About those ex-gay bus ads planned in London

There are three key points no one seems to have made about those homophobic ads that just got banned from London buses.

1. Remember Reverend Lynda Rose, who smeared Evan Harris with pro-life leaflets just before he lost his seat in Oxford West? Here are some of the leaflets, if you don’t. The Guardian quotes her on behalf of Anglican Mainstream, the Christian group behind the adverts.

2. Transport for London is a local government body. As a secularist, I don’t think it should be promoting any belief group, however nasty or nice their message. (This includes, in hindsight, the Atheist Bus Campaign which the BHA took over.)

3. The ads that just got banned? They didn’t get banned.

It looks certain we’ll see the usual cry of persecution from Christian groups who don’t get their way in the next few days, and the same misplaced appeal to free speech HOTS Bath made when told they needed evidence prayer could cure cancer. [Update: we will. They’re about to sue for human rights violation.] But Boris Johnson is chair of TfL, and it’s not censorship if that organisation doesn’t want to run an ad campaign. (I would note though that with London’s mayoral election coming up and the gay community one of Johnson’s electoral weak points – he previously supported Section 28 and compared gay coupling to bestiality – it seems possible his motives were less than pure.)

A friend who runs an atheist group at Cambridge said on an NSS Facebook threat that ‘there’s a major difference between “You are allowed to say what you like” and “You are allowed to say what you like on the side of my bus”.’ Quite: if Anglican mainstream want to put their ads on someone else’s buses who’s willing to promote them, I can’t see why they should be stopped.

As far as truthfulness, can we really ask Advertising Standards to rule on whether “ex-gay” is a real status? Sexual identities are subjective, slippery things not meant for empirical scrutiny, and I have no trouble believing a good psychologist could induce in a vulnerable person a sense of revulsion at queer sexuality, or stop them identifying as gay – with enough suggestion and pressure for long enough, anyway.

We might answer that by saying ‘They’re not really straight, though, are they? They’ve just been convinced they are.’ But how do you distinguish between someone’s ‘real’ sexuality and their perception of it? A great many people who identify as straight have queer sexual potential they don’t acknowledge, having grown up with anything outside heterosexual norms being stigmatised. We know you can teach someone to feel disgusted by queer desire, because parents, politicians and priests have been doing this for centuries; the only difference is that where they called this prevention, “conversion therapists” call it a cure.

It’s completely unethical, of course, and the people who do it should be stripped of all psychiatric or therapeutic qualifications. (The coverage in The Guardian is in part from Patrick Strudwick, whose amazing exposé on ex-gay “therapy” placed it atop the media agenda.) But how do you police social suggestion, and specifically the homophobia meme? If believers who do this aren’t claiming authority on mental health, as vicars and teachers in faith schools don’t, then what grounds do we have for forcibly stopping them? You can’t ban an attitude, after all, and isn’t an attitude – albeit a highly concentrated and coercive one – all conversion treatments are instilling?

It’s an example, in the end, of why secularism isn’t enough. Even once we’ve banished religious bias from the public sector, ended legal and financial exeptions for faith groups and done everything else we need to do to separate church and state, we still won’t have stopped the vulnerable being preyed on in church and at home, and filled with destructive ideas about sex, themselves and others. The only way to fight groups like Anglican Mainstream, in the long term, is to discredit their beliefs. Vive l’hérésie.

On the pathologising of queer desire

“Not gay!”, the adverts said, “Ex-gay, post-gay and proud. Get over it!”

The people behind them, Anglican Mainstream, planned this April to drive them through London on the sides of buses. Boris Johnson, acting as chair of Transport for London, vetoed the plans (the mayoral election, after all, was only weeks away). What the banners advertised was conversion therapy, described by the group as ‘supporting men and women with homosexual issues who voluntarily seek change’ – the same ostensible counselling techniques investigated in Patrick Strudwick’s exposé “The ex-gay files“.

There’s nothing new in using psychiatric structures to queerphobic ends: let’s not forget that it was only in 1990, the year before my birth, when the World Health Organisation stopped calling homosexuality a mental health disorder. The word itself was coined inPsychopathia Sexualis, Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Victorian volume on so called perversions, in which cross-dressing and BDSM are similarly pathologised. What’s interesting about Anglican Mainstream’s work, apart from their misuse of “post-gay” and expectation Oxford Street would be a hotbed of homoerotic repression, is their insistence that “there is [no] indisputable scientific evidence that people are “born gay”, and…have no choice but to affirm their homosexual feelings”.

As “The ex-gay files” shows, the current conversion movement strongly resists the notion of the homosexual person. It never refers to being gay, but always to experiencing same sex attraction; never to a mode of inherent being but always to a chosen lifestyle. This sets it apart from historical homophobes like Krafft-Ebing – who saw queer desire as a chronic medical condition and whose book reads “homosexuals…recognise one another by their gait, natural shyness and by signs just the same as normal persons of opposite sexes do” – and also from much of the LGBT community now, where the strongest opposition to Anglican Mainstream’s adverts was the “Born This Way” argument. Chris Bryant, for example, said: “Homosexuality is not a lifestyle or a choice but is a fact to be discovered or not. The pretence that homosexuality is something you can be weaned off in some way is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of creation.”

The ads’ creators and the ex-gay industry are, of course, monstrous, but isn’t it striking how Krafft-Ebing’s rhetoric, to which that of twentieth century bigotry can often be traced back, has taken over the groups it attacked? When I look at LGBT dialogue today, I see queer bodies pathologised again: homoerotic desire ascribed to an elusive ‘gay gene’, sexuality “explained” by prenatal hormones and correlations of finger-length and gender preferencebrandished as proof that, as one of Stonewall’s people put it, “being gay is [pre]determined rather than being a so-called lifestyle choice”.

That humans exist who aren’t straight is deemed a biological phenomenon, biologically resolved. We’re invited to believe that the brains and bodies of (for example) gay and straight men are, by definition, categorically different. Don’t doubt my support of science for one moment, but in British skepticism, we’re fond of one motto above all others. I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Genetics might account for sexual preferences in many cases, as it influences all kind of predispositions, but it’s far from the alpha and omega of the sexual self. Of all the world’s fiftysomething men married to women, who were raised in exclusively straight environments and have never consciously experienced queer desire, surely some will possess whatever ‘gay gene’ does exist? Likewise, is a destitute m4m sex worker without it somehow straight, and unaware of that?

Ask me if I’m gay and I’ll say no – although I do gay quite a lot. Our orientation has at least as much to do with social order as bodily nature and it can’t be reduced to something we innately are. There is no state of homosexuality: we shouldn’t view it as a mental health condition, because it’s not a condition at all. There are no homosexual people, just people who like doing homosexual things.

The problem with conversion therapists is that they teach people, as churches have done for millennia, that harmless and enjoyable impulses (whatever their provenance) are a source for guilt. So what if this is a lifestyle choice? So is vegetarianism. And if you prefer a meat free diet, that’s perfectly fine.

What are the implications of the ‘queer bodies’ narrative? If we accept that gay brains and straight brains exist – not to mention those the rest of us have – aren’t we handing people ammunition who want us to be cured? Most of us, after all, would love it in the not-too-distant future if genetic engineering eliminated cancer; once queerness is accepted as genetic, though, what’s to stop it being targeted the very same way?

Leave the idea of sexuality as a physical state unchallenged and we only risk more medically cloaked attempts to eliminate anything that isn’t heterosexuality. That those attempts would be fruitless is beside the point – they would still make queer people back into sufferers of illness, the medically defective carriers of sociosexual plague. I don’t want that to happen: they wish to cure us, as Magneto says, but I say we’re the cure.