The BBC are determined to get their money’s worth from membership of the Stonewall Diversity Champions scheme, importing the charity’s controversial definitions into their reporting. The official in-house BBC Style Guide, the manual to which journalists refer when reporting, is laden with terms that could be lifted from a gender studies course at Goldsmith’s University, or indeed the Stonewall glossary of approved terms.
Language about sex is at the crotch of the matter – homosexuality, bisexuality and heterosexuality describe the sex or sexes to which one is attracted. But the BBC disagree, advising that sexual orientation is defined by ‘gender’.
‘Homosexual means people of either sex who are attracted to people of their own gender,’ The BBC Style Guide advises before adding:
‘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 behaviour and mental illness.’
The handwringing over the historical associations of the term ‘homosexual’ seems misplaced; to most people the idea that gay men might be attracted to vulvas and lesbians to penises is the offensive part.
This is particularly concerning when one thinks about the pressure on young lesbians, many of whom report being coerced to accept males who identify as ‘transbians’, as sexual partners. Should they turn online they will find ‘lesbian’ is a term most commonly used in pornography, and should they ask any Stonewall-trained organisation about what being a lesbian is, they will be told it is attraction based on a partner’s identity, not their sex. Make no mistake, words can hurt people and this manual and the reporting it will inspire could mislead anyone not assured of their sexual orientation.
Interestingly, in the BBC guide ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are sandwiched together under one definition as if the terms were interchangeable. One might expect such a lazy inaccuracy from the Guardian – that it’s come from the UK’s national broadcaster is somewhat concerning.
One might expect such a lazy inaccuracy from the Guardian – that it’s come from the UK’s national broadcaster is somewhat concerning.
The BBC does, however, concede that there is a difference between ‘sex’ and ‘gender identity’:
‘“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’.
The guide also advises that with regard to those who identify as transgender, journalists should ‘Use the term and pronoun preferred by the person in question.’ This would explain why violent male offenders who identify as transwomen have consistently been referred to by female pronouns by the BBC.
With a sleight of language, the BBC have erased same-sex attraction; making the desire for someone of the same sex literally unspeakable once more. That sexual orientation is about sex used to be an incontrovertible truth, but thanks to the long march of Stonewall through British institutions such definitions are verboten. As former BBC journalist George Orwell observed in Politics and the English Language:
“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.”