Big Gay Bus? Or Ex-Big Gay Bus?

I woke up the radio news this morning to learn of a London bus advert that has been banned by TFL (Transport for London). If you’re in Britain you may already know about it but if you haven’t yet heard you can read the story from the bbc here. In summary, an advert from an organisation claiming to be able to ‘cure gayness’ has been banned for being offensive. This is the text (capitals intended as on the advert) that was to be printed down the side of the buses:

“NOT GAY! EX-GAY, POST-GAY AND PROUD. GET OVER IT.”

It was meant as a response to (and copied the style of) the advert by Stonewall, the LGBT charity which, since 1st April has 1000 buses with this on the side:

“SOME PEOPLE ARE GAY. GET OVER IT.”

My initial reaction to the story was, ‘good, I can’t believe they thought it was ok to say stuff like that in public’ and I still feel like that. The sentiments behind the ad, although not explicitly printed on it, are that homosexuality is some sort of mental illness or disease that can be cured through therapy. That is what the group who put the advert forward, Core Issues Trust, promote:

“CORE is a non-profit Christian initiative seeking to support men and women with homosexual issues who voluntarily seek change in sexual preference and expression”

Clearly with a mission statement like that, I think we should be wary about promoting their adverts. However, there is a part of me that is uneasy with the banning of any advert merely on the basis of it being offensive to some people. It is, after all, not obscene, crude or crass. This is a topic over which two of my most strongly held beliefs, freedom of speech and freedom from prejudice, are in direct opposition with each other. That the advert is offensive and designed to be so is not in question, that it is designed to cause controversy and promote discussion is also clear. The same could also be said of the humanist ‘there probably is no god…’ bus advert from a few years ago, yet that was not banned. Should these groups be free to express their views in public forums? My ‘freedom of speech’ head tells me yes, one cannot claim to live in a free society without having to listen to opinions one thoroughly disagrees with, just as those who disagree with me should not be able to silence me for the same reasons. My ‘freedom from prejudice’ head tells me no, you cannot allow those among us who have such horrendously outdated, divisive and bigoted views to promote the concept of homosexuality as something that is to be cured, akin to drug addiction or gambling.

Is it the subject matter that’s the difference between this and the humanist advert? What if the British National Party wanted to run an ad campaign based on race? ‘Stop being so Black’ or ‘Asians should be in Asia’ ? This, I think, would attract nearly unanimous negative attention and would certainly be banned, rightly. There are fundamental differences between ethnicity, sexuality and religion. While I don’t personally believe that religion is a true ‘choice’ in the same way as a political vote, it is certainly a lot closer to choice than ethnicity, over which one has not control whatever or sexuality, where the only choice is whether or not to practise. A person can choose to learn about different religions and beliefs and may well change their views with age. Openly projected sexuality may change with age but it is normally a ‘coming out’ experience from a repressed position rather than some sort of ‘switch’. Prejudices on any grounds have no place in the public sphere but debates over the subjects of the prejudices can be welcome. It is when the subject is a matter over which one has no control, that the debates become unwanted, unwarranted and often truly offensive, this is where the metaphorical ‘line in the sand’ is drawn in many people’s minds.

I think the difference between the adverts in the news today and the humanist campaign from a few years ago is the sentiments behind them. The humanists did not openly criticise anyone in society who believed in god or attended any religious congregation, they merely pointed out their own beliefs. They did not attempt to lure people into an atheistic ‘conversion’ or even assert that one belief system was better than the other, only that you shouldn’t worry if yours doesn’t quite match up to what people expect of you. The advert by CORE, on the other hand, is directly aimed an already victimized section of society. A minority who, despite recent advances, still face prejudice and persecution from many vocal and sometimes violent members of our society.

Do I believe in free speech? Yes, of course. Do I believe in untrammelled freedom of speech? Yes, but not on the side of a public bus. I believe that I (or anyone else) should be free to say whatever I think using certain mediums, public buses are not one of them. In short, the demography of the readership and their sensibilities do need to be taken into account. Thats not to say that all public adverts and promotions should be mundane or banal but there is a balance to be found and I believe Boris has found it on this topic.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

I’d love to hear some of your comments and opinions on this as I’m not fully committed either way.

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6 Responses to Big Gay Bus? Or Ex-Big Gay Bus?

  1. I think that as it was on a public bus, then you are correct. The humanist advert was not insinuating that it was wrong to be religious. With this CORE advert, I think the ASA should have looked on it as they (sensibly) did with those healing prayer leaflets earlier this month. As it was an advert for CORE, it was basically saying “Contact us if you are gay, and we can “fix” you”…this is taking it into the realm of science. The fact that it was planned for public buses could seem as if it is a view which is endorsed by tFL. If you want to stick posters up somewhere private…that is a different matter. I do agree with the commenters on this on other sites who said “Would people feel the same about free speech if public buses had BNP slogans on them “England for the English” etc”

  2. ubi dubium says:

    Sometimes I have to remind myself that “freedom of speech” also includes speech with which I completely disagree. I hate the religious billboards that litter our highways here in the states, but passing laws to take them down (if that were possible, which it’s not in our god-soaked bible belt) would be counter-productive. Better to pile on and insist that our signs be posted also. Which is not always easy. In PA, a bus ad simply saying “atheists” was rejected as too controversial by a public bus company. The same bus company that had previously posted ads from churches, even.

    The problem is how to distinguish true hate speech, which is not legal, from just plain being obnoxious, which is legal. I’m with you on still being uncertain exactly where and how to draw the line between them.

  3. jakedaltonius says:

    The advert was clearly promoting a business, so it had to go. If it had been completely non-profit (like it’s competitor), it deserved to be there. Even if it’s insanely ignorant.

  4. Alex Haiken says:

    Nearly every person who acknowledges an aversion to homosexuality does so on the basis of what he or she believes the Bible has to say. In their mind, there is no doubt whatsoever about what the Bible says and what the Bible means. Their general argument goes something like this: Homosexuality is an abomination and the homosexual is a sinner. Homosexuality is condemned in both the Old and New Testaments. Therefore, if we are to be faithful to the clear teachings of Scripture we too must condemn homosexuality. Needless to say, this premise is being widely debated among evangelicals today and seriously challenged by biblical scholars, theologians and religious leaders everywhere.

    It rarely occurs to any of us that our reading of Scripture is profoundly colored by our own cultural context and worldview. In light of the post above and since I happen to speak and write on this very topic, I thought you might find some of these posts of particular interest. I would particularly recommend the following:

    “Genesis 19: What Were the Real Sins of Sodom?
    “Leviticus 18: What Was the Abomination?”
    “Romans 1: What Was Paul Ranting About?”
    “Romans 2: Paul’s Bait and Switch” and
    “Why No One in the Biblical World Had a Word for Homosexuality”

    (Links to these may be found by simply clicking the link below and then selecting the “Archives” page.)

    -Alex Haiken
    http://JewishChristianGay.wordpress.com

  5. I think the point about the ASA (advertising standards authority) is a good one, it probably got passed by them because the advert itself doesn’t explicitly state their intention to ‘cure’. However, it is a duty of the ASA that they investigate the ramifications of a response to the advert, clearly if a person were to respond to it they would be subject to a ‘cure’. This is why interest rates etc have to be clearly displayed on loan ads.

    I heard about that bus ad, I had to say I was quite shocked by how un-shocking the ad was after hearing it had been rejected for being too controversial. I suppose it shows how much more religious your average American is than your average European.

    Although the business/charity thing does have an effect, I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with the same ad being run by a charity either, I think its more the intent behind who proposed it rather than the fact they could make money as a result.

    Thanks for those links Alex, very often biblical verses are plucked out and quoted without any context. I think the historical context is also important, your ideas about fertility rituals make a lot of sense. I’ve always thought that small settlements struggling to survive needed as high a birth rate as possible to be viable because of high infant mortality, thus homosexuality would be detrimental to the tribe and was banned.

  6. Allallt says:

    I think if you wanted to ban that advert without getting too far into the freedom of speech argument you could simply call the advert “lying”. After all, medical and psychological experts say the “therapy” or behavioural change doesn’t actually work and causes immense emotional damage (or at least potential to).
    You could also ban hateful things without too much controversy. But we’ve seen from the UK political discourse in the last few months that Christianity is being placed in the middle of a victim narrative, and narratives like that would hi-jack rules like “freedom of speech unless it is hateful speech”.
    But I don’t want to ban. I actually want a society where ridiculing a bad idea is okay. People who are struggling with the fact that they are gay now simply know that the advert was planned, and then banned, and no conversation was had about the issue. How does that help?
    Let them have the advert so that we can have massive groups of people coming together and saying “it’s not an illness”, “there’s nothing weird about homosexuality”, “the advert is hateful”, “the therapy is emotionally destructive” etc.
    I think it would be better for people who are struggling with the sexual identity to get caught up in a conversation like that, where someone says it’s bad because an old book says so, then communities and groups and even science can stand up and ridicule that message.

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