Today
Fri 4 December 2020

Strictly Come Dancing’s first same-sex pairing is not the milestone those praising the decision believe it to be, writes George Llewelyn

As the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing returned to our screens this weekend, there was a notable difference. One of this year’s female contestants, the former Olympic boxer Nicola Adams, has been paired with a female professional, Katya Jones.

Sadly, it is a move that is hard to celebrate as particularly progressive.

Strictly, the broadcaster’s most successful show format in terms of global ratings, is late to this particular party. In Ireland, former Big Brother winner Brian Dowling competed with a male partner earlier this year. Last year, RuPaul’s Drag Race star Courtney Act, now a celebrity in her own right, reached the finals with a same-sex partner in the Australian version. The lesbian television presenter Gili Shem Tov also danced with a female partner in the series’ first ever same-sex duo in the Israeli version a decade ago – the same year that former Shadow Home Secretary, and more recently Brexit Party MEP, Ann Widdecombe appeared in the UK version.

The inclusion of same-sex dance partners in the show’s eighteenth season has proved too much for the former contestant, who said: “I don’t think it is what viewers of Strictly, especially families, are looking for, but that’s up to the audience and the programme.” 

The reference to “families” as an objection to LGBT representation is an all too familiar homophobic trope.

I am gay and I also am part of a family. I have parents and a long-term partner, a sister and a four-year-old niece. I haven’t spoken to them about it, but I am certain that my family will be thrilled to see people like me represented on mainstream television.

What Widdecombe means when she says that families won’t like a same-sex couple in Strictly is that their inclusion goes against so-called ‘family values’ – a phrase that is often little more than shorthand for something highly conservative parents are likely to deem appropriate for their children. In her eyes, a gay couple dancing ballroom is not an appropriate thing for children to be exposed to.

Widdecombe has form for expressing this sentiment. In 2017, she claimed that a same-sex coupling would be “unsuitable” for the show’s younger viewers.

In a 2012 column for the Express, she defended gay conversion therapy, a practice banned in countries such as Germany, Switzerland and Malta and which has been proven to harm the individuals subjected to it. When asked about it in a Sky News interview last year, she defended the position, claiming that science “may yet produce an answer” to homosexuality – asserting that homosexuality is something to be cured.

Back in 1999, she said in an interview with BBC News that homosexuality “can’t be promoted as an equally valid lifestyle”.

I feel it is the same beliefs around homophobia that led conservative Muslim parents to protest the Birmingham schools participating in the ‘No Outsiders’ programme – which aims to teach children about characteristics protected by the Equality Act such as sexual orientation and religion. Protestors called the acknowledgement of LGBT people in children’s books “inappropriate“, with some even likening gay people to paedophiles, another familiar homophobic trope. 

While views such as Widdecombe’s suggest that gay people are inherently too perverse for pre-watershed television, what they really seem to mean is that we are perverse full stop.

Since the legalisation of same-sex marriage came into force in 2014, we seem to have forgotten about the discrimination, intolerance and violence faced by gay, lesbian and bisexual people.

Why does this kind of homophobia continue to be acceptable in Britain today?

After Widdecombe made her comments about Strictly in 2017, she was nevertheless invited to star in Channel 4’s Celebrity Crystal Maze last year. She appeared alongside Richard Ayoade, Matthew Wright, Sunetra Sarker and Hollyoaks actress Nikki Sanderson – all of whom were apparently willing to appear alongside her. A year after positing that LGBT people are harmful to children, she also appeared as a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother, coming second in the public vote.

The implication is clear: the homophobic remarks which should have disqualified her from public life are eminently tolerable.


A Forgotten Minority

But such vile and dangerous views are ingrained in our society.

Stonewall recently discovered that one in 10 health and social care staff have seen or heard a colleague claim that sexual orientation can be “cured”. The charity also found that one in 10 LGBT people under 25 have been “pressured to access services to “question or change” their sexual orientation – not by parents but by healthcare workers.

The word ‘gay’ itself has come to be used as a synonym for something weak or negative. In secondary schools, 50% of teachers have admitted to not intervening in bullying that involved homophobic language because they saw it as “harmless banter”.

I struggle to think, or find examples, of any other minority group whose degradation and discrimination seems to be so widely accepted. As a society, we continue to show a shocking ability to tolerate homophobia and a dangerous blindness to the unique severity of the problem.

Hate crimes against gay and lesbian people have shot up by nearly 20%, the highest rise in hate crimes against any group. In 2019-20, there were three times as many hate crimes related to sexuality as there were based on religion.

Britain has come a long way in the fight against discrimination against all minority groups, particularly those from black and ethnic minority communities and this is certainly something to be celebrated. The recent moves towards the mainstreaming of trans visibility and acceptance are also promising.

But there is one group that remains left behind. Since the legalisation of same-sex marriage came into force in 2014, we seem to have forgotten about the discrimination, intolerance and violence faced by gay, lesbian and bisexual people.

When the UK’s most notable – if not notorious – historian David Starkey said that slavery couldn’t have constituted a genocide because there are “so many damn blacks” there was justifiable uproar. Lancaster University revoked his honorary degree and the host of the YouTube podcast on which the comments were made is now being investigated by the police. When Katy Hopkins started referring to migrants as “cockroaches” and called for a ‘final solution’ following the bombing of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, it spelled the end of her career.

These comments are no different to those made by Widdecombe and others over the years and yet we treat homophobia like it just isn’t quite so serious.

The fact that she feels it is acceptable to keep making such remarks, and that our supposedly liberal democracy barely flinches when she does, only proves that, despite being far more widespread, homophobia remains an explicitly acceptable prejudice to hold.


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