Most papers today cover news that the Integrated Household Survey found roughly 1.5% of the UK population self-described as gay or bisexual. There’s a nasty undercurrent to most of the articles, although only the Daily Express makes their point explicitly:
But critics have said it raises questions about the importance placed on homosexuality.
Tory MP Philip Davies said: “An awful lot of focus in diversity issues is given to people’s sexual preference and this difference is not quite as widespread as believed.
“That said, I do not see what relevance it is to anyone else. Someone’s sexual preference is a personal matter and it calls in to question why anyone is bothered at all.”
Yes indeed! If we can just fiddle the statistics to downplay the number of LGBT people, then we can just sweep them under the carpet and stop being bothered with such irrelevant things!
So before I go any further, I’d like to point out that even if this survey is correct, and there are just 700,000 gay people in Britain, not 3.5 million, that wouldn’t mean that gay rights would become less important or relevant, as The Express seems to claim.
No study is perfect, but this one in particular seems to have a couple of issues which mean it may not be comparable to other sexuality surveys. First of all, as Ben Summerskill of Stonewall points out, many studies of sexuality ask questions in a way that puts the subject at ease – for example, giving the questionnaire in anonymous printed format in a private room. The IHS by contrast is given over the phone or on the doorstep – both of which might deter people from revealing their true sexual identity to a stranger. While some steps were taken to provide privacy for the subjects – subjects interviewed over the phone did not have to explicitly say “I am homosexual”, but simply reply “yes” when asked- they were only to keep orientation information secret from other family members, not from the interviewer.
Secondly, here is the actual table of results from the bulletin of the survey (PDF, p. 8):
Heterosexual / Straight : 94.8%
Gay / Lesbian: 1.0%
Don’t know / refusal: 2.8%
Non response: 0.5%
While it’s true that only 1% identified as gay (the figure The Daily Mail uses), even just taking the people who replied ‘bisexual’ or ‘other’ into account doubles that figure. Plus, not everyone who refused to answer will be gay of course, but I’d guess people who aren’t heterosexual would be more likely to withhold this information – especially since, regardless of what privacy measures may have been in place, many of these people were asked while their family were in the room.
Finally, this all comes with the massive caveat that it refers specifically to people who are out, hence the apparent oddity that according to the data, gay people are generally rich, well-educated and white – in other words, people who might feel safer coming out. According to the bulletin (page 13), the 5%-7% estimate commonly used (which is based on multiple studies, not just a single survey) is based on people’s sexual history, rather than how they identified themselves to researchers (the bulletin discusses in detail the differences between behaviour, orientation and identification). Both measures are useful, but they’re for rather different things. For the papers to directly try to compare one to the other – especially when the press release specifically warns against it – is just plain misleading.