Friday, 9 November 2018

The three per cent

It’s beginning to look an awful lot like three per cent of population are lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Governments are now beginning to ask standardised clunky questions to capture sexual identity in population surveys – this is a case where Scottish exceptionalism is true, as the then Scottish Executive pioneered this with the Scottish Health Survey in 200#. As the number of surveys that include such a question spread, the finding ends up being that around three per cent of people say they are not solely heterosexual. Reassuringly, an analysis of Google search data (looking at what porn people search for) finds that around three per cent of people are solely homosexual, with another two per cent on top of that “curious” (of course I can’t find the link to that article now).

There are all sorts of well-rehearsed issues with this statistic, many of which boil down the basic issue of what are we actually measuring? We’re conflating identity, attraction and sexual behaviour into a category on a form. You don’t have to be a queer activist to quickly become uncomfortable with that – the data on sexual behaviour from NATSAL should be enough to get you questioning simple categorisations. But I very much fall into the camp (pun intended) that those categories of “gay”, “lesbian” and “bisexual” or “pansexual” are empowering. In a heteronormative world they allow you to label your difference and be with others that are similarly different. So, in a patriarchal, heteronormative culture like the UK three per cent of people will call themselves not-heterosexual; they will have sexual and romantic relationships with people of the same gender as themselves.

I’ve ended up thinking about the three per cent quite a bit recently. It’s been lurking in the back of my mind and keeps popping-up unexpectedly. This is mainly because when we consider the position of a structurally marginalised group in society, the focus tends to end up on representativeness. We are now, rightly, called-out for creating, or taking part in manels; the utterly shocking lack of ethnic diversity in many areas of public life is highlighted as an example of the outcome of structural racism; the disabling effects of our society are reflected in the marginalisation of disabled people in major institutions.

Representation is also said to matter because of the visibility of the group. Non-members of a group continue to have negative views of group members because they do not see them in everyday life in positive roles. Similarly, group members might not think that opportunities are open or appropriate for them as they do not see people like themselves in such roles. Achieving levels of representation when groups are quite large is difficult, but obvious – in a world where over half the population are women, manels are just inexcusable. But, what about when it’s three per cent?

Only gay in the village

I wonder about this in terms of my own life. I grew up in the homophobic 1990s. About the only stat on non-heterosexuals that was muttered then was the Kinsey one-in-ten. This statistic has now been roundly debunked.

I sort of came out as gay at secondary school when I was 15. I felt very, very alone. I did wonder where all the other gay men were. I was the only gay in the village. Now I know that in my school of 1,000 pupils, there were probably another 14 gay men. Probably another three in my year group. If I’d know that at the time, would it have made me feel any better about myself? What if I knew these other gay men and I didn’t like them?

When I went to university and started dating the feeling of being alone didn’t really go away – if anything it got worse. A lot of this was entirely down to how I was feeling about myself. But I can’t help but think what I would have thought about the 3% stat then. There weren’t many out gay people in my college – definitely not 3% – but ironically enough of my peers have come out since we graduated that I now realise there were more than 3% of us. Even in a very large university like the one I attended, 3% is not very many people.

From what data we have there are also a couple of other things I can’t help but consider. Firstly, in the UK, non-straight people are evenly distributed across the country. Us gays, and particularly gay men, have a tendency to congregate in London and the south-east. We’re better educated and less likely to be unemployed than heterosexuals, so we go there to get better paid jobs. This means, if you’re living in a small, northern town, the chances are there’ll be slightly less than that 3%. Alas, it also looks like they’ll be a “selected sample” who are different to those super-gays in That London. How would that make you feel if you were in one of those places?

We also know that there is a generational divide. Younger people are more likely to identify as non-heterosexual than older people; obviously this is linked to the declining significance of homophobia in society. Indeed, a colleague recently told me how her 11-year-old daughter is being pressured at school to identify as bi/pan – what a refreshing change from the homophobic bullying so many of us older people experienced! It’s great that young people have this openness to explore, but as I explained to my colleague, I’ll be intrigued how many people who have had sex with people of the same sex do end up settling on an identity as “not-heterosexual”.


The other issue with the three per cent I think needs to be discussed among the LGBT+ community is over-representation – where do LGB people make up more than three per cent of a group and is this ok? This came to my mind during the period that of the five political parties who had representatives in the Scottish Parliament, three out of the six leaders (or convenors) were openly LGB. This was celebrated, and incredibly rightly so. Even a decade ago, a politician would remain closeted for fear of the reputational damage it may do, so that we had so many openly LGB leaders was absolutely fantastic.

However, I think questions need to asked about this level of over-representation. Not necessarily to challenge, and end in a conclusion of “this is wrong”, but to understand what drives it, do we need to ask what barriers heterosexual people (particularly women) might face in getting to similar positions of power and responsibility. I would also be interested if this over-representation existed at other levels as well in terms of political-party staffers and other roles (I suspect it does). The question then might be what attracts LGB people to such roles?

If we accept, from political theory, that we need groups engaged in political processes to ensure policy reflects their needs and views, then perhaps we do need to question that it is good that LGB people are over-represented in particular roles? As with any example of over-representation, this also means that LGB people are under-represented elsewhere. 

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