New survey results from the Office of National Statistics suggest that the number of gay, lesbian and bisexuals in Britain is much lower than previously thought.
The survey puts Britain’s gay community at 1.5% of the total adult population – far below the most common estimate of 6% which is routinely used by equality organisations.
The results come from the Integrated Household Survey, the second largest after the census. One key difference though is that the HIS asks questions of individuals while the Census return is filled in by one person on behalf of a household.
This is the first time the survey has asked about sexual identity and the ONS stressed that the question was “experimental”. As is often the case with surveys though, the way a question is phrased can have a dramatic impact on the results.
The ONS said it had used a question on self-perceived sexual identity. Respondents were provided with a showcard containing four options: heterosexual/straight, gay/lesbian, bisexual or other. They were asked which option best described themselves.
96% of those surveyed provided an answer. ONS stated that it would be wrong to assume that the other 4% were secretly gay, but you do wonder what other reason someone would have for refusing to answer. And the rate of refusals is much higher amongst younger age groups, which may indicate teenagers unwilling to identify themselves as gay.
Some argue that sexual identity is different from sexual orientation. Their argument is that some people may be celibate and not see their identity as gay even if they are not actually heterosexual.
Press reports of the survey’s results range from the factual to those indicative of the right wing attitudes they portray. The Daily Mail revelled in talk of myths and assumptions being debunked, quoting a spokesperson for something called the Christian Institute who called previous higher estimates “a lie”.
The Chief Executive of the gay equality charity Stonewell, Ben Summerskill, suggested that the survey underestimated the true figure. He said: “data collection happened on doorsteps or over the phone, which may deter people from giving accurate responses – particularly if someone isn’t openly gay at home”
Arguments will rumble on about the exact size of the gay community, although the very fact that the discussion is taking place shows that some progress in the fight against discrimination. But there is still a very long way to go.