Let’s talk about stats, baby

Earlier this week, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released its latest data on sexual identity. That’s the cue for all corners of the media to start drawing all kinds of conclusions, including which part of the UK is “the least gay, lesbian or bisexual area of the country”, that bisexual identity has overtaken gay and lesbian identity and, simply enough, that one in 60 people identify as LGB.

While the sexual identity stats are very interesting, they tell us far more about the acceptability of being LGB than how many of us there actually are. When articles talk about, for example, 1.7% of people identifying as LGB, they really mean identifying as LGB in this survey.

An incredibly pertinent bit of information is that a much larger percentage of people – 4.1% – don’t know or refuse to answer the question, while an additional 0.4% define themselves as a sexual identity other than heterosexual/straight, gay/lesbian or bisexual, the three named options given to respondents.

This sort of survey question can be tricky because it’s about something so personal and often private. People who may identify as LGB may not do so openly. It’s an identity that can lead to discrimination and persecution; being open about it is something that will be carefully considered rather than automatic. The Annual Population Survey (APS), which is where these figures come from, is undertaken face-to-face or over the phone – which is to say, whoever is responding is doing so to a real other person. They could plausibly be doing it within earshot of someone they know. There are methods the face-to-face interviewers use to try to make it easier for people to feel comfortable answering, but it’s not going to be the case that these work for everybody. So I’m fairly sure that LGB people will be disproportionately likely to refuse to answer the question. At the same time, it also seems certain that some people who identify as LGB to themselves might feel so uncomfortable or concerned about outing themselves that they say they are heterosexual.

Therefore, the figures for LGB people in the UK are undoubtedly underestimated.

I think this follows through when looking at the figures by age group. The youngest age group asked (16-24) were much more likely than the oldest (65+) to say they were LGB: 3.3% compared with 0.6%. I’ve heard someone suggest that this is because being LGB is “trendy” for young people, implying that as they age, they’ll grow out of their faddy ways and settle down into cosy heterosexuality. Hmmm. I think it might be rather more likely that society has been becoming slowly more progressive and accepting and therefore the younger you are, the more likely it is that you have understood your identity in the context of civil partnerships and equal marriage coming into existence, seeing LGB people on TV and in movies and a monumental shift in attitudes towards sexual relations between adults of the same sex. There is definitely further to go to challenge homophobia and biphobia – we aren’t in a sexual paradise yet – but think about how hard it must be for somebody to be open about being LGB if they remember sexual acts between men being a criminal offence.

There’s also a difference when it comes to women and men: 1.5% of women identify as LGB in the survey compared with 2% of men. Again, this isn’t surprising when you think about the messages we all get about our sexuality. Women’s sexuality has historically been very controlled, and expectations of women leave less wiggle room for exploring sexual identity. On top of that, LGB women and our interests are incredibly underrepresented. Many LGB events and venues focus on LGB men, explicitly or implicitly, while many of the gay and bi celebrities who are role models to young people connecting with their own sexuality for the first time are men. If you’re an LGB woman, people you might identify with are far scarcer.

The ONS figures are useful and I’m glad there are serious attempts to understand the LGB population of the UK. This is a fairly new project, with the question only asked since 2012, and comes ahead of potential inclusion of questions around LGBT identity in the next census.

But it’s important to be aware that these figures don’t straightforwardly tell us how many people in the UK are LGB. Higher numbers don’t mean more people are somehow becoming LGB. When we see the numbers increase, that will be evidence of a fairer, more open society where telling a stranger your sexual identity isn’t a big deal for anyone.

The image is by Kaddy Beins and is used under a creative commons licence. It shows a close up of two women’s faces as they appear to be about to kiss. They are both smiling widely. The photo is cropped so only the lower half of the woman on the right’s face is shown while the other woman tilts her head up towards her. They are outside, though details are indistinct.