Sep 18, 2009

Refresh FM Manchester: how I was stopped from presenting because I was gay

On Monday, my six-year tenure as a voluntary radio presenter and producer with Refresh FM came to an end. It was not my decision. In this blog post, I will do my best to explain why I was dropped from presenting.

I cannot fully represent the views of Refresh FM in this piece, nor can I represent the views of my co-presenter and my producer. I can only explain things as I see them, and I'll write about other people's opinions and motives as fairly as I can.

I was not stopped from being a radio presenter because I was turning up drunk. I was not stopped from being a radio presenter because I was saying offensive things on air. I wish it was that clear cut, because Ofcom have clear guidelines on that.

I was stopped from being a radio presenter because I am homosexual.

To understand where I am now, you need to know how this all began.

Brief history

Refresh FM is an RSL, which basically means it broadcasts for 28 days a year on a limited frequency to south and central Manchester. It is run by Victoria Park Fellowship (previously known as Victoria Park Christian Fellowship), a fairly active independent evangelical church in Manchester. You can google the links. The congregation finance and volunteer their time to run the station, along with an increasing number of 'outsiders' from other churches (like me).

I have never been a member of that church, but I would identify myself as a Christian. I joined Refresh when it began in 2003. I don't think any of them knew I was gay then: we would work together fairly intensely for one month a year, and we were much more concerned about questions of broadcast quality, guest booking, programme timing and playlist compiling than questions of sexuality.

The programme I presented was Theatre Of Noise, a light-hearted magazine-style evening show which was roughly half music and half talk (scripted and unscripted funny bits - and at least, I hope it was funny!). The show was not popular with more traditional Christians because we did silly things like destroy CDs with power tools, but it certainly stood as an odd-shaped jewel in Refresh's crown and attracted listeners they wouldn't normally get. We took it seriously and my co-presenter and I worked hard to improve the programme from year to year. Believe me, planning and presenting 20 two-hour shows in one month is a lot of hard work.

Overwhelmingly positive

The fact that Refresh FM found out I was gay was almost incidental. Almost, but not quite. Although my relationship with Refresh was overwhelmingly positive for all six years (until Monday), they sensed I was slightly distant when I was in the studio. They were perceptive: I was indeed troubled. I had wanted to tell them about my sexuality, as anyone who has been "in" for any length of time will understand. It's not about waving a gay flag: it's about being honest and totally yourself. I wanted to be honest with Refresh.

So I told them of my unease that they didn't seem to know I was gay, and I realised, as an evangelical organisation, this might be a problem for them.

I didn't realise how much of a problem.

Refresh FM convened a meeting with me on Monday. I was told early on in the meeting that I couldn't present any more. (They did say I might be able to take up other responsibilities with the station, but this seemed like a hollow offer at the time.) The reasons I was given, if I remember rightly, were (in no particular order):

1) a presenter for Refresh is a mouthpiece for the mission of Victoria Park Fellowship. I accept this; it's a natural position for a church to take. Church radio stations hold a tension between being missional and being great radio. But being a "practising homosexual" is living in a state of active sin and is inconsistent with the mission of the church;

2) if a gay person presented shows, the church would find it difficult to raise money for the station from their inevitably offended congregation;

3) they don't want to upset the Muslims in the area, although this reason was not expounded upon. I'm not sure how much they actually believe this.

Devastating

I should point out that my friendship with Refresh FM was one of trust and love, and it enlightened my life considerably. I am profoundly grateful for the experience Refresh has given me. It wasn't a shock to discover they held a traditional view of homosexuality, but their recalcitrance of their stance on Monday was devastating and hurtful.

They seem to like me, but they just can't get past the "gay thing".

I do not want to get into Biblical arguments on homosexuality here; I don't want the comments below to be filled with YouTube-style diatribe. I believe God loves me because I'm gay and that She / He has no problem with gay relationships. Some Christians divide "being" and "doing" gay, and they love the sinner but hate the sin. I can understand Refresh FM taking the latter view (each to their own), but the fact they're willing to devastate someone because of those principles seems incredible - and ill at ease with the Christ I understand from the beatitudes in Matthew 5.

And yes, I am devastated. I am reeling. I am fragile, hurt and angry.

Dawkinsesque

The 'Christian' element of this blog post may put you off. You may think I was stupid for expecting Christians to like gay people. You're wrong. I would take a Dawkinsesque punt and reckon that most Christians have no problem with gay people. Jesus certainly didn't.

I understand it was a painful decision for Refresh FM to take - it's not easy giving what they probably see as 'tough love' to people they care about. But their insistence in the meeting that this isn't personal, that it isn't about me, is based on an incorrect understanding that sexuality is something to be separated from our true being. Our sexuality is woven into us. Even Jesus had a sexuality. He would have expressed that sexuality in some way - if he didn't, then the gospels are a lie and God was not truly made flesh.

And so to today. I hope the Theatre Of Noise ends up on a station 20 times the size. I did the right thing by telling Refresh FM I am homosexual. My integrity is intact and I have tried hard to act with grace. I think Refresh FM's decision cheapens them; it's a disappointment because I expected better from friends that I love. I will go back to Refresh tomorrow if they change their hearts and minds about homosexuality, but I don't think that will happen in a hurry.

What next? I don't know. I have spoken to Ofcom and also to the Citizen's Advice Bureau, and I was shocked to find out it is perfectly legal (and Ofcom-safe) for radio DJs who are voluntary, rather than paid, to be sacked because of their sexuality. I can see the logic when the law is there to protect livelihoods, not hobbies, but if what I have been told is true, this law needs changing.

Gritted teeth

You may feel the need to protest or campaign after reading this piece. You can talk with me further at dj (at) fatroland.com. Whatever you do and to whomever you speak, please show the same grace that I have tried my hardest to show throughout all of this (often through gritted teeth or teared eyes!). You will not change minds by shouting at people: start from their point of view and work from there.

I have to leave the dust to settle to some extent because my (straight) co-presenter, who has been immensely supportive in all of this, needs to make a difficult decision about his future with the station. I also need to discuss things more with our producer, who expressed his annoyance at the decision in a brief text conversation the day after the meeting. I will speak to more people, to organisations, to those that understand.

A wrong has been done and I need to stop this happening to other people.

And to Refresh FM, if you're reading this... the Bible calls us to love our enemies. I'm not sure if you're an enemy - I don't know what you are any more because I am still reeling from Monday - but I think I still love you despite your stupid, stupid decision.

Edit: there are updates on this blog here and here, and here is the Guardian's coverage and the Pink news coverage. Thank you everyone for your support.

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