It’s official: hardly anybody in Britain is a homosexual. Government figures released on 3 February, based on the 2001 Census, showed that only 78,522 individuals identified themselves as living in a gay or lesbian relationship.
Many have pointed out that this is markedly lower than British policy-makers’ unofficial assumption that ‘six percent are gay’, let alone the one-in-10 statistic that was once claimed, based on the now-discredited 1948 Kinsey Report on sexual behaviour in the USA (1). Indeed: to accept these figures would mean that gay couples made up about 0.3 percent of all married or cohabiting couples. It’s enough to make you wonder where they find all those TV presenters.
The major reaction to these figures has been denial, with some arguing that the census responses merely reveal how gay people are still intimidated by the idea of revealing their sexuality. Michael Cashman, Labour MEP for the West Midlands, suggested that many might worry about census information being released in less than 100 years. ‘People still live in fear that their sexuality or relationship might become public’, he said.
‘I am not surprised that in some areas people still feel very, very isolated and unable to identify themselves publicly’, said Ben Summerskill, chief executive of the gay rights group Stonewall. ‘People may feel comfortable walking down Old Compton Street in London holding hands, but do that in Plumstead in South London - a 20-minute journey away - and you would be an idiot.’ (2)
Of course there are more gays in Britain than indicated by the 2001 census. But just as it is hard to imagine that there are 750 times as many gay people (let alone couples) as indicated by these figures, it is hard to believe that fear was a major factor in discouraging people from ticking the ‘Gay’ box. It is true that it’s different being out-and-proud in the clubs of Brighton or Soho to being out-and-about on the streets of Easington or Redcar, but of all the many reasons why somebody in Redcar might claim to be straight, it seems strange to highlight fear of homophobic attack as a reason for not ticking a box on a form. More to the point is Robbie Millen’s explanation in The Times (London) of why he hesitated: ‘not because I was worried that I was on a list that would be used in a darker future to victimise gays’, but because ‘it was a silly, politically correct question and that the State has no right to know more than it needs to about my private living arrangements’ (3).