September 24, 2010
1% of the UK is gay? Where did everyone go?
Do you feel like the only gay in the village? writes Milly Shaw. Well if your village has a population of 100 people then statistically yes there is only one gay person, which must therefore be you. Congratulations.
Or so the Office of National Statistics (ONS) would have you believe. A new report released this week (Sept 2010) claims that just 1% of the population of the UK is lesbian or gay, and 0.5% is bisexual (LGB). That’s 730,000 people. Surely it’s too few?
At first glance, 1.5% seems improbably low. It’s a far cry from the oft-quoted Kinsey-founded 10% figure you may have heard before, but it’s also much lower than the previous official Government-produced figure of 5-7%, used to estimate the economic impact of Civil Partnerships back in 2004.
1.5% is the figure all the newspapers have been quoting, but even that’s not quite right. If we flip the statistics then what we’re talking about is that 94.8% of the population claim to be heterosexual. The remainder – 5.2% – answered ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’, ‘bisexual’, ‘other’, ‘don’t know’ or they didn’t answer at all.
But the figure of 1.5% openly gay or bisexual people wasn’t the only surprise from the ONS research.
We now also know that London has the highest population of LGB people, and Northern Ireland the fewest.
Gay people are better educated than straight people, and they’re more likely to have managerial or professional occupations. Men are more likely to be gay than bisexual, while bisexual women outnumber lesbians by two to one.
Gay/bisexual people are healthier but more likely to smoke, and, statistically, they’re also younger than straight people. Or, to rephrase that last fact in a less confusing manner, people under the age of 45 are more likely to identify themselves as gay or bisexual people than older people. And there lies a hint to the problem behind the statistics.
How reliable was the survey?
In order for statistics to be reliable, the research methods must be solid. And at first glance, it seems they were. The Office of National Statistics interviewed 450,000 adults – a huge number, and the greatest number ever to be surveyed on their sexual orientation. People were surveyed at home, either face to face or by phone. Most importantly, the ONS went to great effort to maintain the privacy of the survey respondents.
The sexuality question was asked using a showcard system. Respondents were given a card with various options: ‘heterosexual/straight’ ‘gay/lesbian’, ‘bisexual’ or ‘other’. Each option has a corresponding number, unique to that card. Respondents was asked which of the options best described how they thought of themselves, and they answered by giving the number, not the sexual orientation itself.
As research methodologies go it’s a pretty reasonable approach. But it’s still nowhere near good enough for finding out exactly how many LGB people there are in the UK.
The problems of surveying sexuality
There are 4 key problems with asking someone to define their sexuality in a questionnaire.
Firstly, the respondents must know the answer themselves. Coming out to yourself is the first and sometimes hardest step for a gay person, and it can take time. A recent reader survey of Lesbilicious readers found that 18% of women who identify as gay only realised that was the case in their twenties, or later. Had those 18% been surveyed about their sexual orientation at the age of 16 they would presumably have said they were heterosexual.
Secondly, all the anonymous showcards in the world aren’t going to encourage a married man to come out as bisexual while sat next to his wife, or a gay teenager to reveal her true sexuality in front of her homophobic parents. The showcards may seem anonymous but no system is perfect, and if the truth were to come out, there is too much to lose. There’s very little incentive for those individuals in telling the truth, but the potential risks are enormous. Why endanger the carefully created illusion of heterosexuality for the sake of a silly poll?
Thirdly, even gay people who are out to themselves and to their immediate families aren’t necessarily going to come out to a stranger, much less one representing the Government. Some of the older people surveyed will remember when homosexuality was a crime. Even those who don’t worry about the Government abusing data on the identities of gay people may simply feel uncomfortable coming out to a stranger – or worse still, a neighbour, as was the case for reader ‘rozsmiff’ who left a comment on the Guardian website:
“I was one of the 450,000 that was surveyed,” wrote rozsmiff. “I’m a bisexual woman married to a man. The lady who undertook the survey lived 6 doors down the road from me, and although I answered honestly and openly, I’m not sure everyone who undertook such a survey would have conducted themselves in the same way, particularly as she has completely ignored me since I undertook the survey.
“I’m not sure what catchment area each surveyor had, I’d guess a 20 mile radius (the living in the same road was purely coincidental), but if for example you weren’t out at work, would you admit to a stranger anything to do with your private life that may or may not filter back. I’m sure there is a code of conduct, but there is also a myth of trust.”
The final and perhaps most damning problem with the ONS survey is that it doesn’t know what it’s looking for. What does it mean to be LGB? Sexual health organisations are well aware of the phenomena of men who have sex with other men, but who don’t identify as gay. Those men are invisible in this survey, but they still exist.
The true LGB population
So what percentage of the population is really gay, and how would we ever know? Similar surveys from other countries, cited in the ONS report, point to anywhere from 1% to 4.6%.
A less unscientific but perhaps more revealing insight into sexual behaviour is revealed with data from gay dating sites Gaydar and GaydarGirls – they claim to have 2,185,072 members between them, which would be 3.7% of the population. And of course that 3.7% doesn’t include LGB people who have never used those two specific gay dating websites – either because they’ve gone to alternate websites, they’re not trying to meet new people or they don’t use the internet.
Does it matter what the real figure is? Yes and no. No, because equality shouldn’t be a numbers game. We know that gay people exist, and that they need equality and legal protection regardless of whether we number in the tens or tens of millions. But life is not fair, and so yes it does matter what the real figure is. Governments allocate resources according to need. if they believe there are only 730,000 LGB people in the UK then they won’t see us as a priority.
This survey is an excellent start, but it’s not definitive. We need more and smarter studies to reveal the truth of the UK population.
It’s great that we now know how many well-adjusted, middle class gay Londoners there are, but by and large they’re not the ones that need to be found. The poor, the religious, those too afraid to come out to a government official, their family or themselves – those are the LGB people we need to be counting.
Download the ONS report Measuring Sexual Identity: An Evaluation Report
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