We need a new narrative around sexuality in the UK

9 July 2017

It’s been 50 years since homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK, marked by decades of progress made by the LGBTQ community in the push for equality. Here, Michelle Grimwood, PhD Scholar in the Faculty of Education Health at the University of Greenwich, looks at the quality of life reported by lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, and calls for greater understanding and more authoritative data on the health and social wellbeing of sexual minorities in the UK.

I read with great interest the recent findings from the ONS on quality of life for lesbian, gay and bisexual people. The article made a point to mark the celebration of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) Pride season, highlighting social inequalities related to how LGB people feel about their lives. The intended purpose of the article was to contribute to the equality and diversity debate that informs policy makers about how people feel about their lives and how this links with sexual identity.

As a PhD researcher in the field, I question the validity of this general statement “Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people say they experience a lower quality of life” as my research suggests sexual minority youth have an alternative experience. This leaves me wondering about the need for a new narrative around sexuality in both health and social research in England that moves beyond simplistic comparisons and instead considers the complex intersectionaility of age, gender and diverse emerging identities.

The ONS found that people who identify as lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) tend to rate their quality of life lower than average and lower than heterosexuals. However, in a sample of 6739 young people who completed the Youth Chances survey in 2013, lesbian and gay young people generally reported good wellbeing. In fact, levels of wellbeing were higher for lesbian and gays aged 16-25 than they were for heterosexuals of the same age in the sample, while bisexuals in the sample reported moderately good subjective wellbeing. This raises the question of how generalisable the ONS findings are.

A fundamental challenge to researchers in this field is the lack of population level data on sexual minorities in the UK. Sexual orientation is simply not monitored as a matter of routine in the same way as gender, ethnicity, age or disability. It may be due to this lack of data that the majority of studies that consider sexual orientation in this country tend to be qualitative in nature.

One British researcher in the field, Ian Rivers, notes that this is not the case in other countries. In studies in the US, for example, the majority of research in this area tends to be quantitative in nature. An important observation from my research is that the majority of literature which informs what we know about LGB health and mental health of LGB people originates from overseas. How relevant this is to sexual minorities in England is largely unknown.

The fact that the ONS are considering including questions on sexual orientation identity in the 2021 Census is particularly welcomed. Currently population data for sexual minorities is estimated, meaning that the prevalence of sexual minorities and subsequent studies are based on a best guess. Asking questions relating to sexual orientation is therefore essential in population based surveys, and also in service provision, especially if there are to be serious efforts to inform policy that has equal regard for the health and wellbeing of this group. What will be important in this process is to ensure that survey instruments recognise the increasing diversity of sexual minorities, and that they are not limited just to LGB.

For example, in the Youth Chances survey, of the 6739 young people who gave their sexual orientation, 7% described their sexual orientation as something other than LGB, heterosexual or questioning. This suggests that increasingly emerging identities are evident when people – especially young people – are asked to describe their sexual orientation. Some of these relate to gender concepts, such as to identify as a lesbian where there is usually a predetermination to also identify as a woman. Those who do not identify in this way may instead use terms such as pansexual or fluid.

Similarly, it is increasingly more likely that younger sexual minorities will use terms suited to the type of same sex relationship they identify with. Primarily non sexual relationship seekers may identify as asexual, gray or demi, whereas a person interested in same sex sexual connection without an intimate relationship may identify as aromantic. Young people may use more than one term to describe their sexuality such as an asexual pansexual, or aromantic queer. These complex and nuanced elements of sexual orientation need to be better understood and explored if valid statements about sexual identity, health and wellbeing are to be generalised.

There remains very limited information and data about the health status and health behaviours of sexual minorities in the UK. The first British based epidemiological study that used a quantitative paradigm to consider health inequalities for sexual minority youth in the UK was only relatively recently undertaken by Hagger-Johnson in 2013. This highlighted the lack of knowledge about health behaviours in sexual minorities, but also the importance of understanding more about the health behaviours of sexual minorities in order to inform health and wellbeing strategies that in turn inform the allocation of resources.

It is therefore welcomed that studies into the experiences of LGB people are becoming mainstreamed, and that the Office for National Statistics are beginning to focus work in this important area. Work by British researcher Catherine Meads has previously highlighted the lack of studies into the health status of LGB people in the UK. The implications arising from overlooking sexual minorities in most mental health and wellbeing studies mean this group has continued to be invisible and largely overlooked in health research.

Returning to my research on LGBTQ young people living in England, preliminary analysis does indicate two sexual orientation identities at risk of low subjective wellbeing: young people who were questioning their sexuality and those who identified with ‘Other than LGBQH’. Questioning and less traditional sexuality identities, such as asexual, pansexual, queer or fluid reported low wellbeing.

There is certainly evidence that some sexual minorities do have increased likelihood of poor wellbeing, but this is not the case for all sexual minorities. Sexual minorities have developed new narratives in which identities emerge that do not fit neatly into three distinct categories of LGB, and at times are complex in the interdependency of gender identity. As sexuality is a demographic indicator that is not routinely monitored, only estimated data is available, meaning there are challenges to researchers and limitations in what can be known. However, as debates around societal inequalities increasingly focus on how inequalities relate to sexual minorities, there are opportunities to develop data collection processes that can address these gaps in knowledge.

News Focus articles are the views of the author and not necessarily those of the Campaign for Social Science.