This week, a New Jersey court fined a conversion therapy organization a penalty of up to 3.5 million dollars and ordered it to stop practicing conversion therapy. Its leaders were banned from leadership positions in non-profit organizations. The organization, once called “JONAH,” (Jews Offering Alternatives for Healing), was originally found guilty of “unconscionable commercial practices” in 2013 but renamed themselves and began offering the service again shortly after the judgement.
The court found JONAH’s advertised service, curing homosexuality through conversion therapy, wasn’t real.
What is conversion therapy?
Conversion therapy, sometimes known as reparative therapy or “sexual orientation change efforts,” has a sordid history in the United States. Its current movement began in the early 1970’s, when the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality as a diagnosable disorder from the DSM-IV. Prior to that change, techniques of chemical, electric shock, and other pain and torture “treatments” were used in clinical settings. Without a diagnosable condition, these treatments fell out of favor (but didn’t disappear altogether, unfortunately).
Reacting to the APA’s move, cries of despair from conservative groups, especially Christian organizations, turned into almost frantic efforts to define and cure the gay disease. The first Christian book on the subject was published in 1973. It was quickly retracted as the people the book claimed were cured complained they were still gay as ever. Even with its retraction, the book started a movement that expanded into many “para-church” organizations promising freedom from the grips of homosexuality.
JONAH was one organization among many that bought into prevailing thought that a poor relationship with one’s parents had a lot to do with why people aren’t straight. JONAH’s practices exposed by their court case used somewhat surprising methods to “pray the gay away.”
JONAH reportedly used techniques common to several sexual orientation change effort programs, including male-male cuddling, nudity, beating pillows in effigy representing their mothers, and all-male gang showers (like the ones I was terrified of in junior high) to free its clients of their inner gay.
Many groups use techniques to conquer one’s “affectations” of queerness. So, they would teach guys to throw footballs and women to wear makeup so they wouldn’t be gay. Movies, including “But I’m a Cheerleader,” and “Boy Erased,” feature such lessons to help their clients man- or woman-up — which may seem almost unbelievable to many until they see it with their own eyes.
Perhaps the thinking is if we don’t appear or act gay, we’d at least be able to hide it?
But, does it work?
There has been no established success record for conversion or reparative therapy in nearly 50 years of practice. With an estimated 700,000 American adults having been through conversion therapy, national rallies with ex-gay success stories typically attract a couple dozen happy converts — though notably few with gray hair.
While several groups advocate for gays who would rather not be, few, if any, would admit to practicing conversion therapy. Instead, they describe their process with words like “transformed,” “changed,” or “freed,” as though these synonyms are distance enough from the embarrassment and stigma of conversion therapy. The offer of not being gay is there, but when pressed to a hard definition of what actually changes, they balk. (sorry, a macho-baseball reference from my failed conversion therapy)
One such group, the “Changed Movement” defines freedom from homosexuality as exchanging one’s LGBTQ identity for the Christian worldview. That may come as a disappointment for those sincerely hoping to change more than how they label themselves. But cheer up: no gang showers and no football!
Former ex-gay leader McKrae Game said, “…none of the people practicing conversion therapy will say they practice conversion therapy.”
McKrae ran Hope for Wholeness for 22 years until he was fired for looking at gay pornography. He came out a year later in 2019.
The now-defunct organization McKrae founded, Hope for Wholeness, had as its motto “freedom from homosexuality through Jesus Christ.” McKrae explained at the time, he didn’t consider his services conversion therapy.
Driving without a license
A disturbing aspect of modern conversion therapy is it’s done under the auspices of religion; they’re not required to have credentials. McKrae, for example, had a total of two courses after high school, both in horticulture, before he began creating programs to treat LGBT youth brought to him for help.
It’s disturbing that people are so terrified of their kids turning out gay, they’ll bring them to a landscaper if there’s the slightest chance it might work!
John Smid was the director of the longest running residential conversion therapy program, Love In Action. This was also the outfit in the movie “Boy Erased,” where John’s character, Victor Sykes, was played by Joel Edgerton. John spent more than 20 years performing this therapy with no education, no formal training. He was a railroad clerk prior to getting his position with LIA. He’s since come out and lives with his husband.
Both Game and Smid now actively lobby to support anti-conversion therapy legislation. They are joined by dozens of other former prominent leaders from conversion therapy organizations.
Wayne Besen, founder of the watchdog organization Truth Wins Out and author of “Anything but Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth” has list after list of failed and fraudulent leaders and organizations making promises to lead people out of homosexuality. They fail to deliver and cause the potential for harming their clients with the same sort of fraud New Jersey identified in JONAH.
I was the director of women’s ministry for Exodus International. You know what I spent my time doing? Dealing with leaders in ‘ex-gay’ ministries who were having sex with the people who were coming to them for help. And that’s when I knew if the leaders, the people who have been chosen to be leaders, aren’t changing, no one is changing.
Can a person change?
What does this mean if you’re seeking a change? If you’re a person who is attracted to people of the same sex and would rather not be, I have some bad news for you:
Sexual orientation change efforts don’t work.
Trying to change our sexuality is like taking a new car to a mechanic; there’s nothing to fix. We’re not broken.
The reason conversion therapists use cuddling and teach clients how to throw a ball is they’ve got no idea how to change someone’s orientation. They’re making this stuff up!
There’s some good news, though. We’re learning more every day about this LGBTQIAA+ world: It turns out we’re just normal.
Instead of football making guys straight, football players are coming out.
Instead of being diagnosed with a mental disorder, lesbians can be mayor.
If you’re considering some sort of “change” therapy, you might consider 47 years of embarrassing failures to be your proverbial hall pass and get back to living your life as you are, not as you wish you were. Instead of searching for a cure, you can search for a community to grow in and contribute to, and a partner to give you more than just hope for wholeness.
That’s why I’m thankful for JONAH — not thankful for the lives they hurt, the messages that their clients were broken and needed repair, nor the illegal nature of their business. I’m thankful that they now stand in front of our Nation, exposed for the fraud their pseudo-science is, so we don’t have to waste our lives on it anymore.