Comment: The ex-gay ads prove public homophobia still remains acceptable

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The commercial agency responsible for selling advertising on London’s transport system thought it fit to run a deeply offensive and homophobic ad on London buses. Does this prove again, BR asks, that homophobia remains the most accepted and acceptable form of public prejudice?

When Stonewall first announced of its intention to run its now iconic slogan — ‘Some people are gay. Get over it.’ — over a thousand buses in London, I had doubts as to its merits and intentions. Wouldn’t it be better, I thought, to actually run a more engaging and less confrontational campaign in favour of equal marriage than to assert a fact that is, to put it mildly, obvious? But then, the campaign of the evangelical groups, well-funded though ill-defined, has been so insidious and penetrating in its homophobia that, by and by, seeing those buses carrying the red-grounded banners with those familiar black-and-white inscriptions was more empowering than discomfiting.

But, given what transpired today with CBSO, the company responsbile for selling and approving advertising on buses by imterpreting of Transport for London (TfL) code, I am all the gladder that Stonewall chose to run its campaign as it did. For those not in the know, two Christian organisations, fuelled by the belief that people can be ‘cured’ of their homosexuality or bisexuality through prayers and ‘therapy,’ have attempted to run a countercampaign to that of Stonewall’s, and using the same public medium, against those same red backgrounds, with the same black-and-white lettering. The message? ‘Not Gay! Ex-Gay, Post-Gay and Proud. Get over it!’

The TfL, as it happens, subcontracts advertising on buses to an advertising agency, CSBO, which says it ran the advertisement by the ASA. The rulebook of the latter clearly states that ads that cause offence on the grounds of sexual orientation, or are explicitly homophobic, are unequivocally unacceptable. Yet, lo and behold, the ASA thought the homophobic banner — yes, it is homophobic, as it suggests that being gay is an illness and an abnormality — did not breach any rules of advertisement within the U.K. It is the clearest evidence yet that homophobia remains the most acceptable and accepted form of discrimination even in ostensibly liberal countries like Britain. Substitute the word ‘gay’ in that countercampaign with an ethnic or religious minority, or, while we are at it, majority, and see if ASA approves of that.

It befell Boris Johnson, the Conservative Mayor and incumbent in the forthcoming mayoral elections, to pull the ad swiftly, following an explosion of understandable outrage across social media networks. A statement of condemnation quickly followed from the Labour candidate, Ken Livingstone and Brian Paddick of the Liberal Democrats.

All said, the cynical side of me wonders that were it not for the forthcoming elections, and the hustings at Stonewall this Saturday, Mr Johnson and Mr Livingstone would have reacted with quite the quickness and outrage they had done so today. After all, was it not Mr Johnson who once put gay marriage and bestial marriage on the same footing? And did not Mr Livingstone invite and defend a homophobic cleric?

Forgive me for saying this, but the platitudinous invocation of ‘freedom of speech’ must be one of the most pointless arguments to be made here. I think few would consider denial of the historical truth of the Holocaust, or the barring of miscegenation as permissible on account of free speech or expression. So, even if gay politicians think it defensible in those terms, one can only conclude that we are not as liberated a society as we would wish. No, deep-rooted homophobia still lurks at large like an ill-concealed wound, and the current consultations on equality in marriage has merely made the suppuration visible. There is then only one thing to do: ubi pus, ibi evacua.

Update: I had earlier written that Brian Paddick had defended the display of ads in the name of free speech. I was mistaken. He had actually made his comments against the ex-gay advertisements. I apologise for the misunderstanding.