that homosexuality is perfectly normal. (Indeed, a New Jersey Superior Court judge has already granted the SPLC one victory, ruling that it is fraudulent to say that homosexuality is a disorder.)

Christine Sun, right, the deputy legal director for the
SPLC, confers with the JONAH plaintiff Michael
Ferguson, second right, in 2012. (Richard Drew / AP)

It would also be tricky to gauge whether someone has truly become “ex-gay.” Experiments that measure desire only confuse matters further. In studies, straight women tend to get turned on by nude images of other women, and though men’s physiological arousal tends to more closely match their professed sexual preference, at least a small percentage of straight men watch gay porn. Furthermore, many conversion efforts fail because the mere presence of fire in one’s loins is far from the all-encompassing affection it takes to build a lasting romantic relationship.

“People's sexual orientation is something that they feel is a very central part of their being,” said Gregory Herek, a psychology professor at the University of California in Davis. “When you have the idea of people trying to change it in therapy, it's attempting to change something that's a very core part of the person.”

Doctors’ groups have said repeatedly that conversion therapies don’t work—and that it’s rare for people to become ex-gay. The author of one of the few studies suggesting these treatments are effective, the psychiatrist Robert Spitzer, has admitted to major problems with his study and apologized for publishing it.

“Enduring change to an individual’s sexual orientation is uncommon,” the American Psychological Association wrote in a 2009 report on the topic after reviewing studies on the effectiveness of conversion therapies. “The participants in this body of research continued to experience same-sex attractions following [sexual-orientation change efforts]. Compelling evidence of decreased same-sex sexual behavior ... was rare.”

The SPLC complaint, meanwhile, alleges that the JONAH co-founder Arthur Goldberg told one of the plaintiffs, Benjamin Unger, that “change is absolutely possible,” and that Unger could essentially stop being gay within two to four years.

Still, some people do experience sexual-orientation fluidity—a finding based largely on studies of women who have oscillated from lesbian to bisexual to straight—and some conversion therapists use this idea to bolster their claim that treatments can work for those who want to change. In its court filings, JONAH’s lawyers point out that the American Psychological Association’s own report on sexual-orientation change therapy says that, “for some, sexual-orientation identity is fluid or has an indefinite outcome.” They also argue that JONAH’s views on the changeability and causes of homosexuality are just opinions, and differences of opinion can’t be the basis for a fraud case.

But the fact that some peoples’ sexual preference fluctuates, mental-health professionals say, is not the point: People who seek out conversion therapy often do it because of extreme stigma in their communities, and not because of some intrinsic desire to be straight. The problem is the discrimination, not the sexuality.

“Do I think that I was “born gay”? I don’t know and I am not sure how important that is,” Levin wrote in an op-ed about his experience. “What is important is that it certainly is not something that I chose or had anything to do with. And I felt immense pressure to somehow change who I was.”

* * *

JONAH was formed in 1999 by Elaine Silodor Berk and Goldberg, a former Wall Street banker who served prison time in the 1980s for selling fraudulent municipal bonds. Both are practicing Jews who have gay adult sons.

They chose the name JONAH, court documents say, “in reference to the Jewish Prophet Jonah from Gath-Heper in Israel, who was sent by God to preach to the non-Israelites in Nineveh; the people repented and changed their ways, and the city was saved from destruction. They believe that the story of the Prophet Jonah will give their clients the hope they need to succeed as well.”

JONAH representatives say the group’s aim is not to criticize certain lifestyles, but they do say that “many Jews and other individuals cannot recognize all consensual sexual practices as ... spiritually rewarding.” JONAH’s lawyers contend that New Jersey courts should not meddle in what is, in part, a religious matter.

Not all conversion therapies are religiously motivated, however. Nicholas Cummings, the chief psychologist for Kaiser Permanente from 1959 to 1979 and a former APA president, was one of the champions of the 1975 APA resolution that stated that homosexuality is not a mental disorder. However, he has also said his practice saw 18,000 gay patients over the years, and “hundreds” changed their sexual orientation. Downing, the life coach who allegedly forced Levin to strip for him, had a career in the arts, according to court files, before realizing “that he was particularly talented at various modalities within [sexual-orientation change efforts] due to his background in theater and music.”

Some conversion therapy practices appear to be driven by the (scientifically inaccurate) view that homosexuality is caused by overly strong attachments to women or insufficient platonic male friendships. In the complaint, Downing is accused of asking Unger to beat an effigy of his mother with a tennis racket, “as though killing her.” Unger was also allegedly encouraged to spend more time naked with his father. (Gallagher, JONAH’s chairwoman, would not comment on Downing’s tactics, saying she is not a therapist.)

Chris Doyle is a licensed counselor and the director of the International Healing Foundation, a Maryland organization that works on all issues related to sexual orientation, including conversion. He was also going to be an expert witness in the JONAH trial until the judge barred him and several others because they planned to bring scientifically refuted testimony, The New Jersey Star-Ledger reported.

Doyle said he uses mostly experiential, talk, and cognitive-behavioral therapies in his practice and doesn’t “necessarily” use the approaches Downing is accused of employing. It’s not the media’s place to analyze therapy techniques, he said, before adding that the undressing session “was actually fine for what [Downing] was trying to do.”

Doyle, who considers himself a former homosexual, is now married with children. He was a sensitive child, he said, and he had trouble bonding with his father. He was later abused by an older female cousin, and “that caused me have a disdain toward women because of the abuse.”

“When I resolved those issues in my early 20s ... my same-sex attractions really went away,” he said. “I realized that for some people, this wasn’t simply just something that they had to accept, they could actually work through these issues if they wanted to and go on to live a heterosexual life. I don’t have any disdain for the LGBT community, but I chose a different path.”

Most of his clients who struggle with unwanted same-sex attractions are male, and are “almost always over-attached to their mothers. That's created wounding for them. They want to be like regular guys, but they don't feel like regular guys,” he said.

Doyle believes these men sexualize their need for friendship with other men, and that he can help them with this just like a therapist might help a patient overcome her depression. “We’re helping the client get those ... unmet love needs and healthy same-sex relationships that aren’t sexual,” he said. “When they do that, they experience freedom, they experience who they really are.”

* * *

The medical establishment is not sympathetic to perspectives like these. In addition to the APA, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Counseling Association, the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, and other groups have all condemned conversion therapies. The APA encourages practitioners not to try to change their patients’ sexual orientation, “keeping in mind the medical dictum to First do no Harm”

Though its proponents boast success stories, conversion therapy can be extremely damaging: In videos about his experience, Levin has said that when he didn’t change, he blamed himself. Unger was later treated for severe depression, SPLC lawyers say. Levin attempted suicide by swallowing pills.

The fact that several states have curtailed the use of conversion therapies for minors suggests that officials are increasingly acknowledging the power of mental healthcare: that unproven psychotherapy techniques can be be just as injurious as untested blood-pressure pills.

“The reason these approaches went unnoticed for a long time was the belief that there was no harm in trying,” said Jack Drescher, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who helped write the APA’s reports on conversion therapies. But “if you talk to the so-called ex-gay survivors, they can tell you about the type of harm they experienced, the harmful things that the therapists say to them.”

Drescher’s view on JONAH is unambiguous: “They prey on desperate religious people. Their market [is] people who are confused, unhappy, and who will try anything because they are desperate.”

Herek said that some people who go through conversion interventions might be able to suppress their same-sex attraction, at least temporarily, but they generally aren’t able to make themselves long for the opposite sex. “They just lose their sense of sexual attraction to anyone,” he said.

He recommends that people who have trouble accepting their homosexuality instead work to integrate their true sexual orientation more fully into their overall sense of self.

Randy Thomas, a former executive vice president with the ex-gay Christian network Exodus International, now says he wished he had never tried to change his sexual orientation. Exodus disbanded in 2013 amid growing skepticism among its own leaders that sexuality conversion is possible.

After coming out as gay at 19, and converting to Christianity five years later, Thomas spent many years working for Exodus as a self-described “poster boy” for the idea that gay people can become straight. This past January, he came out as gay once again. (“I still love Jesus, and he still loves me,” he told me recently.)

To gay people who are considering conversion therapy, Thomas now says, “spare yourself the shame, pain, and condemnation. If you're LGBTQ, never buy into the lie that God is angry with you. God is there for you; he loves you. You are beloved by him, and anyone who can't see the inherent worth of who you are, just walk away.”