As revelers flooded the streets of American cities to celebrate the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of same-sex marriage last week, a New Jersey jury quietly handed down another significant legal victory for LGBT Americans. And while it may not be as legally significant as the Supreme Court's resounding affirmation of the constitutional right to marriage, it's a significant step forward for the perception of homosexuality in America.
After years of legal back-and-forth, a New Jersey jury ruled on Thursday that so-called "conversion therapy"—medical treatments that purport to turn homosexual people heterosexual—represents a violation of New Jersey's Consumer Fraud Act. In the case of Ferguson v. JONAH, the jury concluded that the co-founder of Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), a Jewish non-profit practicing conversion therapy, "engaged in unconscionable business practices" by offering their services, according to the Associated Press. Attorneys for the plaintiffs had argued that JONAH co-founder Arthur Goldberg and counselor Alan Downing had "misrepresented" the groups services, using therapy methods that had "no scientific basis" and masking their methods' supposed success rate. The defendants must pay a total of $72,400 in damages to the plaintiffs.
Conversion therapy is considered a particularly dangerous practice in the eyes of American psychological and medical professionals, but it has persisted in both religious institutions and mental-health facilities since the 19th century. In past decades, the actual "therapy" often included electroshock therapy; more recently, conversion therapy has involved the use of oranges as testicles, and verbally abusing patients with homophobic language. In the JONAH case, the defendants allegedly had a client "beat a pillow, meant to represent his mother, with a tennis racket," according to the Courier-Post. Conversion therapy is considered so dangerous that the Southern Poverty Law Center filed the first-in-its-kind lawsuit against JONAH in 2012 in order to set a legal precedent against the practice. "Conversion therapy has been discredited or highly criticized by virtually all major American medical, psychiatric, psychological and professional counseling organizations," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center's website. "People who have undergone conversion therapy have reported increased anxiety, depression, and in some cases, suicidal ideation."
Nearly 70 therapists still advertise the practice of gay conversion therapy in nearly 20 states.
The New Jersey ruling isn’t just a blow to a long-discredited, jaw-droppingly vicious form of therapy, but also a forceful statement on the perception of homosexuality in America. As I’ve written before, the majority of psychological literature on homosexuality used to be based on the presumption that homosexual behavior was a mental disorder, a psychological aberration that necessitated treatment to return patients to a "normal" heteronormative orientation. It wasn't until 1973 that references to homosexuality as a mental disorder were removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and it wasn't until 1975 that the organization ordered that physicians "take the lead" on reducing the stigma. But, by then, the scars of a century of psychoanalysis has persisted; according to the SPLC, nearly 70 therapists still advertise the practice of gay conversion therapy in nearly 20 states.
This, then, is the glory of Ferguson v. JONAH: The decision "is a triumph for every gay man and woman who has ever been told that their sexual orientation was a disease, a disorder or an aberration," as Mic's Scott Bixby writes. While the Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage is certainly historic—and the product of a decades-long struggle for equal protection under the law—it's a specific legal victory for same-sex couples. The argument set forward by the JONAH case, on the other hand, attacks the logic that subtly shapes nearly every past and future debate over the social and political standing of LGBT rights in America: Can you choose to be gay? For those who seek to delegitimize the struggle of gay Americans by casting their behavior as a fad, a choice, or an aberration in need of curing, JONAH offers a resounding shut-down.
Psychologists have argued for decades that conversion therapy deserves to be relegated to the darkest corners of history, an LGBT equivalent of the Buck v. Bell decision that allowed the compulsory sterilization of the mentally deficient. The very existence of conversion therapy is an existential threat, a determination that a certain class of Americans are sub-human and in need of "fixing." But apart from the ethical argument, there’s a clearer scientific one: A preponderance of evidence over the last two decades suggests that conversion therapy has inconsistent, if not outright dubious, results. As Tom Jacobs explains:
Who are the therapists who participate in this practice, in spite of the lack of evidence supporting it? A paper published this past January in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy found the answer: ignorant ones, basically. A survey of 762 marriage and family therapists found that “those who believe in the ethics and/or practice conversion therapy report statistically higher levels of negative beliefs of lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals, and lower levels of clinical competence working with lesbian, gay, and bisexual clients.”
As it turns out, JONAH may just be a stepping stone toward a more significant trend in how Americans think about homosexuality. In 2013, New Jersey passed new legislation banning conversion therapy on minors, which explicitly says that "being lesbian, gay or bisexual is not a disease, disorder, illness, deficiency or shortcoming." California and the District of Columbia have similar statutes in place. In April, President Obama called for the end of conversion therapies for gay, lesbian, and transgender youth, and, as recently as May, the Supreme Court has turned away challengers to the state ban.
Speaking to the Associated Press, attorney David Dinielli sums up the consequences of the last few months, culminating with the jury’s decision in JONAH, perfectly: "This is a momentous event in the history of LGBT rights.... The same lies that motivate gay conversion therapy motivate homophobia—that gay people are broken and need to be fixed."