Some people are religious. Get over it!

The proposed "ex-gay" bus advert was offensive, but gay Christians face a genuine dilemma.

Boris Johnson stepped in yesterday to stop the "battle of the buses", banning a campaign by the Core Issue Trust -- which promotes controversial therapies designed to turn gay people straight  -- and the evangelical pressure group Anglican Mainstream. The decision is likely to increase feelings of persecution and marginalisation among a minority of traditionally-minded, and increasingly assertive, Christians. 

Johnson told the Guardian that his London was "intolerant of intolerance". The proposed slogan ("Not gay! Ex-gay, Post-gay and proud. Get over it!"), whatever its intention, was at least open to interpretation as an assertion of crude homophobia, or at least of heteronormative triumphalism.  It was intended, however, as a direct riposte to similar-looking advertisements being run by Stonewall with the slogan "Some people are gay. Get over it!" -- a campaign that implicitly targets opponents of gay marriage as reactionary bigots unable to come to terms with the modern world.

Some bigots may, indeed, hide behind religion.  Yet Stonewall's slogan, it strikes, me, misses an important point, which is that some people, who are gay, cannot "get over it" that easily.  A devout religious believer, who belongs to a tradition that says firmly that homosexuality is wrong, but who feels a strong inclination towards members of the same sex, is faced with an agonising dilemma.  Demands to "get over it", while not directly aimed at such people, can easily come across as insensitive and bullying.

Say you're a young gay Catholic.  The Pope has said, quite firmly, that homosexuality is "intrinsically disordered" and represents an "inclination towards an intrinsic moral evil".  Well then, ignore the Pope: many Catholics do, after all, when it comes to birth control, and some gay Catholics will be comfortable with that option.  But not all, because obedience to church teaching is, for many Catholics, a crucial dimension of their faith.  At the very least, so long as Catholic teaching remains what it is (and there's no evidence of any change on the horizon) many gay Catholics will feel conflicted.

Or say you're a Bible-believing Evangelical, and your reading of scripture tells you that homosexual practices are an abomination unto the Lord.  That isn't the only way to interpret the Bible, of course, and some gay Christians are fortunate enough to belong to churches that are welcoming of their sexuality.  But some of the Biblical verses that speak about same-sex sex are pretty plain, to say the least.

And of course commitment to a religious faith involves more than just intellectual assent to a set of belief-propositions.  It involves heart and soul, family and community.  There may be partners and children involved, if a gay believer has already "chosen" to ignore their same-sex inclinations.  Leaving all these things is not just potentially traumatic, it may well be something that the believer, however painful their internal struggles with sexuality, is not willing to contemplate.  And yet their inner turmoil is damaging to themselves and to those around them.

There's no reliable evidence that the therapy being promoted by the Core Issues Trust is effective in changing people's inner sexual drive; there's some evidence that it has helped some people to suppress their gay feelings and to function more comfortably in heterosexual relationships.  And this may be enough.  Human sexuality is not fixed at birth.  It's also more fluid for some people than for others.  There's no doubt that there are, in fact, self-described "ex-gay" or "post-gay" Christians, many of whom do indeed claim to have been helped by these therapies.  The Rev Peter Ould is perhaps the most prominent British example.  He has written:

I’m post-gay because I chose to leave “gay” behind. I chose to no longer accept “gay” as an explanation of who I was and instead to begin a journey away from it. I chose to do so because I was convinced from the Scriptures that “gay” wasn’t a suitable way to describe myself, that it wasn’t a valid way for a Christian to establish identity.

Ould's choice to "leave gay behind" is not the same thing as choosing his sexuality.  Rather, he chose to prioritise his understanding of his faith over his sexual inclinations.  Or perhaps it would be better to say that he felt a strong inner conviction of his need to do so.  Because, as the law and society have increasingly come to recognise in recent years, religious identity is deeply rooted.  It is part of "who people are", how they relate to the world around them, how they conceive of themselves.

Of course, many people change their religion, abandon religion altogether or discover it for the first time.  But for many who make such a transition the process involves moments of existential crisis and a slow, difficult adjustment to a new way of life and a new set of social relationships.  The consumerist language of choice simply doesn't do it justice.

The fact is that neither faith nor sexuality are a "choice".   And some people are religious.  Get over it!

The ad, backed by the Core Issues Trust, which stated: "Not gay! Ex-gay, post-gay and proud. Get over it!"
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Photo: ASA
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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA