“A Real Shift in Public Discourse”: The Biggins Furore Shows Things Are Getting Better

Christopher Biggins’ biphobic remarks have been ruled acceptable by Ofcom. That’s not great news, but there is a sunny side to this situation, says Dr Helen Bowes-Catton of BiUK.

It’s not fashionable to admit it, but this whole Biggins-Big-Brother-biphobia saga really cheers me up- and not just because it’s so delightfully alliterative. I know that’s an odd thing to say, but bear with me and I’ll explain.

Now don’t get me wrong, I was really disappointed that Ofcom, responding to complaints about Biggins’ biphobic remarks on Celebrity Big Brother, incomprehensibly decided that, actually it was ok to be offensive about bisexuals on national TV. Like a lot of people, I found myself speculating wryly about the likelihood of a contestant getting away with similar remarks about lesbians or gay men. But on balance, the way this whole thing has played out seems to me to offer more reasons to be cheerful than reasons to despair, and here’s why.

I was stuck in a tedious meeting last summer, sneakily checking my emails, when I got word of what Biggins had said on Celebrity Big Brother. I immediately thought back to what had happened last time the panto-tastic one had held forth about bisexuality, and my heart sank. In a 2014 interview with The Big Issue, he’d said ‘Bisexuals are not real people, and they ruin women’s lives. It’s so wrong, because you’re not owning up to who you are. You lead a double life, so how can you be a real person?’ This was picked up and reported in Pink News, without any critical commentary. Cheeringly, the comments on the Pink News article were highly critical of Biggins and supportive of bisexuals, but from an editorial point of view, it was just bi-bashing business as usual. Unsurprising, perhaps, but definitely disappointing. And now, like some sort of rubbish single-issue Katie Hopkins, he was back on his soapbox again.

I immediately started mentally co-ordinating BiUK’s response, thinking about lobbying Channel 5 to evict Biggins from the Big Brother house, jotting down a list of people to talk to, and so on. By the time I escaped the meeting, I’d mentally saddled up my high horse, donned the armour of righteous indignation, and was ready to ride into battle on behalf of my community with a mighty roar.

But, when I Googled the incident to investigate, I found that the story was already everywhere. The fuss was huge- everyone from The Sun to Stonewall was condemning Biggins, and it was clear he was going to be evicted from Celebrity Big Brother.  In short, the tabloid press were doing my job for me. I sent my high horse back to the stables, took off my armour, and went back to my paperwork.

An Ofcom ruling finding that Channel 5 was in breach of broadcasting regulations would have been the perfect ending to this story and, while I’m disappointed that it didn’t happen, I see the media response to Biggins’ bi bigotry as indicative of a real, and rapid, shift in public discourse about bisexuality. When the Sun’s outraged on your behalf, and the pink press (which as little as two years ago, were printing this sort of stuff uncritically), has got your back, you’re good to go.  And that’s why this whole thing makes me smile.

I don’t want to downplay the very real struggles that many in our community continue to face. Bi people’s mental health continues to be poor, and there’s plenty more to do, especially around improving our understanding of intersectionality, striving to make our communities more inclusive, and fighting for the rights of bi refugees and asylum seekers. But in terms of public discourse on bisexuality, I really do think that we’ve reached a tipping-point. Our community leaders are receiving state honours and invitations to Downing Street, and our academics are getting invited to speak at the White House, and on news programmes. These developments, together with the kind of media response that greeted Biggins’ biphobia, are the result of decades of hard work by bi activists, as well as to broader changes in social attitudes to sexuality. The Sun’s on our side. We’re getting somewhere. And that’s a reason to be cheerful.

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Helen Bowes-Catton

Helen Bowes-Catton is Chair of BiUK, a network of bisexual academics. She is a lecturer at the Open University, and is owned by two cats.

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