Britain’s gay (con)sensus

According to the UK Census, there are hardly any gay couples - but that won’t stop the state from courting them.

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).

In any case, it doesn’t take much imagination to see that the majority of homosexuals may not live in the kind of relationship that fits tidily into a Census category. So why should the government assume that they do?

This, after all, is supposed to be the age of fluid identities and playful sexualities, where female popstars snog for PR purposes and people boast about their non-practising bisexuality Marriage and parenthood is falling out of vogue, while national statistics report a steady rise in the proportion of one-person households, the consumption of single ready meals, and the popularity of the singles dating scene. As one US cult drama Sex and the City prepares to retire its ageing singletons and another, Friends, runs out of every conceivable platonic plotline, the UK press is full of commentary about how zeitgeisty and revealing these programmes have been. If there is a model for this kind of sexual behaviour, it is not traditional heterosexual monogamy, but the gay lifestyle - as it was, and as, in many respects, it still is.

In a feature article titled ‘Where have all the gays gone?’, several contributors to The Times (London) attempt to explain gays’ aversion to revealing their sexuality to the Census. ‘As far I am concerned sexuality exists as a kind of continuous line which runs from 100 percent heterosexual to 100 percent gay, and many people choose to spend different periods of their lives in a relationship which can occur at any point along that line’, muses Jill Waters (4).

Robbie Millen puts it more bluntly. ‘A lot of gays have the morals of tomcats’, he says. The ‘“gay lifestyle”…doesn’t exactly conspire to lash couples together’. He continues: ‘Some would rather be married to promiscuity than have a loving, faithful relationship.’ (5) And what is new, or wrong with that? If a minority in society choose to opt out of the ‘normal’ moral framework, by having a good time and refusing to procreate, it’s hardly going to bring everything crashing down. For decades, gays have suffered from official interference into their relationships and demands to conform to the social and sexual norm. That society should now let them have the morals of tomcats if that’s what they want should be a step forward, of sorts.

Except that’s not where the dynamic lies today. As gay becomes the new straight, with young heterosexuals eschewing monogamy and domesticity for singledom and nights on the town, desperate officials find themselves looking elsewhere for some kind of model of the functional family. Having expended countless calories portraying the normal family - Mum, Dad, marriage, kids - as a site of domestic abuse, poor parenting and relationship breakdown, the authorities have something of a struggle in trying to paint an ideal adult relationship, when this seems to clash so badly with the presumed reality of heterosexual monogamy. So they make something else up, instead.

Whether it is the government’s Women and Equality Unit putting the case for gay marriage, or the chair of the IVF regulatory body singing the praises of gay parents, or the census trying so very hard to recognise gay couples as a legitimate household unit, today’s officials seem to find it much easier to present a positive picture of long-term monogamous gay relationships than straight ones. It’s not surprising really - given that nobody knows anything about gay households, gay marrieds or gay parents, they can be imbued with all kinds of friendly, affectionate, non-threatening qualities, without anybody offering an alternative reality.

And given that, as the Census indicates, the officially sponsored gay family barely exists, there are few practical consequences to lauding it. Except, perhaps, redesigning the Census form to make it possible for the Jill Waters of this world to ‘choose our own slightly blurred labels’.

Jennie Bristow is author of Maybe I Do?: Marriage and Commitment in Singleton Society, published as part of the Institute of Ideas’ Conversations in Print series. See the Institute of Ideas website.

Read on:

Gay times, by Jennie Bristow

A marriage that dare not speak its name, by Jennie Bristow

(1) ‘Census reveals the first official gay map’, The Times, (London), 4 February 2004

(2) ‘Census reveals the first official gay map’, The Times (London), 4 February 2004

(3) ‘Where have all the gays gone?’, The Times (London) 5 February 2004

(4) ‘Where have all the gays gone?’, The Times (London) 5 February 2004

(5) ‘Where have all the gays gone?’, The Times (London) 5 February 2004

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