‘Ex-gay’ movement advertisements which were to have appeared on the sides of London buses have been blocked by the Mayor of London, to the relief of many. Mayor Boris Johnson is chair of Transport for London. However Mike Davidson of the Core Issues Trust, which placed the ads with backing from Anglican Mainstream, accused him of “censorship”.
Tension can sometimes arise between freedom of expression and protection of sections of society from discrimination and the wider public from offence. Getting the right balance in such instances can be difficult.
What is surprising in this case, however, is that the Advertising Standards Authority had apparently cleared the ads in the first place. These read “Not gay! Post-gay, ex-gay and proud. Get over it!” This implies that, if one is attracted mainly to the same sex, changing one’s sexual orientation is possible and desirable.
This is borne out by Core Issues Trust’s commitment to “support men and women with homosexual issues who voluntarily seek change in sexual preference and expression”. The Anglican Mainstream website, announcing the advertising campaign, claims that “sexuality is far more fluid than has hitherto been thought”.
So the claim touches on science, as well as religion and ethics. And on this basis, since matters of fact as well as opinion are involved, this campaign would have fallen foul of the rule that ads must not mislead.
Over the past century, numerous methods have been used to try to change people’s sexual orientation. Prayer, willpower, hormonal treatment, psychotherapy, aversion therapy, reparative therapy and other approaches have however proved generally ineffective, and often resulted in harm.
There may be minor changes in some people’s sexuality, and a handful may experience a more noteworthy shift. But for the vast majority, sexual orientation has proved to be more or less constant, though how this is expressed may be culturally influenced.
Many Christians and other people of faith now believe that loving, committed same-sex partnerships can be spiritually as well as emotionally positive. Even those who cling to the belief that homosexual feelings should not be physically expressed often suggest that lesbian and gay people should try to stay celibate, though this can also be problematic.
A few however still insist that gay and lesbian people can and should be ‘cured’. This ignores huge amounts of evidence. Even a study cited by the groups behind the ads does not bear out the exaggerated claims made. It is not surprising that so many leaders of the ‘ex-gay’ movement have abandoned it and apologised for the damage they have done.
If an ad were to urge short-sighted people, or religious grounds, to stop wearing spectacles, treating the resulting inconvenience and risk as a sign of devotion to God, this might indicate a flawed theology. However if it implied that the faithful should throw away their glasses and could rely on prayer and psychotherapy to give them good eyesight, it would clearly breach the rules. This is not to say that sexual orientation is equivalent to myopia – far from it. But in both cases, pseudo-scientific claims would violate advertising guidelines, whether or not an ad was too offensive to appear on London buses.
(c) Savi Hensman is a widely-published Christian commentator on politics, society, religion and LGBT issues. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the care and equalities sector.