Prejudice against LGBT people has sharply declined, but a new survey shows it hasn’t gone away.
Legalisation of same-sex marriage in the UK (though not Northern Ireland) five years ago was a landmark on the road to equal rights for gay and lesbian people. The fact that David Cameron, a Conservative prime minister, drove the bill through parliament – even if he had to rely on Labour votes to pass it – only served to magnify its significance. Homophobia, it was widely assumed, was a fading force, even in the Tory party, which as recently as 2002 voted against gay adoption.
What the results of a government online survey of 108,000 LGBT people reveal is that such conclusions were over-hasty, if well intentioned. Prejudice and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity persist to an extent that will surely surprise heterosexuals more than they surprise the gay, lesbian and transgender people who are on the receiving end of such behaviours. Of respondents to the survey, the largest of its kind in the world, 70% reported having concealed their sexual orientation for fear of a negative reaction, while 28% had experienced harassment or insults in the past year. Belonging to a sexual minority remains a difficult experience for many people, despite the success of a high-profile few. Role models such as Ruth Davidson, Tom Daley and Craig Revel Horwood are important. The survey would never have happened were it not for another Conservative politician, Justine Greening, who launched it when she was women and equalities secretary (and who came out as gay herself almost exactly two years ago, in a tweet sent on the day of London’s Pride parade).
The government is keen to emphasise positives. The UK, it points out, is recognised as a leader on LGBT rights in Europe. Attitudes have moved on enormously: in 1987, according to the British Social Attitudes data, just 11% of those questioned said same-sex relationships were “not at all wrong”. In 2016 that had increased to 64%. But with the announcement that it will seek to ban gay “conversion” therapies, and press ahead with a consultation on how to reform the Gender Recognition Act, the government has acknowledged there is a long way to go.
Human rights are violated when people are attacked because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not adhere to cultural norms about how they should look or behave. As we are learning from recent events in the US and elsewhere, the liberal gains of the 1960s and 1970s can never be taken for granted. The global picture is complex, and progress is not linear: in Bulgaria and the Netherlands gay groups have been supported by wider society whereas in parts of Africa LGBT rights defenders have been hounded by the authorities. Donald Trump’s government has sought to reverse many gains made by the LGBT community, withdrawing federal protections for transgender students, curtailing workplace safeguards for gay and trans people and stopping the collection of census data on most bisexual and all transgender people. This makes the British government’s announcement that the Office for National Statistics is developing a sexual orientation question for its 2021 census particularly welcome. It is ridiculous that nobody knows how many LGBT people live in the UK. Good policymaking requires reliable information.
Sexual identities are changing. Younger respondents to the survey were more likely than older ones to identify as bisexual or asexual; trans people under 35 were much more likely than those over 35 to identify as non-binary. It’s important that the government has a handle on this; essential that schools, universities and mental health practitioners have the resources they need to support people. In the current funding environment, they do not. Local authority cuts have hit many of the charities that support the LGBT community, and challenge the bigotry that makes lives painful. Meanwhile, details of the new statutory sex and relationships education is yet to emerge. Three decades ago a Tory government put on to the statute books a homophobic law that banned the “promotion” of homosexuality. Today it is helping to forge a path towards justice. That’s progress.