The BBC Punched Me in the Gut
Sometimes the news punches you in the gut
Have you ever had a moment when a news story reminded you some people find your existence so controversial that your humanity reduces to “politics?” Have you ever scrolled down from a headline, eyes growing larger and wetter as you read the frightening details?
One such moment left me breathless the day before yesterday.
According to the UK news source iNews, BBC senior management have banned reporters from attending LGBTQ Pride events, calling them “too politically controversial” for staff who are required to be impartial, particularly when events include “the trans issue.”
I shook my head in astonishment at the last part, wondering how anyone could fail to know the T in LGBTQ stands for transgender, thinking that every LGBT Pride event anywhere in the world includes “the trans issue” by default.
In a particularly frightening bit of homophobic/transphobic rhetoric, BBC director general Tim Davie suggested Pride attendance may constitute “virtue signaling.” While Davie walked his statement back slightly yesterday, the BBC policy remains morally outrageous and unacceptably bigoted. More on that in a moment, but first some “political controversy” background.
LGBTQ people and equality
The UK has long been a pioneer in issues of LGBTQ equality, partially decriminalizing homosexuality in 1967, two years before the 1969 Stonewall riots ignited an equality drive in the US.
The UK also led the way legislating same-sex marriage, England and Wales in 2013 and Scotland in 2014. (Northern Ireland was late to the game, not achieving same-sex marriage until last January, though more due to political paralysis than political opposition.) The US only joined the party in 2015 across all states and territories, and even then by a Supreme Court ruling rather than legislation.
Even the controversisal “trans issue” isn’t very controversial in the UK, not by the numbers, despite a loud fringe egged on by transphobic cheerleaders like J.K. Rowling. According to a recent YouGov survey, British people in general (and British women in particular) overwhelmingly support transgender equality.
British people pride themselves for being among the most accepting in the world on gender and sexuality issues. Like in most of the US and Europe, young queer people in the UK tend to take their social acceptance as an unquestioned birthright.
LGBTQ people and political backlash
However, in the UK as in the US, conservative forces have been moving in recent years to push back against equality for members of gender and sexual minorities. In the US, that backlash became significant with the rise of Donald Trump.
Ever since Trump came into power, equality for LGBTQ people like me has come under sustained assault. Powerful religious and conservative minorities fight to keep us quiet, to preserve their right to discriminate against us, and to reduce our innate humanity to “political controversy.”
Examples of “political controversy”
US Dept of State denies LGBTQ rights are human rights
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has fueled “political controversy” fires by creating a “Commission on Unalienable Rights” that dismisses LGBTQ and women’s rights as too “political” to qualify for genuine human rights status. While the UK and other liberal democracies have rejected the commission’s work, and while only repressive dictatorships support it so far, it has become the official policy of the U.S. Department of State.
US Joins Brutal Dictatorships Seeking to Sabotage Human Rights
Defeating Trump at the polls is critical for the US and the world
Municipalities and schools boards
Local councils and school boards like this one across the United States have been increasingly using the “political controversy” argument to ban rainbow and other LGBTQ Pride symbols.
For example, according to Buzzfeed News, Washoe County School District in Nevada recently banned “partisan political activities” during school hours. A new policy reads that “signage that is displayed on District property that is, or becomes, political in nature must be removed or covered.” The district superintendent used that policy to ban LGBTQ rainbows on school property.
Even Facebook is getting in on the act
As Sarah Emerson reported yesterday in One Zero, in preparation for the US presidential elections, Facebook has “temporarily paused its algorithmic recommendation of groups dealing with political or social issues.”
As an administrator of LGBTQ Facebook groups numbering over 100,000 people, I can attest that the pause appears to include LGBTQ groups. Member requests in the groups I help run are usually so constant that keeping up with them requires several moderators per group. But over the last few days, requests gradually dwindled and have now come to an almost complete stop.
None of us understood why until I spotted the story in One Zero.
Just to be clear, none of the groups I help with are overtly political. We don’t endorse candidates for office or organize voting drives. Most group content is driven by members who support and advise one another about LGBTQ life and relationship issues.
The BBC policy has shocked and frightened LGBTQ people
Fred Shirley, a gay 22-year-old graduate student at the University of Sussex, told me today that, “The BBC’s decision regarding LGBT pride events is, frankly, a terrifying prospect.”
Fear has been the overwhelming response worldwide to the idea that BBC management believe attending Pride events is or ought to be politically controversial.
Shirley put it this way. “There ought be no debate regarding the rights of LGBT people to express themselves freely and for allies to express their support equally freely.”
Davie walked his comments back yesterday, but only slightly
In a “clarifying” statement yesterday, Davie said “The guidance that we published yesterday made it very clear that staff outside of news and current affairs and factual journalism may attend marches, demonstrations and protests as private individuals.”
But journalists across the UK have told The Guardian “that managers had informed them that while pride marches were not specifically mentioned by the guidelines, journalists would be stopped from attending due to the new rules.”
One BBC journalist said “their manager had been told that growing media and political opposition to trans rights in the UK meant they would not be able to attend [Pride events] even in a personal capacity.”
In yesterday’s statement Davie clarified that news staff may not attend Pride events unless they are “clearly celebratory or commemorative,” which effectively bans BBC reporters from attending any Pride event anywhere in the world.
No LGBT Pride event I know about is purely celebratory. All Pride parades and events focus at least in part on protest. Pride does not and cannot exist without protest. After all, when we march, we commemorate the Stonewall riots, and we demand unequivocally the right of every LGBTQ person in the world to be treated as fully equal, fully human, and fully free.
LGBTQ equality demands transcend politics
BBC director general Tim Davie is dead wrong on this issue. LGBTQ identity and equality do not and must never reduce to politics. Our equality and humanity transcend politics. Our essential human rights must be forever unquestioned and unquestionable.
We’ve spent far too long as whipping boys, pariahs, and scapegoats to be banned from our own Pride marches and parades merely because of where we work.
Davie is echoing a profoundly immoral but increasingly popular idea that members of gender and sexual minorities owe our human and civil rights to popular support.
We do not.
In the UK, the US, and in any nation that respects international human rights norms, we insist our rights are fundamental to our identity as human beings — unalienable and beyond partisan politics. We do not beg our liberty. We insist that we own it and will exercise it no matter what.
To paraphrase the Marquess of Queensberry to Oscar Wilde, Davie is posing the bigot. He’s telling LGBTQ people that we possess human rights only insofar as some body politic is willing to grant us them. He is deeply, absurdly, immorally wrong.
No one must ever be banned from attending an LGBTQ Pride event. No LGBTQ Pride event must ever be characterized as politically controversial. They must be recognized instead as human-rights necessities.
James Finn is a former Air Force intelligence analyst, long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to email@example.com.