Opinion

OPINION: Bollocks to tradition, here’s why the BBC should have gay couples on Strictly

Strictly Come Dancing

ONG Editor Andy West asks: are same-sex dance partners being banned by the BBC?

A 13-year- old girl sits on the sofa in the living room next to her little brother. She feels strange and lonely and frightened. It’s been a hard day at school. Some of the kids have been calling her names and the feelings she’s having towards other girls in class feel like poison. She cried this morning. She’ll cry tonight. Dad comes in from the kitchen with dinner and the family eat together in front of the TV.

Somewhere to the north, a husband watches the TV screen wondering if he’ll ever tell his wife he’s gay. He’ll wait till this show is over and she’ll go to bed. He’ll watch porn in secret and then feel sick. To the west, a woman sits alone and switches the television on while her son hides in his bedroom watching the same show on his laptop, unable to talk.

The theme music blares from their television sets and they hum along, all of them in unison, though they don’t know it.

It’s the launch episode of Strictly Come Dancing, a year from now, and the couples are being announced. Then, something extraordinary is beamed into millions of homes across the country.

Tess Daly announces that an openly gay contestant is going to be paired with someone of the same gender.

It would be a moment of silence. Yes, some would tut. Some would grimace. Some would sneer and make ignorant jokes. Some would complain and the papers would report it.

But the 13-year- old girl goes to bed knowing she has a new hero, even if her parents didn’t wholly approve. The husband, shaking but inspired, finds the courage to say what he’s never said before. A mother finds it in her heart to sit on her son’s bed and cuddle him and tell him he’s loved.

That is why it matters to have same-sex couples on Strictly Come Dancing. That is why we need a gay celebrity to demand another boy or girl for a partner. That is why the BBC should cast off “tradition” and take an opportunity to do something amazing and important.

It would not be a huge leap for the BBC: a corporation that does more than ever to represent minorities in its programming. Yet, while it creates powerful documentaries about gay culture and while it includes gay characters and storylines in its dramas, it is clearly nervous about shifting in line with society on Strictly, its flagship programme.

I can sort of see why. The audience for Strictly spans all ages and backgrounds and there are a lot of people who will be uncomfortable seeing two men or two women dancing together. They’d be unhappy watching a trans dancer too, no doubt. But a majority of open-minded, happy, reasonable people can’t be beholden to the small minds of the few. No octogenarian will have a heart attack, they’ve seen more than we can imagine. And if a few people switch off in protest, let them. Others will switch on in delight.

Of course, the talk around gay contestants on Strictly is more heated than ever this series after comedian, Susan Calman, came in for some serious stick when she burst into tears of joy at being paired with Kevin Clifton. Many fans reacted with anger, accusing her of betraying her sexuality by not dancing with a woman.

That was wrong in my opinion, and indicative of the increasingly aggressive witch-hunting on social media, stoked by click-hungry gay news sites. As the incoming editor of OutNews Global I want to stand apart from that. Susan wanted to dance with a man, so fair enough and credit is due to the fact her “intro tape” on the launch show opened with her referring to her wife.

The more interesting question is this: if she’d wanted to dance with a woman, would she have been allowed to?

Apparently not, and that is what should be challenged. A spokesperson for the BBC responded to the angry reaction this week, saying: “Strictly has chosen the traditional format of mixed-sex couples and at the moment we have no plans to introduce same-sex couples in the competition.”

There it is then. Strictly is sticking to tradition. But hang on a second…

That might be a popular answer with many, but scratch deeper and the word “tradition” is one we should naturally mistrust. It has, for generations, been used by those in power to hold back change and keep new ways of living and thinking suppressed. It’s a fluffy, cosy,
safe word; a Trojan horse for underlying prejudice. “Tradition” was the buzz-word for those fighting equal marriage, after all, when in fact we were dealing with latent homophobia.

I wouldn’t accuse the BBC of being overtly homophobic. The corporation has broadcast many programmes marking the 50th anniversary of the quasi-decriminalisation of homosexual acts between men and it has championed gay contestants on Strictly for years… as long as they don’t dance together. There’s the rub. Without being anti-LGBT, the BBC is unwittingly allowing its own nervousness to do harm to people who pay the licence fee and deserve to see themselves represented.

Did Julian Clary want to dance with a man? Did Will Young? Were they told they weren’t allowed to? It seems clear that it certainly wasn’t an option.

Past finalist Julian has called for same-sex couples on the show before: “I’m aware that there are difficulties with the lifts and the mechanics of the dancing. But there are gay ballroom dancing clubs around the country, so they’ve found a way to make it work. And apart from anything else it would be entertaining for us all to watch and tut about.”

Julian, as ever, giving a wry wink to the truth of the matter. There surely must be a perception, somewhere in the BBC, that two women or two men dancing together would seem somehow wrong. Tokenistic perhaps? It might even look a bit silly. It would make many viewers uncomfortable. Certain newspapers wouldn’t like it. It might lead to awkward conversations between parents and their children. In all, it’s just too tricky for the BBC, which doesn’t want to risk its most successful show by ruffling some very dowdy feathers.

Well those feathers should be ruffled and instead of thinking of those who might sneer, tut or grimace, think instead of the majority who don’t care and the minority who need the show to give them hope, courage and strength.

Professional dancers on the show seem to agree. In 2015, the heterosexual 32-year- old Russian professional Gleb Savchenko said: “I think this would be great idea. I believe the show should embrace diversity. If it happened, I would look forward to do some very
exciting and very different choreography!”

An inside source has told me he got a slap on the wrist from producers for what he said. I sincerely hope that’s not true.

Judge Craig Revel-Horwood said this week: “I think a same sex couple can exist. In the world of competitions, there are same sex couples that do it as well so there is no reason that can’t happen. The Beeb just have to decide if it’s something they want to do.”

Meanwhile, he seemed to question the idea that tradition dictated the decision to block gay couples, adding: “The tango was originally danced between two men anyway. The Argentine Tango between two men is powerful and explosive. And the same can happen between two women.”

Strictly’s US sister-show, Dancing With The Stars, had two guys dancing together last year and it worked out just fine. Meanwhile, the Israeli version had two women paired-up way back in 2010. At the time, TV presenter Gili Shem Tov, who has a female partner in real life, said dancing with another woman felt “natural” to her. Perhaps it would have felt more natural for Rev Richard Coles from this latest season? Strangely, he didn’t cop the brunt of the anger aimed at Susan Calman but he had the guts to stand up and be counted. He’s been paired up with Dianne Buswell on the contest, but revealed he had “a discussion” with bosses on the show about having same-sex couples take part. He said: “It’s just a question of doing it. I think this year would be a good year to do it actually, with the 50th anniversary of sexual offences act (which decriminalised sex between two men aged more than 21).”

Strictly

Image credit: Twitter @RevRichardColes

Was he told, in his discussion, that he wasn’t allowed to pair up with a guy? If the option were there for competitors to dance with a same-sex partner, we’d surely have seen it on the show by now. It’s all too easy to shrug and say, “Lighten up, what does it matter? It’s a dance show.” But there is still a long way to go before LGBT+ people are truly accepted in everyday society.

A Stonewall poll last week found more than half of gay men are too afraid to hold hands in public. Gay hate crime is up by an estimated 11% a year in the last two years. The BBC has an opportunity and, I would argue, a responsibility, to avoid decisions which continue to make gay people seem like outsiders. By effectively banning gay couples dancing together on Strictly in what seems to be a misplaced reverence for a tradition that doesn’t exist, it sends the message that they are not “normal” and are still something to be justifiably uncomfortable with or even repulsed by.

The BBC needs to be brave here and break the taboo. What a proud moment it would be and what a powerful, happy and exciting two-step in the right direction.

Ballroom dancing will still be a wonder to watch with two men or two women and it has the chance to bring an important message to millions of viewers. As Craig Revel-Horwood says, with same-sex dance partners: “You only have to decide who’s going to go backwards.” Surely, it’s time for the BBC to move forwards.

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