The media have been buzzing with reports that the number of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people in the UK does not appear to be as high as previously thought. But arguments over the accuracy of the figures suggest that those on both sides are misguided. Categorising people on the basis of their sexual orientation advances neither equality nor our understanding of sexual diversity.
In the largest survey of its kind, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) questioned thousands of people about their sexuality, religion and other aspects of identity. About obe per cent of respondents said they were gay or lesbian, while about 0.5 per cent said they were bisexual.
There has been speculation that the low figure will undermine equality campaigns. Some fear that this will happen, while others no doubt hope it will.
But why are counting the number of people attracted to each gender? Equality is not dependent on numbers.
Unfortunately, the arguments that have already broken out suggest there are those on both sides of the debate who think that it does.
The Daily Mail gleefully declared that “the figure explodes the assumption – long promoted by social experts and lobbyists - that the figure is up to ten times higher”. Christian Concern For Our Nation (CCFON), who were at the forefront of campaigns against the recent Equality Act, quickly insisted that “serious questions now need to be asked about why the media and government have given such excessive attention to such a small group and spending huge sums of public money in the process”.
In contrast, Stonewall - “the lesbian, gay and bisexual charity” - have insisted that the ONS has underestimated the figure, because many LGB people do not want to disclose their sexuality. This is backed up by the same-sex dating website Gaydar, which has 2.2 million British users. If the ONS conclusions were accurate, this would be more than twice the number of LGB adults in the UK.
The coverage of the survey has probably increased confusion about the results. Several papers reported that 1.5 per cent are “gay”, failing to mention that a third of this figure identified themselves as bisexual. It is a curious prejudice that sees bisexuality as a sub-division of homosexuality. Further, few of the reports mentioned that four per cent of respondents chose “other” or “don't know” or declined to answer at all.
The Times declared that the survey has produced “the first picture of the British gay community, which is middle class and well-educated and whose members are more likely than straight people to be employed in professional and managerial jobs”.
I trust that no-one reading this bizarre statement will try to turn gay for the sake of better exam results or improved job prospects. The ONS found that graduates make up a higher percentage of gay people than of straight people. All this means is that university is often an open-mined place for people to consider their sexuality, sometimes being honest with themselves for the first time.
Similarly, the survey's conclusion that London has the highest percentage of LGB people (and Northern Ireland the lowest) does not mean that there is something in the water. Instead, it indicates that many people find it easier to explore and accept their sexuality in certain contexts than others – and that those who feel that they don't fit sometimes move to places where they feel more accepted.
It is almost certainly true that some who regard themselves as LGB may not want to say so. But the responses generated by the figures point to a much wider confusion.
The ONS may have given us some idea how many people regard themselves as gay, straight or bisexual. What they have not done is to ask anyone directly about the gender of the people they find attractive.
If 90 per cent of the people who a woman finds attractive are male, but 10 per cent are female, is she heterosexual or bisexual? One woman in this situation may see herself as bisexual, while another may regard herself as straight and a third may decide that the issue doesn't really matter. I fully respect the right of each of them to choose the label that they think fits. Sexual labels are fine – as long as we recognise that they are labels, not precise descriptions of a person's sexuality.
When we remember this, it is not surprising that four per cent of respondents declined to fit themselves into the three labels with which the ONS provided them. One of the few commentators to focus on the four per cent was Philip Hensher, writing in the Independent. He was rightly critical of the survey but simply assumes that the “don't knows” were all “evading the question”. He asked rhetorically “what adult in this country does not know what their sexuality is?”. I can only assume that all of Hensher's friends are more certain about their sexual identity than some of mine.
One reason for this ambiguity is that sexual orientation is about far more than gender. We may as well categorise sexuality on the basis of which hair colour a person finds attractive, or which sexual practices are preferred.
Of course, society sees gender as more important than these things. A binary approach to gender upholds homophobia as well as sexism. This being so, it worries me to see pro-equality organisations such as Stonewall calling for a census question on sexual orientation.
Words such as “gay”, “lesbian” and “bisexual” are very important to many people, especially those who have struggled to achieve social and legal recognition. I am not asking anyone to abandon these words. We cannot move overnight to a society that does not classify people on the grounds of gender or sexuality. But if we are to move towards such a society, we must not drag ourselves backwards by trying to fit everyone into two or three rather vaguely defined boxes.
As a Christian, I celebrate sexuality as a gift from God. This certainly does not mean that I consider all sexual expression to be acceptable, good or healthy. Living out our sexuality in an ethical and Godly way is not helped by legalism, which has nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus. Nor will it be helped by a tick-box approach to equality that seems more concerned with the convenient uses of statistics than with the far messier business of the minds, hearts and lives of human beings.
© Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia. His book, The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion, can be ordered from http://www.amazon.co.uk/No-Nonsense-Guide-Religion-no-nonsense-guide/dp/....