Statistically speaking...

I have a stock answer when asked what proportion of the population is gay - a lot more than most straight people think, and a lot less than most gay people think.

The British Office for National Statistics is a good deal cleverer and less glib than I. It has published an estimate of the number of gay and bisexual (LGB) people in the UK.

The ONS - rather bravely - asked approximately a quarter of a million Britons aged 16 or over about their sexual orientation.

The results? 1.5% identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual (1% as gay, 0.5% as bisexual). Another 0.5% stated 'other' while 2.8% refused to answer or stated that they did not know. An additional 0.5% did not respond to the question. Notably, London reported the highest LGB presence, while Northern Ireland was lowest at 0.9%.

The survey also revealed some notable differences between the average LGB person and his or her straight equivalent. Globally, LGB respondents were, on average, more likely to be employed, more likely to work in management and professional posts and, on average, more likely to smoke than heterosexual counterparts. I have blogged on this issue before, suggesting that perceptions of LGB communities as wealthy and well-heeled often ignore cross-cutting facts such as gender, age, family status and race. The average picture often conceals the fact that there are many less well-off lesbians and gays: in particular, being gay and female, having children, and/or being a member of an ethnic minority greatly increases one's risk of living in poverty.

The ONS figure is a lot less than the 5-7% estimate offered by the UK Treasury, in advance of the enactment of civil partnership in the UK. If the more modest ONS figures are to be taken at face value, this means there are probably approximately 726,000 LGB persons in the UK. The equivalent in the Republic of Ireland would be approximately 50,000 persons aged 15 or over.

Simon Rodgers blogs about the results here.

The ONS research is undoubtedly solid, though, as with all statistics, a note of caution may be in order. First, not everyone who is gay or bisexual is going to tell the interviewer that this is so. The respondent may not yet have come to terms with being gay or bisexual. The respondent may not wish to discuss the matter as they believe it is a private matter. The respondent may fear exposure because they are married, or in a relationship with a person of the opposite sex. For some ethnic groups, homosexuality remains a huge stigma, and exposure may render one liable to rejection by family members and worse. Safer sex advocates often use the term 'MSM' or 'men who have sex with men' to describe the phenomenon of men who, while having sex with other men, nonetheless do not identify as gay or bisexual.

Despite strict requirements of confidentiality, respondents often remain wary of interviewers, particularly when they are employed by the State. The fact that younger people were more likely than their older counterparts to refuse to answer the question as to their sexuality, suggests that many of those who did not offer a definitive response may still have been coming to terms with their sexuality and may not have been willing to discuss it. The fact that the LGB population was reportedly on average, better educated and more likely to be in management and professional positions may very possibly suggest that LGB people who were from less privileged socio-economic groups were less likely to report that they were gay or bisexual.

Bisexual people, moreover, may be reluctant to describe themselves as such, perhaps fearing that the identity will be doubted, that they will be perceived as using the label either to appear trendy, or that they will perceived really to be gay, but unwilling to address this yet.

All this, admittedly, is speculation on my part. It is in no way intended to denigrate the very arduous and thorough work of the researchers. Yet, one wonders finally why it is necessary to determine what proportion of the population is gay or bisexual? Does government really need to know? The numbers may be useful in determining how best to target sexual health campaigns - though the number of LGB people in a particular area should not make safer sex messages any more or less urgent or pressing. The information would perhaps be useful to advertisers and politicians. What is clear is that the proportion of the population that is lesbian or gay should not determine the priority given to addressing the unequal social and legal status of LGB populations - the fact that there are less LGB people than one might once have thought does not make human rights concerns less relevant or pressing.

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