Thursday, 13 April 2017

Are you gay?

I’m currently carrying out a small research project funded by the British Academy on the experience of homelessness among young people who identify as LGBT+, and people who identify as LGBT+ and live in the most deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland. You can read more about the project here, and it emerged from the research I blogged about here and set out the agenda for my current research, challenging narrative of gentrification, here.

We have employed a research assistant to interview people who identify as LGBT+ and I am interviewing people who work with housing associations, local authorities and homelessness organisations. All these organisations, and people, have been amazingly committed to advancing equality and really wanted to learn from my research, as well as providing some excellent examples of good practice.

A few of these organisations have been very open in admitting they don’t routinely collect data on the sexual or gender identity of people, beyond the simple male/female monitoring. They’ve also said it is something they were going to start doing soon. One participant suggested that they didn't do this recording historically because in Scotland (and I’d add, probably the whole UK) this was probably because people feel awkward about asking about sexuality, and being asked about it.

Now, what I’m about to explain I’m sure millions of people have argued (indeed the wonderful folk at LGBT Youth Scotland who are helping me with this research point this out) and I’d welcome academic references to this point, but…I dwelt on this for a while and it’s really fucking heteronormative to not routinely ask service users about their sexual orientation because of a feeling of discomfort.

Because, you see, the 95% of you reading this who identify as heterosexual never have to explain your sexual identity because everyone presumes you are straight. You feel awkward being asked about who you have a sexual relationship with because you have never had to justify it. Every time I, or anyone else who identifies as LGB, has to answer that question we are coming out to a stranger. We don’t know how you would react. Actually, it usually makes me feel more comfortable. Yet organisations choose not to ask this question for fear of making people feel uncomfortable, or insulting people; straight people who really don’t have to worry about this at all.

Why does this matter? Before I get to that, it’s important to note that it is very difficult to ask a good question about what someone’s sexual identity is. Technically, in a survey, you should ask three questions: what sexual identity someone identifies with; who they usually form romantic relationships with; and who they have sex with. In the UK the NATSAL is the only survey that manages to do that. However, the social scientists at the Scottish Government and Office for National Statistics found that something along the lines of “How would you describe your sexual identity” with the choices “Gay/Lesbian”, “Bisexual”, “Straight/heterosexual” and “Prefer not to answer” does a good enough job. The same applies around asking people about their gender identity, or what pronouns they prefer. And, as Katherine Brown argues in this book chapter, despite the fact such survey questions impose identities on people, it’s better to know something about this population than nothing.

And this is why it matters. This is why people need to get over their straight, heteronormative cringe with asking people about their sexuality and sexual identity because then you can do something about it. To give a housing example, a tenant might report anti-social behaviour and abuse. This might be a homophobic or transphobic hate crime. As a body, you have a duty under the Equality Act (2010) to prevent harassment and discrimination, so your staff should be trained to help tenants report a hate crime. If you had never asked your tenants if they were LGBT+ identifying then your tenants might not feel comfortable in explaining that it was a homophobic or transphobic hate crime. On a more mundane level, partners who live in a socially-rented home in Scotland can be added onto tenancies so they have succession rights. It wouldn’t surprise me if many LGB identifying tenants might not think this would apply to their partners. Again, asking tenants their sexual and gender identity when they move in would make them feel comfortable – they would know you wanted to know – and so they would be happier to add new partners to tenancies.

So, are you gay? A simple question, but one we’re still not asking enough. 


  1. Quite right. Chimes with research I did about diversity monitoring of arts audiences. White arts employees were often uncomfortable asking audience members about their ethnicity, but BME audience members had no problem and understood exactly why it was important (including the need to choose an imposed identity in order to compare to official statistics).

    (Report is still here though it might be out of date. I found it surprisingly difficult to find existing advice, mostly it was aimed at statutory monitoring eg NHS)