The sad Christian and gay bus ad campaigns

Christian adverts on buses are fine but our message should be clear

Published 15 April 2012  |  
Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, recommends a wise man in the New Testament. So it should be in how Christians choose our words when campaigning. We need to know our audience. We need to know our message. We need to know how it will be received. Stonewalling public discourse by clever misdirection does not help the debate one bit. Some people are gay and by and large Christians are over it. But some people live with the fact that they have unwanted same-sex sexual attraction. They should not be ignored because of the political narrative of the gay lobby.

”Not Gay! Ex-Gay, Post-Gay and proud. Get over it!” reads the slogan intended to counter that of the gay pressure group Stonewall on London busses. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, decided to ban the slogan produced by Christians on the grounds that it “…is clearly offensive to suggest that being gay is an illness that someone recovers from and I am not prepared to have that suggestion driven around London on our buses.” His action has promptly changed the debate from the substance of the intended meaning behind the ads, to one of freedom of speech.

The Guardian headline announcing Johnsons’ move reads: ‘Anti-gay adverts pulled from bus campaign by Johnson’. They quote Ben Summerskill, the director of Stonewall as saying that the advert is “clearly homophobic”, saying “the only reason some gay people might want to stop being gay is because of the prejudice of the people who are publishing the ad.”

The thing that Summerskill and Johnson need to be reminded of is that God loves people who experience same-sex sexual attraction as much as he loves those who fornicate. King David, a man after God’s own heart no less, is upheld in the Bible as a precursor-model of Jesus. David fornicated. Despite that, God loves David. This is the first message anybody, gay or straight should be hearing in the highly politicised debate.

Secondly the message of the Christian ad is both clumsy and insensitive to its audience. It is clumsy because any casual reader of the ad will not have a clue about what ex-gay or post-gay means. Moreover there are significant differences between the two terms (Peter Ould, a post-gay vicar explains more here). The message is insensitive because without the broader framework and understanding of what ex-gay or post-gay means, what Boris Johnson and Ben Summerskill said is quite appropriate because the message is punchy and the target seems to be homosexuality, when it actually isn’t. We should not be surprised or shocked at their reaction.

Cynics might even suggest that a savvy marketer considered it a possibility that the thing would expand column inches in the national press at the speed at which bamboo grows (some species can grow up to two inches an hour, that’s more column inches an ignored campaign could muster). But that might be giving too much credit where it should not be due.

The reality that same sex-sexual attraction can cause distress is not, as Summerskill would have us believe, only because of the prejudice of Christians (though that is no doubt the experience of some gay folk). Rather it’s because a person’s faith can come into conflict with how they perceive their sexual orientation. This reality need not be rooted in somebody else telling them how they should see themselves or how they should behave, but can stem from an internal desire not to act on same-sex sexual attraction. After all, as a society we have chosen to help people change aspects of their physical gender, so what is so threatening about somebody who presents us with a conflicting view of their sexuality, and seeks to engage that view?

Taken abstractly and scientifically, how we view sexual orientation is still developing. More research needs to be done into causality and into reasons behind the fluidity of sexuality in some people or the solidity and robustness of sexual orientation in others. But as a society we need to make room for an honest debate, rather then obscure the truth with shouty advertising campaigns.

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