U. student joins suit challenging 'conversion therapy' for gay people
Controversial treatment • The U. student and three other men say the "conversion" procedures failed to help them and caused depression.
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A University of Utah student, along with three other gay men, filed the first lawsuit Tuesday against those who perform "conversion therapy," the controversial treatment for changing a person's sexual orientation from gay to straight.

Helping the men is Utah's first openly gay state senator, attorney Scott McCoy, who will represent the students in the lawsuit, which was announced at a news conference in New York City —where McCoy now lives.

The four gay men, Michael Ferguson, who lives in Salt Lake City, and Benjamin Unger, Chaim Levin and Sheldon Bruck, all of New York City, underwent conversion therapy at a New Jersey center called JONAH, Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing.

The men are suing under New Jersey's Consumer Fraud Act, which protects people from deceptive, false or fraudulent business practices, claiming the conversion therapy, which could cost more than $10,000 annually, caused depression and other harm when they were unable to change their sexual orientation.

Ferguson, a U. doctorate student studying bioengineering, said he attended a weekend retreat with other LDS friends who were gay or dealing with "same-sex attraction."

"I was desperate to quote, overcome, unquote my SSA," Ferguson said Tuesday. "The core damage is the insidious lie that there's something wrong inside of you and that you can fix it. When you are in a place of desperation, there are a lot of things you will do."

During the conversion retreat, Ferguson said he participated in such exercises as the "human barricade," when he had to push through men linked arm in arm, then grab two oranges and squeeze them, representing his testicles, his masculinity.

Levin, 23, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family, said he knew there was something wrong when his therapist told him to strip off all his clothes and hold his penis in front of a mirror.

"I really wanted to believe I could change," Levin said. "Then they blamed me."

Levin, who underwent therapy for more than a year at JONAH, said his experience with conversion therapy was traumatic because he was sexually abused as a child.

The lawsuit will have little impact on Salt Lake City-based Evergreen International, said its president, David Pruden. The nonprofit organization "provides education, guidance, and support to those involved in the transition from homosexuality, and is available as a resource to family, friends, professional counselors, religious leaders, and all others involved in assisting individuals who desire to change," according to its website.

Pruden said his organization is geared toward Mormons who experience same-sex attraction and want to follow the doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"We don't use any kind of therapy at Evergreen," Pruden said. "We support through mentors who have dealt with it in their own lives. When people come to Evergreen, we don't suggest for a moment that this will go away."

Although Evergreen is not affiliated with the Mormon church, Pruden said his organization follows the church's publication dealing with gay people called "God Loveth His Children."

Sam Wolfe, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said conversion therapy is based on the erroneous belief that being gay is a mental disorder, a notion rejected by mainstream health organizations, including the American Psychiatric Association.

"We want to dispel the myths that these people hold any answers," Wolfe said. "Sexual orientation does not need repair. We'll hold them accountable for their lies and abuse to our clients."

The lawsuit describes some of the four men undergoing the following as part of the conversion therapy: removing all their clothes during sessions; intimate hugging between them and older counselors of the same sex; hitting an effigy of the client's mother with a tennis racket; attending gyms more often in order to be nude with "father figures;" and undergoing mock locker-room scenarios.

Jerry Buie said he underwent Evergreen's program after returning from his mission and disclosing his attraction to other men. He describes himself now as "supergay."

"These groups are trying to fix the gay," said Buie, a licensed clinical social worker who runs Pride Counseling in Salt Lake City. "They said get married and once you have sex everything will be fine.

"They measure it: If not having gay sex, then successful. They reduce sexual orientation down to gay sex. ... You can't reduce someone's identity to a behavior. Talk about objectification."

He's a member of the LGBTQ-Affirmative Psychotherapist Guild of Utah, a network of licensed therapists who counsel gay people.

Jim Struve, the Guild coordinator and a licensed clinical social worker, said many of the faith-based groups do not have state-licensed therapists.

LGBTQ-affirmative therapists consider the gay client the same as a heterosexual one.

"These [faith-based] groups have a bias that being gay or lesbian is seen as pathological or a mental disorder," Struve said. "I don't know of any [mental health] professional association who has not come out and disavowed conversion therapy."

In private practice for 35 years, Struve is collecting stories of people who have gone through so called conversion therapy, which will be posted on the Guild's website: Lgbtqtherapists.com.

Both Jo Bruck and Bella Levin, two of the men's mothers, are plaintiffs in the lawsuit seeking the money they spent on their sons' conversion therapy.

In addition to the JONAH organization, the lawsuit names its director, Arthur Goldberg, and Alan Downing Life Coaching. Goldberg could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Wolfe of the Southern Poverty Law Center said, "This is part of a broader campaign to end conversion therapy, not just to seek justice for these wrongs."

Levin said he hoped that religious parents will become aware of how conversion therapy fosters misconceptions about gay people.

"Hopefully," Levin said, "someone will not have to go through that same experience."

rparker@sltrib.com

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