Philip Hensher: Only gay in the village? Not quite

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Frankly, it’s the Don’t Knows I wonder about. The Office for National Statistics carried out a doorstep survey, asking people what their sexuality was – gay, lesbian, heterosexual or bisexual.

Nearly four per cent refused to answer, said “other”, or, interestingly, said they did not know. That, on its own, should have persuaded the ONS that their survey was running into the sand. Because what adult in this country does not know what their own sexuality is?

People who gave this reply were clearly evading the question, as, indeed, many other answerers were. Nevertheless, the ONS blundered on. Having asked some 450,000 people, it concluded that 1.5% of the British population was gay, lesbian or bisexual. They extrapolated and stated that there are 480,000 gay men and lesbians in Britain, and 245,000 bisexual people. Unfortunately, this conclusion was promptly disputed by the gay dating website, Gaydar, which said it had 2.2 million British users. Unless every single gay, lesbian or bisexual person in Britain operates three separate gaydar profiles, it seems that the ONS has drastically underestimated its numbers.

In some segments of the press, joy was unconfined at the discovery that the numbers of gay people had, apparently, been hitherto exaggerated. There was no suggestion that the World Wildlife Fund should interest itself in the collapse of the gay population in the wild.

The numbers have been steadily growing since Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, in the 19th century, said that homosexuals constituted 0.002 percent of the population. If that were an accurate figure, it would mean that I were personally acquainted with every single homosexual in the Greater London area, which I don’t believe is the case. Had the estimates grown beyond reality? The ONS survey suggested so.

But some aspects of the ONS survey were instantly suspect. As a common variant in humanity, there is no reason to suppose that minority sexual tastes are more concentrated in one strata of society than another. But the ONS survey clearly showed that educated, professional people are more likely to be gay or lesbian, and are more likely to be white than from an ethnic minority. Obviously, all this shows is that if a gay person is approached by a total stranger workingfor a public authority, who demands to know what his sexuality is, he is much more likely to answer truthfully if he is educated, professional, and successful. The pressures, too, on gay people from ethnic minorities must discourage them from answering truthfully. And, though many gay people born in the sticks run a mile from Devon or Cumbria the second they can, the reported low incidence of gay people in the provinces must, in some cases, reflect an ongoing unease with identifying yourself with a minority.

Butlet’s look on the bright side. The ONS survey doesn’t show how many gay people there are in Britain, despite its claims. But it does show that 1.5% of the population are willing to identify themselves as gay to a stranger on the doorstep without a second thought. That wouldn’t have been the case 20 years ago.

Best of British should be exempt from the cuts

The British Council is one of nearly a hundred public bodies whose future is currently under consideration. It was set up in 1934 to represent British culture abroad. Its role as a sort of cultural propagandist was well-established – lectures on classic English authors, visiting English writers,usefullibraries of English-language texts, exchange programmes and conferences.

That seems to have changed recently. Under the Blairite Terror, the Council produced a small number of mission points, limiting what they were prepared to do. Currently, their projects focus on climate change, encouraging global citizenry, employability, and “playing and excelling in sport.” Nothing seems to focus on anything specifically British, and the role of cultural ambassador for the nation is played down. There is nothing unique in what they are trying to do any more.

The history is a commonplace one. A useful, unique organisation is turned into an all-purpose one by the Labour government in the name of modernity. The Tories come along, and wonder what purpose this body really serves before abolishing it. A return to the days when the Council actually did something unique and popular seems inconceivable. It is easy to laugh at the old days, when English lecturers gave talks about Jane Austen in lecture halls in Calcutta. But I dare say that itwould be popular even now. Other people willmountclimatechange projects if the British Council were abolished. The Jane Austen talk will be gone for good.

How to needle a fan of the tattooist's art

Miss Hayley O’Neil, 23, of Blackburn, was given her first tattoo as an 18th birthday present from her mum. In the five years since then, she has acquired 29 more, as well as 20 body piercings. Perhaps hoping to earn money to install 30 more tattoos on hitherto undecorated parts of her anatomy, she decided to try to get a job. She asked an official at the local Job Centre what she could do to improve her chances of employment. His reply was succinct. “Put a bag over your head,” he said. “Or stand behind a wall.”

How very rude. Miss O’Neil had never been spoken to in such a way in all her life. “This is my lifestyle choice, and this is who I am,” she said. It’s very true. It didn’t seem to occur to her that employers have lifestyle choices, too. You can’t blame an employer for preferring an employee who has overcome disadvantages to one who has, of her own free will, contributed to them by making herself considerably more ugly.

Still, I am sure that the Blackburn Job Centre could, if they had thought harder, suggested some jobs for Miss O’Neil. Receptionist at the tattoo parlour, for instance. But she should not lose heart,and the modern world has a place for her. Many young people have thought it a good idea, in recent years, to ink themselves permanently. Most of them have ended up working in call centres, reading off a script about travel insurance, where the public will never have to lay eyes on them, and it hardly matters if they have the word TWAT tattooed on their foreheads. I feel sure there must be some connection.

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