Sunday, September 26, 2010

Heterophobia

Everybody is entitled to their own opinions,
but not to their own facts.
Patrick Moynihan
There has been a bit of a kerfuffle over a recent UK study on sexual identity in the UK. Apparently Northern Ireland has the lowest percentage of homosexuals in the UK (gay, lesbian or bisexual), at just 0.9% of the population aged 16 and over. The UK average is 1.5% according to Measuring sexual identity: an evaluation report from the UK government's statistical division (ONS). It is obvious from the report that the statisticians behind it went to great lengths not to 'bias' the answers to their survey, even running it twice using different methodologies (telephone and face-to-face).

And yet the findings have provoked criticism from gay activists claiming the findings are false, as recently reported in the Irish Times. Why? One obvious implication of the findings is that adults in the UK are overwhelmingly heterosexual (94.8% to be precise, excluding the 3.3% who refused to answer). This isn't exactly a huge surprise, and indeed I've noted that precisely the same situation applies to Ireland.

What's interesting therefore is why such a backlash from gay lobbyists? I guess part of the answer is the standard motivation of self-interest. After all, if you are in receipt of enormous amounts of funding from the state and other funding institutions - because of the prevalence of the issues that you champion - then it's kind of awkward if the figures show that your organisation exists solely for the purpose of championing the needs of just 1% of the population.

But I suspect there's more to it than that. It's the logical consequence of the 'equality absolutism' that now applies to all gender issues nowadays (and a few other issues come to think of it). Equality absolutism states that one gender orientation is as valid as another, and in fact every gender orientation must be treated with the same equality of status and esteem as all others. But the fact that 97-99% of the adult population in Ireland and the UK are heterosexual - and it is a fact - sits rather awkwardly with the abolutist equality agenda.

However when the facts get in the way of ideology, the reaction is not to accept the facts but to indulge in a bout of 'heterophobia' (straights are 'breeders' after all). Odd that - and I thought the idea was to be tolerant. I'm all for tolerance myself, but it only works in the long run if everyone abides by the same rules. A bit like facts, for that matter.

4 comments:

  1. Some pretty confused reasoning there, Gerard. I don't think homosexuals are in any doubt they are a small minority. The idea that there should not be discrimination on the basis of people's sexual preferences (what you call "equality absolutism" and a view that I hold myself) does not sit awkwardly with whatever the numbers are. The two issues are separate and mutually irrelevant. So whether gays are 1% or 5% I don't see why they should not enjoy the same privelages as heterosexuals (such as myself).
    And its hard to see how any of this translates into any meaningful form of heterophobia.
    Without having read any of the stuff, it sounds like gays think that the numbers are an underestimate which, despite the best efforts of the ONS, it could be. Its unlikely that heterosexuals will claim to be gay but the converse is not true. That two methods agree does not, of course, mean they are right although the onus is on the critics to come up with some evidence that the data is wrong.
    My understanding is that homophobia is a particular problem in the North so that could partially explain the low reported incidence. Just as in some countries, there is much less acceptance of left-handers and a correspondingly low reported incidence of it.
    Some of my best friends are lefties, some are gay (& some are both): may they all live long and prosper.

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  2. In general Gerard, you would expect estimates of homosexuality derived from population surveys to be downward biased, particularly if people have not come out about their sexual orientation. Also (and I am purely guessing here) I imagine there would be more gay people among the 18-40 busy professional group that are so hard to get into surveys. I haven't read the gay rights groups response but I couldn't begrudge them a little scepticism about these numbers.

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  3. @Kevin
    My interest was more in the political motivations for the criticisms of the research Kevin rather than an observation about the circumstances of gays per se. I don't doubt there are some individuals who for reasons of their personal circumstances have to 'stay in the closet' - though I'd like to think far fewer than before given the more tolerant times we live in (no facts, just an opinion).

    My dig about heterophobia was, obviously, a play on past practices (and sadly, for some, present practices) of making exaggerated claims about gays for the purpose of excluding/suppressing them. The irony now is that exaggeration seems to go in the other direction - as if some want to claim a greater presence for gays than is actually the case. Like I said, I believe the motivations for this are political rather than anything to do with the pursuit of statistical accuracy. Again, an opinion not a fact.

    My question, I guess, is why would gay activists want to exaggerate the number of gays?

    @Liam
    The thing I found about the survey findings Liam was that they made sense in a manner suggesting they are a fair reflection of the total population. E.g.: a higher share of gays in the total population in London than elsewhere - hardly surprising given the 'traditional' role of cities as refuges for those whose lifestyles/preferences didn't fit in with the more conservative mores of their home towns etc. Very much the Richard Florida hypothesis.

    I think it is entirely appropriate (and necessary) to approach all social surveys with a degree of scepticism, but I think the basis for one's scepticism is just as open to questioning as is the nature of any survey itself. Especially those involving social and political values.

    That way we can all agree on the facts (as far as is possible) and still remain free to form our own opinions, fully aware of the distinction. And remain willing, of course, to defend the other's right to a different opinion, even when one doesn't agree with it.

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  4. I think it depends on what you are measuring. If it is the percentage of the population who are actively hetero or homosexual the survey is probably a lot closer to reality than the other estimates of 10 & 25% thrown around by special interest groups..

    But....

    Something else to consider, and it's something that maybe some people will find uncomfortable - for I've rarely, if ever heard / read it mentioned, I can't think - (off the top of my head at least) of any psychological trait where it is universally accepted that it is distributed on a binary or ternary basis. I.e. it's a not a case of people being either happy or sad (if you'll excuse the synomym!), aggressive or passive, smart or stupid or even schizophrenic or not.

    When you think about it the notion that the deep well of human sexuality is distributed on a categorical basis with two or three single contacts points is almost certainly ludicrous. The survey itself seems very simplistic in that regard and interpreting it in away that isolates gays would be unscientific (and would constitute interpreting it in a manner unafforded by the evidence actually gathered). Not neccessarily a point most people reading it will grasp intuitively I fear..

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