The BBC and LGBT+ rights: The good, the bad and the unforgivable
As the beleaguered BBC faces backlash from government ministers, PinkNews takes a brief look back at the broadcaster’s track record on LGBT+ rights.
Tory culture minister Nadine Dorries fuelled alarm over the weekend after she questioned the BBC’s main source of funding, a license fee charged to all TV viewers in the nation.
On Monday evening (17 January), Dorries confirmed that the BBC budget will be frozen for the next two years, adding that the future of the public-owned broadcaster’s funding will be “up for discussion”.
It’s the latest salvos against the BBC fired by a minister in Boris Johnson’s government – one that has increasingly smeared the public broadcaster as a megaphone of the metropolitan elite that is anything but “impartial”.
Others, however, disagree. Stressing that right-wing opinions often receive more airtime than progressive ones, according to a Cardiff University study, among other concerns.
With questions being raised over the BBC’s, at times, slavish commitment to impartiality, some may be reminded of similar queries that have plagued the broadcaster for years – that of its commitment to LGBT+ rights.
From airing the first same-sex kiss televised on a soap opera to the constant accusations of “transphobia” riddling its senior ranks, here are some of the good – and the bad – of the BBC’s history with queer lives and issues.
When the BBC aired the first televised gay kiss on Eastenders
In 1989, the BBC made history when it aired the first mouth-to-mouth same-sex kiss on British TV.
Kind-hearted Colin Russell, played by Michael Cashman, was the long-running show’s first gay character, a time when LGBT+ representation on prime-time TV was threadbare.
In 1987, a monumental episode of the soap opera saw Russell receive a kiss on the forehead from his on-screen boyfriend Barry Clark (Gary Hailes). Two years later, in 1989, Michael Cashman’s character made history yet again, with Russell and his boyfriend Guido (Nicholas Donovan) sharing the first mouth-to-mouth same-sex kiss on British TV.
Both landmark moments were inevitably blasted by the right-wing press – with Piers Morgan branding the latter as “a love scene between two yuppie poofs” in The Sun – and inundated with complaints from fuming viewers, but the show since been credited with helping to soften the public’s attitudes towards queer folk.
BBC’s Boy Meets Girl casts first trans actor in trans role on a British sitcom
Boy Meets Girl, a comedy-drama about two people falling in love, was the broadcaster’s first sitcom focusing on trans lives.
The show’s lead, Rebecca Root, became the first trans actor cast in a television soap opera, with both the programme and Root bagging a nomination at the British LGBT Awards in 2016.
Strictly Come Dancing welcoming historic first same-sex pairings
Strictly Come Dancing, a staple of many a Brit’s living room, broke ballroom ground when it finally welcomed its first same-sex dancers in 2020 and 2021.
Nicola Adams and Katya Jones and John Whaite and Johannes Radebe became the competition’s first all-female and male pairings respectively.
In the face of bigoted backlash from pearl-clutching viewers, the BBC continually refused to uphold viewer complaints and defended the simple act of two people of the same gender dancing.
A commitment to bringing LGBT+ stories to the forefront of its programming
From the quietly subversive Everybody’s Talking About Jamie documentary, Drag Queen at 16, in 2011 to this year’s Four Lives, the BBC has in the last decade gone out of its way to represent LGBT+ lives beyond tired coming out plot lines.
BBC Three, the home of the network’s more off-the-wall, youth-focused shows, has been especially at the forefront of this.
The channel aired both Growing Up Gay with Olly Alexander and Transitioning Teens, which saw trans activist Charlie Craggs chat to trans teens who have waited years to be seen by the NHS.
The time BBC debated the ‘morality’ of LGBT+ lessons in schools
On Question Time, BBC One’s weekly political discussion show, panellists were posed the question of whether it is “morally right” to teach children about LGBT+ issues in 2019.
As much as the panel, made up of senior lawmakers, company bosses and journalists, agreed that LGBT-inclusive education is “morally right”, the episode drew fierce complaints online.
“The framing of this question is deeply worrying,” tweeted BBC presenter Sue Perkins. “Are we really here again, nearly two decades after Section 28 was repealed…?”
When the BBC ‘balanced’ its coverage by featuring a gay execution supporter
In 2010, seven million people tuned in to watch BBC’s flagship News at Six bulletin as it reported on the birth of Elton John and David Furnish’s first child.
During the broadcast, the show interviewed a single person – Stephen Green, of right-wing group Christian Voice.
But it failed to mention that Green has previously supported the death penalty for gay men in Uganda, among other examples of small-mindedness. The BBC did so, it told PinkNews at the time, to add an “opposing viewpoint” to the subject of surrogacy.
The BBC once debated whether ‘gays should be executed’
As Ugandan lawmakers debated a bill that would introduce the death penalty for LGBT+ people in 2009, the BBC World Service asked: “Should homosexuals be executed?”
The backlash was swift. The radio station’s director, Peter Horrocks, apologised for the report in a statement published to the BBC Editors’ Blog.
“The original headline on our website was, in hindsight, too stark,” he said. “We apologise for any offence it caused.”
The BBC quitting a workplace Stonewall scheme over a ‘risk of perceived bias’
The BBC announced last year that it was quitting Stonewall’s Diversity Champions Programme, a scheme designed to create workplaces more inclusive for LGBT+ staff.
BBC bosses said that the departure was to “minimise the risk of perceived bias” when it comes to covering LGBT+ issues.
It was the upshot of a divisive culture war that had pelted the programme, with many taking aim at the scheme in what Stonewall has described as part of a “coordinated attack” against the charity.
Fran Unsworth allegedly telling LGBT+ staff to ‘get used to hearing views you don’t like’
The BBC’s director of news Fran Unsworth reportedly told the corporation’s LGBT+ network to “get used” to hearing opinions they do not agree with.
“You’ll hear things you don’t personally like and see things you don’t like – that’s what the BBC is, and you have to get used to that,” Unsworth allegedly said at the meeting.
The meeting had been called following weeks of tension within the BBC surrounding the broadcaster’s handling of LGBT+ issues, mainly trans rights.
‘We’re being pressured into sex by some trans women’
Yes, that article. BBC News, which has platformed anti-trans groups such as the LGB Alliance, published a piece in October titled: “We’re being pressured into sex by some trans women.”
Among the laundry list of criticisms from LGBT+ people: How it relied on a survey of just 80 people, how the survey was conducted by an anti-trans group, how Lily Cade, a porn star interviewed in the article, had called for trans women to be “lynched” and “executed”.
Despite the blistering backlash against the piece, the BBC defended its “rigorous editorial process“, touching off concerns from staff that the BBC is “institutionally transphobic” and months-long protests outside the Broadcasting House.
Commissioning a podcast on Stonewall’s ‘influence’ on the BBC and beyond
For reasons beyond human comprehension, a truly unnecessary 10-part investigative podcast was launched into Stonewall by the BBC in October.
BBC Radio Ulster host Stephen Nolan sought to “investigate” the links between the broadcaster and Stonewall in a podcast viewed by politicians and senior LGBT+ activists as just another attack against the historic queer advocacy group.
Some former and current BBC staffers even quit the organisation, citing a “hostile” environment against LGBT+ people – with the podcast being the final straw.
“We really need to start looking internally at ourselves as the BBC,” said one staff member in a leaked document, “and ask a very simple question.
“What the f**k are we doing?”