Why advertising gay conversion therapy is like advertising make-up
Various news sources—including The Huffington Post, Gay Star News, and the London Evening Standard—are reporting a High Court case in which a campaigner for gay conversion therapy is fighting Transport for London (TfL) over a ban on its bus adverts that suggest that homosexuality can be ‘cured’.
Dr Mike Davidson is head of Core Issues Trust which, according to its website, is ‘a non-profit Christian ministry supporting men and women with homosexual issues who voluntarily seek change in sexual preference and expression’. Davidson, who is married with children, insists that his own gay feelings were removed by therapy. He told The Huffington Post that he had homosexual feelings ‘from the moment [he] opened [his] eyes’. Even so, he believes that ‘gay’ is a ‘late twentieth century political construction’ that people can reject. His adverts read, ‘Not gay! Ex-gay, post-gay and proud. Get over it!’—a response to similar posters by lesbian, gay and bisexual charity Stonewall which read, ‘Some people are gay. Get over it!’ Davidson’s adverts have been deemed ‘offensive to gays’ by London Mayor Boris Johnson, who is also head of TfL.
Exactly why is Davidson’s advert offensive? In a special report, the World Health Organisation (WHO) condemns gay ‘conversion therapies’ for two reasons: first, there is little scientific evidence that people can be turned heterosexual by therapy; second, offering such therapy reinforces the prejudice that non-heterosexuality is bad, and as a result it is harmful both to those seeking treatment and to society as a whole. To contain the potential harm of such therapy, WHO recommends that governments, academic institutions, professional associations, the media and civil society organisations can all contribute to promoting the views that people should be respected regardless of their sexual orientation, and that homophobia is unacceptable.
WHO’s position sounds eminently sensible: it is far preferable that the pressure felt by some people to resist their non-heterosexual feelings is tackled by promoting an environment in which people are respected regardless of their sexual orientation than by allowing purported therapists to reinforce and profit from harmful social prejudices by offering to ‘cure’ non-heterosexuality.
Even so, when compared to many other adverts, it should be surprising that an advert promoting gay conversion therapy is controversial. Davidson’s bus advert is far from unique in reinforcing harmful social prejudices against inoffensive features of people, and in attempting to profit from these prejudices by offering a product to remove these features. Consider adverts for cosmetic procedures, make-up, diet programs, and other products that promise to make their users more attractive. Companies running these adverts reinforce and profit from the huge cultural pressure on people—particularly young women—to conform to a certain standard of physical attractiveness. This pressure is a source of great unhappiness for many, and a source of significant health problems for an unfortunate few. Just as non-heterosexuals would be better off if there were no homophobia in society, everyone who cares about their appearance would be better off if society placed less emphasis on physical attractiveness. Yet, whilst TfL has banned as offensive an advert offering a ‘cure’ for homosexuality, adverts that offer ‘cures’ for unattractiveness are ubiquitous. If advertising purported cures for homosexuality is unacceptable, why is advertising cures for unattractiveness not even controversial? My answer: simply because unattractiveness cures are more familiar.
Am I suggesting that adverts for gay conversion therapy ought to be permitted, like adverts for unattractiveness cures? No: I find the idea of advertising gay conversion therapy on London buses (or anywhere else) shocking and archaic. But I think there are many other adverts that probably ought to be regarded as shocking and archaic, too. The pressure to be beautiful, like the pressure to be straight, is dangerous and demeaning, and it is disturbing how infrequently this is recognised.