Last week, I watched a red double-decker bus sail over Waterloo bridge in central London. Nothing unusual about that. Except that emblazoned across its side were the words: “Some people are gay. Get over it!”
We’ve become used to sloganeering on public transport over the past few years, but even so, as I contemplated the message I felt my brow furrow. And not just because, as poetry, it leaves a lot to be desired.
Who was it aimed at, I wondered? Was it a) homophobic people? Well, I’d be surprised if anyone actually believes it has the power to inspire Damascene conversions among the prejudiced. So that leaves b) gay people, who I’m confident don’t need much convincing that they – we – exist and c) sympathetic straight people, who equally don’t need to be persuaded.
So what on Earth was going on? Who exactly was that exclamation mark meant to jolt out of an unthinking stupor, and teach that homosexuality is a fact of life? It wasn’t obvious, but the adverts are part of Stonewall’s campaign to promote equal marriage rights. According to Ben Summerskill, the pressure group’s chief executive, they also serve to remind people that “discrimination against gay men and lesbians is no longer acceptable”. Yet this doesn’t really clear things up.
If it was really no longer acceptable, then there’d be no need to remind people. They’d carry the knowledge with them instinctively. In fact, of course, it’s only quasi-acceptable. Being gay is still seen as fine in some contexts, but not all. It’s acceptable in your proverbial Islington dining room (though perhaps not in the Islington register office), fine according to the statute book, but not if you try kissing your same-sex partner in public. Or sit next to them on the bus. Or hold hands in the street.
Setting the faulty logic aside, I’m not sure what a project like this brings to the table. If it had no effect, it’d just be a waste of money (which in itself is a poor advert for Stonewall: why give to an organisation that seems to throw cash away on futile campaigns?). But when I saw the advert it occurred to me that it, and that supercilious exclamation mark in particular, could in fact give people an excuse to express their homophobia. Stonewall’s good intentions might simply end up making gay people’s lives more difficult.
And so it came to pass. The Core Issues Trust (“God’s heart in sexual and relational brokenness”) and Anglican Mainstream, a group of hyper-conservatives within a generally quite gay-friendly church, took the bait. They booked space on buses to display a different tagline: “Not gay! Post-gay, ex-gay and proud. Get over it!” Slightly baffling, but definitely homophobic, and obviously intended as a riposte to Stonewall. If that weren’t enough it’s now impinged on the mayoral race as a dream pseudo-controversy for Boris, an opportunity to flaunt his inclusivity and his modernising credentials just before polling day.
Stonewall’s campaign originally formed part of its welcome efforts to draw attention to homophobic bullying in schools (the charity conducted research that showed 65% of gay or bisexual pupils experience homophobic bullying, and 97% hear derogatory phrases such as “dyke” or “poof” used by their peers). It was developed, apparently, in collaboration with 150 secondary school pupils and teachers. So, perhaps it works in some contexts. But I can’t help feeling that even a few moments’ thought could’ve resulted in slogans that, pasted on the side of a bus, would send out a more useful message. How about “Being bullied because you’re gay? We’re here for you!”, or even “It gets better!” (Stonewall could learn a thing or two about campaigning, and changing attitudes, from Dan Savage)
Instead, Core Issues and Anglican Mainstream have won a dollop of free publicity and can portray themselves as victims of persecution and censorship. Gay people have been pointlessly reminded, not that homophobia is unacceptable, but that there exist organised groups that detest them. Defenders of free speech have had their hackles raised and Boris laughs all the way to City Hall.
Stonewall: what were you thinking?
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