A billboard promoting ex-gay therapy along I-95 in Virginia is having a big impact, but probably not of the kind expected by those who paid to display it. Despite backlash, Lamar Advertising, which owns and manages the billboard, has kept the ad in place.
The ad in question was paid for by PFOX (Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays), a group that advocates on behalf of ex-gay therapy and those who have supposedly benefited from it. It features text suggesting that because there are identical twins where one twin is gay and the other is not, “Nobody is born gay.”
It’s quickly become a laughingstock because the model featured in the ad, Kyle Roux, is not only not a twin, but is “an out and proud gay man.”. He told NBC 12 that he doesn’t think there should be any place in today’s world “for an organization that is promoting this as being some kind of deviant or distasteful lifestyle.”
Others are having the same reaction to the ad. Hundreds rallied against it at the Gay Community Center of Richmond on Sunday, and activists may create a counter billboard. Virginia Del. Patrick Hope (D) will also introduce legislation to ban ex-gay therapy for minors, prompted by the ad. “The billboard is proof that there’s organizations out there out there who want to do this,” Hope told GAYRVA.
Lamar Advertising, the company that owns the billboard and contracted for the ad, is keeping the ad in place for its full contracted month. In GAYRVA’s initial report, Lamar spokesperson Allie McAlpin explained, “It is in the best interest of our company and the communities we serve to accept advertising copy openly. We do not accept or reject copy based upon agreement or disagreement with the views presented.”
But that does not seem to jibe with Lamar’s record historically. In 2009, for example, Lamar rejected an ad from the Alabama Freethought Association, an affiliate of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). That billboard said read, “Imagine No Religion,” with a link to FFRF’s website. According to Tom Traylor of Lamar Advertising in Birmingham at the time, “It was offensive to me.”
Lamar also acted differently with regard to an infamous 2011 anti-abortion billboard in New York City that read, “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.” The company took the ad down shortly after it went up, but explained that it was because people who disagreed with the ad were harassing the staff at a Mexican restaurant beneath where it was posted, creating a safety concern.
Hal Kilshaw, Lamar’s Vice President of Governmental Relations, shared with ThinkProgress the company’s policy for accepting copy, last modified in 2012. The policy states that Lamar “will not accept or reject copy based upon agreement or disagreement with the views presented,” but the company does reserve the right to reject copy and cites a few specific reasons for doing so: 1) If the copy is “factually inaccurate, misleading, fraudulent, or deceptive,” 2) If the copy is “obscene, offensive, or otherwise inconsistent with local community standards,” or 3) if the copy “promotes an illegal activity.” Though Kilshaw did not address specific cases like the “Imagine No Religion” billboard, he admitted that with 3000 employees across the country, there are occasionally situations when employees simply violate the policy.
At issue with this particular ad is the fact that the copy does not overtly promote ex-gay therapy (despite that being PFOX’s mission and obvious implicit goal), but simply challenges the notion that people are “born gay.” The assertion that “nobody is born gay,” — even if couched with “we believe” in much smaller text — is factually inaccurate and does not jibe with the growing science.
Evidence has indeed suggested that there is not a single gene that controls sexual orientation. As PFOX points out with their not-a-twin model, identical twins are not guaranteed to have the same sexual orientation. Nevertheless, the evidence does still suggest that factors inside the womb impact how markers on genes express themselves (known as epigenetics) and contribute to sexual orientation. Though these environmental factors take place after conception, they still help determine sexual orientation before birth, at least in studies of male sexuality. A recent new study on gay brothers, which included some non-identical twins, found additional complementary evidence suggesting a genetic impact on sexuality. Thus, twin studies may confirm that sexual orientation is not coded into DNA, but they actually point toward a “born gay” conclusion — contrary to PFOX’s claim.
PFOX has doubled down on the claims made by the billboard, confirming their motive to promote the idea that “ex-gays exist and that change is possible.” But while the complex causes of sexual orientation have not yet been fully documented, ample research has discounted the possibility of manipulating sexual orientation. Most major medical organizations recommend against sexual orientation change efforts, survivors of ex-gay therapy have openly described the harm they experienced from the shame-based treatment, and former advocates of the treatment have recanted their claims and now work against the movement. California, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia have banned ex-gay therapy for minors because of its ineffectiveness and demonstrated harm.