JERSEY CITY, N.J. — One of four plaintiffs who sued a nonprofit that promised to turn them from gay to heterosexual wept on the witness stand Wednesday as he described cutting off contact with his mother after being told she was the cause of his homosexuality.
Benjamin Unger also described for jurors an exercise in which he was encouraged to take a tennis racket and repeatedly beat a pillow, meant to symbolize his mother.
“I had a gash in my hand” from taking so many swipes with the racket, Unger said.
The four men sued Jersey City-based Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing in 2012 under New Jersey’s consumer fraud laws, claiming the group violated state consumer fraud laws by characterizing homosexuality as a mental disorder and claiming it could successfully change patients’ sexual orientation.
The plaintiffs say they underwent treatment that included being told to spend more time naked with their fathers and participating in role-playing in which they were subjected to anti-gay slurs in a locker room setting.
The group’s attorney said during his opening statement Wednesday that even the plaintiffs’ experts will testify that its methods are commonly used by therapists and that some patients have reported successful experiences.
Three of the four plaintiffs were young men from Orthodox Jewish families, plaintiffs’ attorney David Dinielli said, who were grappling with their sexuality in a culture in which “there were no gay people” and there was pressure to marry and have children. The fourth, Michael Ferguson, is a Mormon who sought out JONAH.
“My clients needed help but JONAH lied and JONAH made it worse,” Dinielli told jurors. “All they got was junk science and so-called cures.”
Attorney Charles LiMandri, representing JONAH, said none of the four men asked for their money back at the time.
“All four of these men left JONAH on good terms, speaking glowingly” of their experience and referring it to friends, he said. It was only after being contacted by activists that they denounced the organization, he said.
“The plaintiffs became aggressors after they left JONAH to destroy JONAH,” LiMandri said.
Cross-examining Unger, LiMandri displayed emails Unger had sent at the time of the therapy in which he sounded pleased with his progress. His questioning sought to show jurors that Unger had willingly sought out the treatment but discontinued it after 10 months — well before the two years to four years JONAH suggested it would take for conversion.
The trial is scheduled to resume Monday.
The lawsuit is the latest court battle in New Jersey regarding conversion therapy, a practice that has come under fire from gay rights groups, which are trying to ban it in more than a dozen states.
Lawyers for JONAH have argued that debate continues among scientists about whether sexual orientation is fixed or changeable and whether conversion therapy is harmful. They charge that plaintiffs are seeking to “shut down the debate by making one viewpoint on the issue literally illegal.”
Republican Gov. Chris Christie signed a law in 2013 banning licensed therapists from practicing conversion therapy in New Jersey. Two court challenges to the ban, one by a couple and their son and one by a group that included two licensed therapists, were dismissed by a federal judge. Those decisions were later affirmed by a federal appeals court.
This story has been corrected to remove a reference to the three Orthodox Jewish men being from Brooklyn. Only two were from Brooklyn.