31 August 2012

On Gay Caledonia...

As regular readers will know, I do like a good survey, and the Scottish Household Survey is a bumper compendium, examining issues ranging from Scots' housing tenure and internet access, to rates of participation in cultural activities and people's financial circumstances.  There is plenty here to divert anyone interested in quantitative sketches of Scottish demography. I intend to dip in and out of the figures over the coming months, but for today, a quick word or two on the results of a new question introduced to the 2011 survey.  

In the chapter looking at the "Composition and Characteristics of Households and Adults in Scotland", the researchers pose a range of question. Are you married, divorced, unmarried? How ancient, what ethnicity, living in an urban or rural environment? Last year, statisticians introduced a new "core" question, on sexual orientation. 

"Developed by the Office for National Statistics, the question was designed to provide accurate statistics to underpin the equality monitoring responsibilities of public sector organisations and to assess the disadvantage or relative discrimination experience by the lesbian, gay and bisexual population."

So what did they find? Of their base of 12,893 respondents...

And disaggregated by gender, with the ladies first:

And men...

If we take the General Register Office's most recent Scottish population estimates (5,254,800 in June 2011), and crudely extrapolate out from these percentages, our lesbian, gay and bisexual population would number just 47,293 people (nationally, just slightly more than the population of Ayr or Dunfermline). Of course, there are plenty of problems with this decidedly rough and ready calculation. The Survey figures concern only adults, while the population estimates include the whole population, including children. But bracket those qualms, for the sake of discussion.  Does this seem a plausible estimate?

As Better Nation blogger Aidan Skinner pointed out on twitter, if we look at the much more extensively disaggregated and cross-referenced Office of National Statistics findings from England and Wales in 2010 (neatly summarised by the Guardian here), these Scottish figures look strikingly similar. The Scottish data poses similar questions.  What is being measured here, precisely? As a number of folk would point out, sexual orientation and sexual activity and attraction aren't the same thing.  Moreover, a number of factors seem likely to influence whether or not people are likely to self-identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual.  Unlike the ONS statistics, the Scottish findings aren't disaggregated by age, but if we look at the English figures, 14.5% of respondents who identified as gay or lesbian were aged 16 - 24.  A further 49.9% were aged 25 - 44, with 27.3% aged 45 - 64 and 5.9% over 65. 

It seems unlikely that the British youth of today have an innately heightened predisposition to take up recreational same-sex carnality on a far greater scale than their parents', and grandparents' generations.  What seems much more probable, however, is that different segments of the Scottish population are likely to exhibit differential comfort, identifying themselves with gay, lesbian or bisexual identities.

It was only thirty two years ago, in the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980, that the Scots laws criminalising "homosexual acts in private" were abolished, some scandalous thirteen years after the English and Welsh Sexual Offences Act 1967, with the abiding condition that "both" parties were aged twenty one years old, or above, and consented.  Add a third body, and you'd be in trouble.  These are developments of many living people's lifetimes. A salutary reminder, you might well think, that the unreformed character in which Westminster left much of Scots law before devolution is not a legacy which one can always comfortably celebrate.  


  1. Surely a miscalculation there, Peaty... If only 1%, as this survey suggests, are gay, lesbian, bi or "other" - assuming other fits neatly into the transgender portion of LGBT - then that's only 52,548 LGBT people in Scotland, a number that seems preposterously small, where the 472,932 would seem more reasonable.

  2. "then that's only 52,548 LGBT people in Scotland, a number that seems preposterously small, where the 472,932 would seem more reasonable"

    Would it? Every remotely credible survey has suggested that the supposed 10% ratio is a complete myth.

    As someone living in a small city whose last regular hostelry (who can afford to go to pubs any more?) was a gay bar, I like to think I'm moderately well-connected with regard to the LGBT community, and in several years of drinking there two or three nights a week with a mostly-gay group of friends, I never once met anyone who believed that the true figure was anywhere close to that. Even allowing for people misreporting their orientation for any of a variety of reasons, something in the order of 2% seems far more realistic.

  3. One in ten is perhaps a bit high, I'll agree. In my haste to discredit a low figure, I swung the other way (pun not intended.) I also think that 2% is a bit low - it's more likely somewhere in between. Especially give this was a face to face survey, people may have been reluctant to discuss their sexuality with a complete stranger.

    Even annonymous polling isn't great in this regard - though the situation is much improved now, it can still take a long time for people to admit to themselves that they are gay. Certainly, a couple of years ago I would have responded "straight" because I hadn't yet admitted it to myself. People did, and still do, go their entire lives without coming to terms with it and living a lie.

    And that's not even getting into the simple fact that sexuality doesn't go 100% attracted to women, 50/50, 100% attracted to men.

    I'm getting a headache, now.

  4. I would agree with the figures. I have a wide circle of friends, and know hardly any gay folk. One of my school friends was gay, and that's about it.
    Maybe they have all moved to Edinburgh or London, and the 10% might be more realistic there? My gay sister moved to Edinburgh as she felt the social life was better there.
    Seriously, i've always doubted the 10% figure, even in London or Edinburgh..

  5. Have you read the methodology bit on the SG website? They don't actually claim it is representative. It's based on geographic data as far as I can see.

    Also, years of canvassing have taught me that there is a group of people who are persistently never in. Whatever time you chap their door they are still out. Whereas people you have an existing canvass result for are usually in when you chap their door again. There may be something of the same effect here.

    Do gay people spend more time gadding about getting up to high jinks and are therefore less likely to be found sitting in their houses answering questions from earnest Scottish Government researchers? I wouldn't be at all surprised!

  6. Groundskeeper Willie1 September 2012 at 12:33

    The 10% claim was always just propaganda, as any fule kno.

    The generally accepted figure is about 3%.

    Which just about supplies enough of a reservoir of talent to provide all the TV presenters required by the BBC.

  7. LPW, your last para is a perfect rebuttal to Bonnington's recent nonsense about devolution ruining Scots law.

  8. I'd have thought that no one would ever know the true number, or percentage, of people who might be called gay or bi-sexual.

    As sexual attraction can be described as a sliding scale from 100% in one direction to 100% in the other with every number on the scale, depending on the individual.

    Inclination may also change during people's lifetimes, depending on their circumstances. I've certainly talked to lads who had been in prison who had indulged in gay sex whilst inside, but who had never before, or since wanted to take any part in it. I also once talked to an older man who since his wife had died, had found that he was happier to seek sexual gratification with another man, rather than be "unfaithful" to his wife.

    I'm not sure that even in a wide circle of friends not knowing anyone who is gay, is a sure way of knowing that none is gay.

    Many gay people will talk to no one; many only to a professional; some to only very close friends, in complete confidence, and some will come out to all their friends.

    Even some young people (quite a number in my experience) are terrified to have anyone know their orientation, fearing reprisals from school or work bullies.

    It's rather a sad situation that people to have to live their lives in such fear.