Philip Hensher: Do you think people can be 'cured' of their sexuality through prayer? Get over it!


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The Independent Online

Stonewall's awareness-raising campaign has been running for a few years now. It states, in bold letters, "Some people are gay. Get over it". That's easy to say: persuading people into a position of tolerance, or not caring either way, might take a little longer.

A Christian organisation, the Core Issues Trust, submitted an advert in exactly the same style to be displayed on the sides of London buses. Their advert read: "Not gay! Ex-gay, post-gay and proud! Get over it!" When the Mayor of London became aware of this promotion of the Christian "cure" for homosexuality, he instructed that the adverts be refused, saying that they had no place in a tolerant London.

The idea that anyone can be "cured" of their sexuality through prayer or psychiatric treatment is thoroughly discredited. Two years ago, the journalist Patrick Strudwick investigated the practice of Christian psychotherapists by putting himself in their hands. One, Lesley Pilkington, who advised him that his homosexuality could be traced back to having freemasons in the family, was subsequently criticised as "reckless" and "unprofessional" by her professional association.

Nobody has ever demonstrated a course of treatment which could consistently "cure" homosexuality, even if you regarded it as something which needed "curing". Even Christian groups promoting an ex-gay lifestyle rarely go beyond saying that they can help people to live with their unacted feelings in a pseudo-heterosexual relationship – or, if you prefer, they can push people back into the closet.

So at the first hurdle of advertising, of the truthful claim, this advertising campaign falls, just as an advert would which read "Eat more lard, and cure your cancer". But these adverts are not really aimed at people seeking a cure for themselves. They are aimed at naive parents who believe that they can do something about their gay teenagers.

In 2005, a Memphis 16-year-old, Zachary Stark, was forcibly enrolled by his parents in a gay-conversion camp, Refuge, run by an organisation called Love in Action. The summer camp was so strictly anti-gay that it was forbidden to wear clothes by Abercrombie & Fitch there. Needless to say, none of it worked.

If psychiatric treatment for homosexuality were just a sort of mental-health homeopathy, none of this would particularly matter. We could say this: well, it's not going to turn you heterosexual, but it's probably not going to make you any more gay than you are already, so it hardly matters. But the thing which it will do is frighten some potentially vulnerable people. It will tell people that one of the most fundamental and unalterable parts of their being is wrong and evil. And it will suggest that violent change can be imposed by others in the name of religion. It was not so many months ago that a child was beaten to death in London by his uncle, trying to effect an exorcism.

Stonewall's slogan is a message of hope and tolerance. The Core Issues Trust slogan is, without directly intending it, a message to people who might pray, beat, whip and shout at innocents in their futile endeavours: a message, in the end, of hatred. The Mayor was right to ban it.

A story with no obvious moral

It's welcome news that the Health and Safety Executive has set up a "mythbusters" panel. If you have been told that something can't be done because of "health and safety legislation", you may now submit the judgement to the panel, which will test the argument, and let you know whether the claim has any basis.

Unfortunately, the Daily Mail, which loves absurd tales of what it calls Elf and Safety, promptly illustrated the absurdity with a story yesterday of 25 firemen refusing to enter a three-foot pond to rescue an apparently drowning seagull.

The Beachcomberesque elements of this story made it difficult to see Elf and Safety as the villain. Was it the best use of the firemen's time? Is it their job to rescue one of these savage birds, probably choking on a small child's chips? If the existence of the "mythbusters" panel encourages firemen to say "It's not Elf and Safety – I'm just not going to waste my time rescuing seagulls from Carshalton pond", then it will be a quango worth having.

The only novelist in the village?

Miss Read died! How could Miss Read die? It would be like Aesop dying, or Betty Crocker, or Francis Gay of the Friendship Books. She was your granny's favourite novelist, telling harmless mid-list tales of village life that made James Herriot look like The Wire. Dora Saint, the woman behind Miss Read, took Jane Austen's motto that two or three families in a country village were the very thing to work upon, and made a career out of it.

People seem to be complaining nowadays that the English novel is too timid, or uninterested in contemporary realities. Actually, I never seem to pick up an English novel which isn't talking about war, or mental illness, or social disparities in a small setting, or money, or crime.

What the English novel needs more of is Miss Read-like tales of small communities. So it's nice to hear that J K Rowling in her first novel for adults, is going to write about an idyllic small town riven by petty divisions. Some of the very best English novels are, really, about passions revealed through nothing very much. From time to time, every English novelist is going to feel like picking up Miss Read's baton, and writing about parish councils and the village hydrangea competition.