As you probably already know, an ad campaign by the Christian group Core Issues Trust has been pulled from London buses by Boris Johnson. The copy read:
Not gay! Ex-gay, post-gay and proud. Get over it!
The strategy was to promote ‘therapy’ aimed at ‘curing’ gays.
Obviously, the sentiment of the campaign is utterly repugnant, and many other writers have already made that point. In this post, I’d like to look at the way the content was not only offensive and misguided, but rubbish on a technical level too.
Just to be clear, my argument is not that the work ‘should have been better’, in the sense that it might have been more persuasive or acceptable if these faults were addressed. Nor am I going to offer my own alternatives, as I normally do when critiquing stuff, because I have no interest in improving this ad. My point here is the way the lamentable motive of the campaign corrupted the creative process, resulting in truly abysmal work.
The ad as a whole is a rework of a famous Stonewall campaign, which used this slogan:
Some people are gay. Get over it.
This was great writing. Using everyday, easy-to-remember words, it conveyed a whole range of overlapping relevant meanings: we are all people; some of us are gay (and they just are, they don’t choose to be); prejudice is an affliction to be ‘got over’; difference need not be a barrier. And because it was phrased so simply, it made it clear that this was a simple, self-evident truth.
In their pathetic anxiety to do their little dance and answer Stonewall back, CIT deliberately adopt the same form for their copy. But it merely makes them look crass, because they are reacting to a simple, positive, liberated statement with a twisted, negative one. That statement is ‘spoken’ by someone who defines themselves in purely oppositional terms – by what they’re not, or no longer are. The effect is to make the ad look like a pale imitation of Stonewall’s, rather than a powerful riposte to it.
Because the CIT ad tries to shoehorn its intolerant message into the same format as Stonewall’s (even aping its design), the result is crashingly awkward. Beginning the text with ‘Not’ wrong-foots the reader from the start, and the phrase ‘Not gay!’ doesn’t sound like something anyone would actually say – it’s just an arbitrary negation.
The second sentence is lame too – it posits itself as a ‘list of three’ device, but the first two items (‘Ex-gay’ and ‘post-gay’) are effectively identical, so it falls completely flat. Presumably these two contentious terms just had to be included somehow, even if the resulting sentence didn’t really make sense.
Why couldn’t they just say ‘straight’? Well, views will differ, but I think those three ‘gays’ in one line tell their own story. These people are, quite simply, obsessed with the idea that someone, somewhere, is doing something fun, harmless and completely private without their permission. Gayness consumes them; they just can’t leave it alone. Could they, perhaps, be just a little bit gay themselves?
The word ‘proud’ is where the tone of voice, already deeply dodgy, really comes off the rails. If there are people who have undergone ‘treatment’ to reorient their sexuality, for whatever reason (and it seems there are some), I find it very hard to believe they would be remotely triumphalist about it. If anything, they’d surely be more likely to keep very quiet about their ‘ex-gay’ status. They might feel a sort of pride, but I very much doubt it would be a shouty, street-procession sort of thing, which is what’s implied by appropriating this most significant word from gay culture.
CIT’s tactic here is a classic one: the oppressor co-opting the language of the oppressed. But such a switch is non-viable because the two ‘prides’ are not equal. Gay pride is hard-won, defiant and determined in the face of overwhelming extant prejudice. It’s also an actual phenomenon that we can see in real people’s characters and actions. ‘Ex-gay pride’, if it exists at all, exults in the further humiliation and denigration of an already-downtrodden minority. This is the pride of the fascist in his shiny, polished jackboots.
Echoing the ‘get over it’ has a similarly hollow ring. Who’s being addressed here? Who needs to ‘get over’ the fact that some gay people have gone straight? Presumably, this is a dig at all those violent anti-hetero sentiments we’re always hearing from prejudiced gays. Again, this totally fails to convince because there is no converse of homophobia. Oppression works one way only, from the powerful majority to the dispossessed minority – unfortunately for reactionary groups who aspire to the mantle of victimhood.
Bad views, bad writing
As I said, I didn’t want to improve this ad. I’m glad it was pulled, and I’m also glad it was so bad, because its badness would have guaranteed its failure even if it had run. And if there’s anything positive to be drawn from this sorry episode, it’s the comfort that ugly prejudice can’t easily be translated into beautiful copy. Or, as @thebrainofchris put it on Twitter: