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.