#Census2021: The private made public: sexual orientation in the census

Dr Paul Nolan is an independent researcher based in Belfast. He writes on conflict societies, social trends and demography.

In 1977 Reverend Dr Ian Paisley launched the Save Ulster From Sodomy! Campaign. The exclamation mark built into the campaign title was intended to convey the urgency of the situation: at that time a Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association had been formed to campaign for the extension of the Sexual Offences Act (1967) which had decriminalised homosexual acts between consenting adult men in England and Wales.

Paisley’s campaign was a Canute-like struggle, and despite his best efforts the liberal tide flowing across the Irish Sea resulted in homosexual acts being decriminalised in Northern Ireland in 1982. Attitudinal change has taken quite a bit longer, with leading figures in the DUP regularly making headlines by expressing hostility to homosexuality, often in lurid terms.

The party managed to block all five attempts in the Assembly to introduce same sex marriage, but in January 2020 the UK government legislated for its introduction. In 2021 there were 398 same sex marriages in Northern Ireland, five per cent of the total. The DUP has softened its position, at least round the edges.

In July 2021 the then deputy leader of the party, Paula Bradley, apologised for the party’s LGBT record at a Pink News reception, a position subsequently endorsed by party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. In a development that would have astounded Dr Paisley, the first openly gay DUP politician now sits as an elected member of Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council.

For a subject that had excited such emotions over such a long period it is remarkable how little was actually known on either side of the debate about how many people in Northern Ireland were in fact gay or lesbian. The figure that has been lodged in public consciousness for many years is 10%, but that has lacked any scientific underpinning. It seems to have been derived from the much-publicised ( but now widely debunked) Kinsey Report of 1948, which pioneered studies of sexual behaviour in the United States.

More recent survey work has been conducted closer to home, but has not attracted very much attention. The NISRA Continuous Household Survey (2017) showed 97.8% of the population identified as Straight / Heterosexual, while the self-completion survey conducted by NI Life and Times in 2017 also put 97% of the population in that category, with 1% in each of the Gay/Lesbian, Bisexual and Other categories.

The Census 21 results are broadly in line with those earlier surveys, but the census carries significantly more weight as it is not based on a sample survey but on the collection of data from the whole population.

It is the first time, in the UK as well as Northern Ireland, that a census question asked about sexual orientation, and the figures show that 31,600 people in NI aged 16 or over, or 2.1 % of the population identified as LGB+. That is a lower percentage than Wales (3%) or England ( 3.2%). It should be noted that this comparison is not quite exact because while the England and Wales census included the following question, “Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth?” the NI Census did not include trans identities in its drop down list of options.

In England and Wales that accounted for 0.5% of the population. It is possible that trans identities were scooped up in the LGB+ option in the NI census, but we cannot be sure of this. We also cannot, as yet, make comparisons with Scotland where the census results have not yet been published, or with Ireland where no question was asked on sexual identity.

The Rainbow Project put out a statement regretting the fact that the NI Census question did not allow for as wide a range of sexual identities as England and Wales, but nonetheless welcomed the results as a ‘baseline’ and a ‘meaningful first step towards ensuring all LGBTQIA+ people are counted and visible within our society.’

The 2.1% figure for Northern Ireland conceals a wide range of differentiated responses, particularly in terms of geography and age bands. The data is broken down first into the 11 local authority areas, showing Belfast as the area with the highest percentage of LGB+ responses (4.1%) and Mid Ulster with the lowest (1.1%). Belfast at 4.1% is strikingly similar to regional English cities such as Sheffield (4.1%), Leeds (4.2%), and Liverpool (4.4%). When we turn to the age breakdown in NI the differentials are even greater than the geographical differences, and the compound of the two factors throws up stark contrasts. Among the 16-24 age group the percentage in Belfast who identify as LGB+ is 7.5%, while among the over 65s in Mid Ulster it is 0.2%.

As regards the differential with England and Wales, it should be borne in mind that while homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967, it was not decriminalised in Northern Ireland until 1982 and older generations here grew up under the shadow of criminal law.

Another factor that may help account for the differential between the lower percentage of LGB+ people in Northern Ireland is out-migration. It is a well-established trend for LGB+ people to move from rural to urban areas, and from urban areas to metropolitan centres, and to these can be added the trend for gay migration from NI to England, thought to be more hospitable to sexual minorities. The evidence for this can be found in the census data for England which records place of birth, and these figures show that a much higher percentage of LGB+ responses among those born in NI but now resident in England than amongst those still resident in NI: 5% as against 2.1%.

Inevitably, the figures for England and Wales also show differentials based on age and location, in much the same way as they do in Northern Ireland. More than half of LGBT people in England and Wales were aged between 16 and 34, despite this age group accounting for less than a third of the overall population. Overall, more women than men were in this category: 830,000 to 706,000.

This can be partly, but not wholly, explained by the fact that the overall population contains 1.5 million more women than men. As regards the geography of sexual identity the places with the most diverse sexual orientation tend to have two or more universities. They include Ceredigion in Wales, Norwich, Cambridge and Lincoln. To the surprise of no one, Brighton and Hove emerged as the LGBT capital of England: more than one in ten (10.7%) identify as having lesbian, gay, bisexual or other sexual orientation, and 1.0%, double the national average, identify with a gender other than the one their birth identity.

It is of course possible – indeed probable – the census data in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and every other jurisdiction underestimates the number of people who do not have straight/heterosexual identities. It may be one of those areas of human experience that resists survey methods. Bear in mind that most census forms are completed in households, and that LGB+ identities are not always disclosed within families. In addition, there are many surveys now emerging, particularly among those below the age of 24, which put LGB+ identities at ten per cent or over.

Be that as it may, the purpose of this article is simply to look at what the 2021 census figures say about sexual orientation in Northern Ireland, and to give that some context by making comparisons with the ONS Census results in England and Wales.

Finally, when making that comparison there is one important factor that needs to be taken into account, and it is not one that can be found in the statistics. It is to do with stigma. While everyone could immediately list English celebrities who are gay or lesbian, there is still no household name in Northern Ireland who is openly LGB+. Rather there is an acceptance that some of those who have a media presence are ‘rumoured ‘ to be gay or lesbian. People may divulge their sexual identity when completing a census form in private, but are more reluctant to make that information public.

That culture of secrecy may now be changing. Last year’s Pride March in Belfast had 60,000 participants, according to the figures supplied to the BBC by the PSNI. By way of comparison, the BBC estimated there were 10,000 participants in the Orange Order march in Belfast two weeks previously. Sometimes figures do tell a lot.


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