Just days before the posters were due to appear on buses in the capital, Johnson ordered his transport chiefs to pull the adverts booked by two conservative Anglican groups following outrage among gay campaigners and politicians saying that they were homophobic. The adverts were booked on behalf of the Core Issues Trust whose leader, Mike Davidson, believes “homoerotic behaviour is sinful”.
His charity funds “reparative therapy” for gay Christians, which it claims can “develop their heterosexual potential”. The campaign was also backed by Anglican Mainstream, a worldwide orthodox Anglican group whose supporters have equated homosexuality with alcoholism. The advert was due to say: “Not gay! Post-gay, ex-gay and proud. Get over it!”
Johnson, who contacted the Guardian to announce he was stopping the adverts within two hours of their contents becoming public, said: “London is one of the most tolerant cities in the world and intolerant of intolerance. 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 main rival in next month’s mayoral election, Ken Livingstone, said Johnson should never have allowed the adverts to be booked. “London is going backwards under a Tory leadership that should have made these advertisements impossible.
“They promote a falsehood, the homophobic idea of ‘therapy’ to change the sexual orientation of lesbians and gay men.”
The Christian groups insisted the advert had been cleared with Transport for London (TfL), which is chaired by the mayor. Davidson said: “I didn’t realise censorship was in place. We went through the correct channels and we were encouraged by the bus company to go through their procedures. They okayed it and now it has been pulled.”
CBS Outdoor, the media company that sells the bus advertising sites, said the ad had been passed for display by the Committee of Advertising Practice. It is understood TfL was due to make around £10,000 for allowing the adverts to run on about two dozen buses across five routes.
The campaign was an explicit attempt to hit back at the gay rights group Stonewall, which as part of its lobbying for the extension of marriage to gay couples is running its own bus adverts saying: “Some people are gay. Get over it.” The Christian groups used the same black, red and white colour scheme as Stonewall and in a statement announcing the campaign accused it of promoting the “false idea that there is indisputable scientific evidence that people are born gay”.
The gay ex-vicar, Labour MP and former minister Chris Bryant, said the advert was cruel for promoting the idea that you could become “ex-gay” and he said it would particularly hurt teenagers struggling to come to terms with their sexuality.
“The emotional damage that is done to the individuals who try to suppress their sexuality, the women they marry and the children they might have is immeasurable,” he said. “Most sane Christians believe that homosexuality is not a lifestyle or a choice but is a fact to be discovered or not. The pretence that homosexuality is something you can be weaned off in some way is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of creation.”
Ben Summerskill, the chief executive of Stonewall, said the adverts were “clearly homophobic” and added: “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.