Changing attitudes: A portrait of gay Britain

The biggest survey of homosexual lifestyles reveals the pink pound is powering ahead and social acceptance is growing. But many still suffer abuse, as Martin Hickman reports
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The Independent Online

Gay men and women still encounter widespread discrimination and violence in the streets and workplaces of Britain, according to the biggest ever survey of gay lifestyles in this country.

Launched at the Rex Cinema in Soho, London, yesterday, the online survey by Channel 4 reveals the gay community's attitudes towards the new civil partnerships and the delicate issue of coming out. Eighteen thousand gay men and women responded, giving a unique insight into the problems and dilemmas experienced by homosexuals in the 21st century.

Other areas of gay life are also illuminated, such as which television programmes the respondents preferred, which advertisements were liked, the difference in financial outlook between the gay and straight communities, which holidays were chosen and even which gadgets were the most popular.

Homosexuality has become more and more socially acceptable in the past 20 years and new legislation has tried to outlaw discrimination. While there is no law against homophobia, the Criminal Justice Act 2003 allowed courts to impose tougher sentences for offences involving sexual identity and new European rules ban discrimination against gay employees.

Yet 40 per cent of the respondents to the survey reported that they had been the victim of physical or verbal abuse. Of those incidents, about 60 per cent had happened on the street - some very violent. One respondent told how he was gang-raped in a public toilet "by some straight guys". Another said: "I was stabbed in the stomach with a knife and kicked in the face." Yet another reported how a big piece of wood had been hurled through his bedroom window while he slept.

The survey found that men were more likely to be physically attacked than women; lesbians were more likely to be verbally abused. When the discrimination occurred was not revealed.

Whether to "come out of the closet" is still one of the biggest dilemmas facing gay men and women but the survey suggests that this is happening earlier than ever before. On average, 83 per cent of the respondents had publicly acknowledged their sexuality but there were more women (88 per cent) who had come out than men (82 per cent).

Half of those aged between 20 and 24 had come out in their late teens, compared with just nine per cent of those aged 55 and over. Most had come out first to friends and only later to family and colleagues.

One of the most dramatic social changes has been the Government's new civil registration scheme, which came into force in December, and many respondents seemed keen to take advantage of "gay marriage".

Some 700 couples registered in the first month of the scheme and a whole new industry has grown up around the ceremony. The high-street greetings card chain Clintons stocks special wedding cards, Virgin Holidays promotes gay honeymoons and several companies, such as Pink Products, supply bespoke cards, cakes and gifts.

In the survey, 57 per cent of female respondents said they would consider a "gay marriage" - 11 per cent more than men. Only 25 per cent of men and even fewer women ruled out the idea altogether. Most of those who were considering a formal bond with their partner were aged between 35 and 54. Few pensioners were interested.

The survey - by Channel 4 and the media agency OMD Insight - looked in detail at how the gay community spends its money. A recent Gay Times survey estimated the value of the so-calledPink Pound to be far greater than previously believed - a total wage packet of about £70bn a year.

Much of this is disposable income because gay couples seldom bring up children and, as one would expect, the survey reveals that spending levels are higher than among straight counterparts. Almost half the respondents confessed they spent money "without thinking" and said their credit card debts averaged £2,145, compared with £1,807 for heterosexuals. Eleven per cent had credit card debts of more than £5,000.

Yet the respondents were markedly less keen on financial institutions such as Lloyds TSB, Halifax and NatWest, a move that commentators put down to the gay community being ignored by mainstream banking advertising.

New technology was very popular - again, as one would expect from a survey conducted on the Gaydar website. There was a far higher use of internet broadband, webcams, Bluetooth, MP3, 3G mobile phones and recordable DVD than among straight counterparts. Twice as many homosexuals as heterosexuals had plasma TV; some 39 per cent had a home cinema system. And there was a greater use of mobile phone technology for things other than texting and talking - for instance viewing videos and downloading. Games consoles were the only item more favoured by heterosexuals.

One finding that came through very clearly is that the gay community likes to travel, taking four flights a year on average, rather than the three flights averaged by the rest of Britain.

City breaks were particularly popular. Sixty-four per cent of the gay respondents had taken a city break in the past year compared with 50 per cent of heterosexuals. Beach and resort holidays had been favoured by 59 per cent.

They spent more too: 10 per cent, or £374 compared with £330. A third felt more comfortable going to gay- friendly resorts and among the travel operators,British Airways and Virgin Atlantic were popular.

In the media, specialist gay publications such as the magazine Attitude and the radio station Gaydar ranked high. A particular favourite among the TV stations was Channel 4, which was felt to be more provocative and the best station for covering gay issues (78 per cent support). Stuart Cosgrove, director of Channel 4's nations and regions department, said the channel had specifically wooed the gay audience with shows such as Queer as Folk, Gay Muslims and Gay Vicars, and by screening the first lesbian kiss, on Brookside in 1994. However, overall, BBC1 was seen as a more intelligent channel.

Advertisements that were particularly disliked included those that were deemed naff, such as the Shake n' Vac vaccuuming housewife or the Jamster ones, or those exclusively showing heterosexual couples, such as the advertisements for Sandals resorts.

By contrast, heavily stylised ads or those featuring more subtle gender differences - or simply very good-looking men - were applauded. The Levis jeans advertisement featuring the famous landerette striptease made the top 10, along with a glitzy one for D&G watches. The Guinness surfer advert was the most popular, boasting both rippling torsos and stylish filming.

Sixty-nine per cent said they were concerned about their appearance. Gay men spend far more on looking good - £30 a month compared with £16 a month - than straight men. Sixty-five per cent of gay men used face moisturiser, 62 per cent facewash or cleanser and half used an exfoliator or scrub.

So what kind of people were these 18,000 respondents? Based on their input, the researchers came up with some overall findings, albeit in a snapshot format. A favourite song is Madonna's "Like A Prayer". Gay men would most like to have a holiday romance with Will Smith. Gay women would most like a fling with Angelina Jolie.

Researchers also identified three types - perhaps stereotypes might be a fairer description - within the modern British gay community, which currently numbers around three million, or six per cent of the population according to the latest Government figures. These are: style-setters, pods and homebirds.

Style-setters are more camp, the sort of people who like to stand out in a crowd, are happy to spend beyond their means and adore the idea of showing off in this season's must-have clothes. They like upmarket fashion magazines and brands like Bang & Olufsen.

Pods are slightly less fashionable, but still like to keep in touch with trends and are particularly fond of new technology. They shop at Selfridges and Habitat, and fill their apartments with the latest gadgets.

Homebirds are a cosier, more down-to-earth breed whose favourite TV programmes include the news and whose reading habits are more serious; they like The Economist.

So how true are the findings? Dan Bryan, 32, a singer with the band Icehouse Project, says the spending, the cosmetics and the technology all strike a familiar note. "I think the reason for the spending is that when you get to my age you are usually married and start a family, whereas gay people don't have that - they also have two incomes."

Bryan says that he personally rarely encounters hostility but he does remember a time when it was much harder to be a gay man.

"In the last 20 years it has got much better," he said. "It's almost cool in some circles. Kids at school are a lot more accepting because their parents are: they don't see it any more as being different."


Outlook: Flamboyant and fashionable

TV shows: Bad Girls, Desperate Housewives, Big Brother

Magazines: Q, GQ, Attitude

Brands: Bang & Olufsen, Clarins, CK, Starbucks

Celebrity example: Graham Norton


Outlook: Musical and technological

TV shows: Little Britain, Grand Designs, Will and Grace

Magazines: Heat, Diva, Refresh

Brands: Nivea, HMV, Sony, iTunes

Celebrity example: Fame Academy winner Alex Parks


Outlook: Comfortable and unfashionable

TV shows: BBC News, Newsnight

Magazines: TV Times, The Economist, Practical Photography

Brands: Tesco, Nationwide, easyJet

Celebrity example: Stephen Fry