Friday, 15 December 2017

Is it a bit shit to be gay in the USA?

This is a blog post I should’ve written last week and posted on Monday. Oh well. I’m now wrapping up my small research project on LGBT+ housing and homelessness. I should’ve written this post last week as we launched the two reports on Monday – one for housing providers and one for homelessness service providers.

Our recommendations in both are pretty straight-forward, and should not come as a surprise to readers of my blog post – service providers should routinely ask service users their sexual and gender identity and get over their own cringe. In doing so, we would start to get decent data, but also begin a conversation with service users that is: “we are interested if you are LGBT+ because we realise it might matter to you”. One of the recommendations focusing on homelessness services might seem a bit odd though: we explicitly state that we don’t think LGBT+ specific provision, such as hostels or other supported accommodation, is required in the context of the lives of people who participated in our research in Central Scotland.

A lot of the lobbying for LGBT+ specific provision comes from two concerns. One is that LGBT+ homelessness is an enormous problem; we just have not found evidence for this. In fact, we recreated the methodology of The Albert Kennedy Trust, and surveyed homelessness services in Scotland. We got a very low response rate, and some really ropey data. If I were to make an estimate based on that, I’d say around five per cent of homeless people identify as LGBT+, compared to three per cent of whole population identifying as LGBT+.

Second is a presumption that the cause of homelessness in the case of LGBT+ is family rejection – that is, people come out as LGBT+ and then their families ask them to leave. We really did not find evidence of simple causation like this in our data. For example, two of our gender-queer participants had periods of homelessness because their families were not accepting of their gender identities, but their families were also emotionally abusive and this was just the latest example of this, so they had to leave the family home. In such complex cases, we cannot say for sure, but we could surmise that they would have ended up homeless because of leaving their abusive family whatever their gender identity. Similarly, another bisexual participant became homeless after their relationship with an abusive partner broke down and they started relationships with people of a different sex. Again, the causes of the homelessness are very complex here – we cannot say that the person was homeless because they were bisexual.

Because of these two reasons, we don’t think LGBT+ specific provision is suitable in a Scottish context. What is needed is better training among service providers to make the excellent current service provision more inclusive. 

Now, to get to the subject of this blog post – I also think that the drive for LGBT+ services comes from the USA (and to a lesser extent Canada) and, from what I’ve read among LGB studies, it looks like being LGBT+ in America is really bad. It really struck me when I was reading this paper that compares UK data to a wider literature review. That paper analyses data from the UK longitudinal panel study Understanding Society. It demonstrates that in some categories there is a small negative impact on your life from being LGBT+ in the UK. But the comparison data Uhrig pulls together from the US in particular, is far worse. To give one example that really shocked me: data from the US in 2013 showed that women with same-sex sexual attraction did far worse in terms of educational outcomes. In the UK, lesbians were three-times more likely to be educated than their heterosexual counterparts.

What’s going on then? Why do things seem to be worse in the US? I suspect there’s a lot of methodological things going on here. Firstly, data on sexual and gender identity is pretty poor everywhere, but it seems to be quite staggeringly bad in the US. The main source of data used by many researchers is the US Census, which has allowed same-sex couples to “out” themselves on their forms for a while and say they are a household. There’s three main problems with this: it misses single people, and we know LGBT+ people are more likely to be single; it doesn’t really allow for bisexual people to be recorded anywhere, and certainly ignores transgender people (but then, so do most surveys); and finally, it’s a self-selecting sample, from what I can gather, you don’t have to fill it in if you don’t want to. Whenever you create “prefer not to answer” categories in questions like this, you end up with that being your second biggest category after straight.

It seems there are very few population-level surveys which include LGB, or transgender, questions in the US. This means a lot of the US research that I’ve come across, for example focusing on homelessness, comes from a problem perspective and samples populations with problems, which as people like Prof Mark McCormack point out, leads you to find particularly troubling findings. To give one example, in my hunt for the source of that bloody 25 per cent stat (that a quarter of young homeless people identify as LGBT+), I discovered the root of one of the more bizarre versions – that a whopping 40 per cent of young homeless people identify as LGBT+ – comes from this report. You just have to read the subtitle to work out how they got that stat: funnily enough a lot of people who identify as LGBT+ use LGBT+ services. To be fair on the authors of that report, it seems that the stat has got mangled in translation.

The other methodological issue is the complex intersection of sexual identity and socio-economic status. I’ve only seen glimmers of this in what I’ve read, but I suspect middle class people in the UK feel more comfortable in their sexuality, which might explain why things don’t look too bad in our data.

However, I do wonder if there is something qualitatively different about the experience of LGBT+ in the USA, that it is a more socially conservative society. It certainly seems that social attitudes are marginally more conservative, with a small majority of people in the USA in 2014 still believing same-sex relationships were not “not wrong at all”. This compares to the UK, where in the most recent British Social Attitudes Survey, the vast majority of people think same-sex relationships are “not wrong at all”. More recent data from the US suggests that they are equally supportive of same-sex marriage as people in the UK are of same-sex relationships, however I would caution the conclusion that the US has become very socially liberal, not just because of the current POTUS, but because I think there’s some qualitatively different in the socially-sanctioned institution of marriage, and same-sex relationships more broadly.

As an aside, as I’ve commented before, I think these questions no longer collect accurate data due to social desirability bias, and we need to start asking some more, possibly more explicit questions, to get to the heart of peoples attitudes.

Finally, I think another issue is the lack of a decent welfare state in the US. For example, in terms of homelessness, one UK scholar commented that “[t]he sheer cruelty and vindictiveness of the US system, indeed, is sometimes difficult for Europeans to fathom”. To give one example, if you were a single, young, gay man in Scotland and your family kicked you because of your sexual identity, you would be unintentionally homeless, and your housing authority would have a duty to provide you with housing. I’m sure it’s not as simple as this, and housing authorities would try and wriggle out of it – one shocking example I read was of a housing authority in southern England who said a young man had made himself intentionally homeless because he chose to come out. But despite these cases, and despite the increases in homelessness and rough-sleeping in the UK over the past seven years, homelessness support is much better in the UK than it is in the US. And this cuts across a wider range of social and public services. If your welfare state is stronger, then if you come across a bump in your life, say due to exclusion related to your sexual or gender identity, then it is going to be easier to get your life back up-and-running again. So, I wonder if this is why outcomes do not seem to be as bad for LGBT+ people in the UK compared to the US, and it’s also why we don’t think LGBT+ specific provision is suitable in the UK. We have good mainstream services, we just have to make sure they are inclusive and supportive. 

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