Why does the BBC News Style Guide erase homosexuality and bisexuality?

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15th August 2021.

“Homosexual” and “bisexual” mean same-sex and both-sex attraction, respectively. The BBC, however, now describes these terms as attraction to “gender”, which they define as how people “feel or present themselves”.

This is LGB erasure.

 

The first BBC News Style Guide was created in 1967 and has been updated regularly since. This guide serves as a template for journalists, a reminder to be mindful of the wide reach and impact of their words. From the introduction to John Allen’s 2003 BBC News Style Guide:

Every time anyone writes a script for BBC News they are potentially touching the lives of millions of people – through radio, tv and the internet. That is the privilege of working for one of the biggest news organisations in the world.

It brings with it responsibilities. BBC News is expected to set the highest standards in accuracy, fairness, impartiality – and in the use of language. Clear story-telling and language is at the heart of good journalism. This style guide will help make your journalism stronger and connect better with our audiences. As my first news editor on a small weekly paper used to say: “Keep it plain and keep it simple.” It still holds true.

Richard Sambrook, Director, BBC News

 

In 2013 the BBC made their latest style guide available online, which allows us to track changes to terminology over time. For example, in 2014 the definition for “homosexual” read as follows:

Homosexual
Means people of either sex who are attracted to people of their own gender. Do not write ‘homosexuals and lesbians’.

Discovering this now, we object to this language – we are same-sex attracted, and we wonder at how this woolly description was approved, and on whose recommendation. However, in mitigation, this version contained no definition of “gender”, and arguably simply reflected the common understanding at the time in life and in law that sex and gender are synonymous. Indeed, the 2004 Gender Recognition Act uses the terms “gender” and “sex” interchangeably, and as this guide is clear through the use of the word “either”, there are only two sexes.

 

The 2016 guide retains this definition, and adds an additional heading:

Gender/sex
Using appropriate language is an important part of how we portray people in our stories. Sexuality, race or disability should not be.

 

There are no further definitions for gender – it is simply regarded as interchangeable with sex, and in 2017 we find this definition for Gay Marriage:

Gay marriage
If using this term, make sure it applies to gay and lesbian people. If bisexual people are involved, same-sex marriage may be more appropriate.

 

Again, the seeming understanding that sex and gender are synonymous, and homosexuality and bisexuality relate to same-sex and both-sex attraction.

 

However, the current BBC Style Guide in 2021 reads as follows:

Homosexual means people of either sex who are attracted to people of their own gender, but take care how you use it. While it can be fine in historical, judicial or legislative references, it can be considered offensive in other contexts because of past associations with illegal behaviours and mental illness.

Bisexual is an adjective to describe someone who is romantically and/or sexually attracted to more than one gender.

“Gender identity” has come to mean how people feel or present themselves, distinct from their biological sex or sexual orientation. Use sex to refer to a person’s physical development and gender to describe how they identify themselves.

 

And for marriage, the guide now says:

Same-sex marriage
The term same-sex marriage is preferred to “gay marriage”, where relevant. And civil partnerships, while in many ways distinct, can equally be same-sex or opposite-sex, where relevant.

 

Here is where we find sexuality unmoored from sex, with the clear redefinition of gender as something other than sex. This is the additional step that truly denigrates the reality of what it is to be gay, lesbian or bisexual, as if to be same-sex attracted is a matter of attraction to someone else’s identity or presentation.

This is the creep of language that is enabling men to claim to be lesbians on their own say-so, and we find it not restricted to some dark corner of social media or niche academic journal, but in the style guide that shapes all of the journalistic output of the BBC.

As Richard Sambrook said: “BBC News is expected to set the highest standards in accuracy, fairness, impartiality – and in the use of language”. This gradual redefinition of same-sex orientation is inaccurate, unfair, and anything but impartial. It represents one specific worldview, one which places gender identity above sex and erases same-sex orientation.

We are attracted to sex, not “identity” or “presentation”.

When we shared our concerns about this on social media, amidst the many messages of support there was also the reaction we are now accustomed to seeing every time we assert the existence of same-sex orientation: who cares, live and let live, be kind, this is inclusive language, stop being bigoted, hateful, transphobic. As always, talking about sex brings immediate conflict with those who loudly insist that there is no conflict.

Why does it matter? LGB rights are built on an understanding that sexual orientation is based on sex, and that LGB people are discriminated against specifically on that basis. For example, the definition in the 2010 Equality Act is:

12        Sexual orientation

(1) Sexual orientation means a person’s sexual orientation towards –

(a) persons of the same sex,

(b) persons of the opposite sex, or

(c) persons of either sex.

 

Despite this, the level of social pressure that now exists to stop people who are gay, lesbian or bisexual from saying that they are attracted to sex, not “identity” or “presentation” is enormous. Making a plain statement that you are same-sex attracted is met with vitriol and accusations of transphobia. Objecting to the erosion of rights and protections is described as hate. What message does this send to young people questioning their own sexuality?

The erasure of same-sex attraction through the demands to include of members of the opposite sex prevents same-sex attracted people from drawing clear boundaries, insisting that we equivocate to validate the identities of others and avoid appearing “bigoted”. This is the coercion and shaming now facing homosexuals and bisexuals every day, and which is tacitly endorsed by the BBC.