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Are We All a Bit Gay Now?

When The Sun's agony aunt says “Few of us are 100 per cent straight” is it time to reassess how we consider sexuality in the 21st Century?

The Sun is Britain's biggest selling newspaper and has been for many years. In the '80s and even '90s it was a byword for homophobia, for example publishing this joke: "A gay man goes home to his parents and tells them he's got good news and bad news. The bad news is I'm gay. The good news is I've got Aids" – and worse. So if, like many gay and liberal-minded people who experienced that era, you haven't picked up a copy of The Sun for a while, if ever, but you happened to do so on Saturday 15th June this year and turned to the agony aunt, you may have been surprised to see the following:



Now, credit where due, this is not exactly a recent development: Deidre Saunders, the Sun's agony aunt, has in my – very limited – experience only ever shown the utmost sympathy to gay, bi and questioning people and has never shown the slightest hint of homophobia. In fact her page has always seemed an incongruous oasis of sense and compassion in an otherwise barren pit of ignorance and cruelty.


One aspect of her response here seems relatively new though: She says that few of us are completely straight. Imagine the headlines in a less enlightened age: “Sun agony aunt calls readers poofs shocker!” But many of us who are interested in human sexuality have long known that she is only repeating what most experts in this field say – most of us are bisexual, if only to a small, latent degree. But even with this proviso, this is surely huge: If even The Sun's expert is saying it, is a revolution in how we see ourselves, and the world, just around the corner – if not here already?


Before you react too strongly either way, let's have a bit of balance. Here's a quote from a report in this week's Guardian: “In its 'Integrated Household Survey', the Office for National Statistics asks 178,197 people about their sexual identity – and the vast majority of them choose to answer. 93.5% of people said they were 'heterosexual' or 'straight', just 1.1% said they were 'gay' or 'lesbian' and 0.4% said they were bisexual. The small fraction that was left either refused to answer or said they didn't know.”


So how do we explain this difference? Who's right? Deidre and most experts in the fields, or the Office of National Statistics?


For a start, it's crucial to differentiate between homosexual identity, behaviour, thoughts and feelings. Whilst only 1.5% of respondents may have identified themselves as homosexual or bisexual in this government research, that doesn't mean they're the only ones engaging in same-sex behaviour, thinking about it or having sexual feelings for their own gender. For example, epidemiologists have coined the term 'Men who have Sex with Men' to encompass men who engage in same-sex behaviour without self-identifying as homo- or bisexual; research in the 1980s found that for heterosexual men and women, homosexual encounters are the fourth and fifth most common sexual fantasies respectively.


Next, given the stigma that has been attached to all but homosexual behaviour until recently, it's not beyond the realms of reason to imagine that many people find it hard to admit their true feelings to themselves, let alone someone else, and let alone an academic researcher or even a government statistician. Internal and external denial will surely account for some of the discrepancy.


Finally, it's becoming increasingly clear that sexuality is not fixed but fluid; some people don't realise that they are not straight until later in life. And the converse is true too: For example '70s gay rights icon Tom Robinson, who wrote and sang “Glad to be Gay,” is now in a heterosexual marriage, although he describes himself as “a gay man who happens to be in love with a woman”. On a personal level, I've noticed men becoming more comfortable with their bisexual side as they get older and, I'll say it, braver and more aware that, in the grand scheme of things, it's no longer actually big a deal.


So whilst it may be true that 1.5% of the population may have identified themselves as homosexual in this government-backed research, a higher figure would surely answer affirmatively if the question was “have you ever had a homosexual thought, feeling, fantasy or experience?” and the true figure, given that some (many?) will lie, must be higher still. And of course there's no telling how many of those honestly answering “no” now will be yeses in the future.


There's research that shows how denial can operate: A 1996 study at the University of Georgia “Is Homophobia Associated with Homosexual Arousal?” demonstrated a strong link between homophobia and repressed or latent homosexuality, although the sample was small. Members of sexual minorities have long suspected this relationship (often based on personal experience and anecdotal evidence. For example, many of my friends and I engaged in non-violent homophobic behaviour to distract attention from ourselves whilst at school and/or before we came out). Men who express homophobic attitudes will be the last to admit to having homosexual inclinations, and yet in the research were far more likely than other straight men to be turned on by watching gay porn, and yet significantly underestimated their degree of arousal when asked to rated it later.


So let's assume, for a moment, that Deidre and the experts are right and most of us are not entirely straight. It would certainly explain a few things. Take, for example, the power of homophobia as a tool of distraction and control. If you're even unconsciously aware that you have an even slightly gay side (in the same way as we sometimes know we're being lied to and ignore it, for example), living through a homophobic campaign or under a homophobic regime will be a scary experience for all but the strongest amongst us; hiding our true natures and desires will take up a lot of internal energy and attention, and distract us – and everyone else – from the truly important things that are going on in their countries.


It would also explain the apparently high number of self-identifying straight, bi and curious guys on gay dating and meet-up sites and such as Gaydar, Grindr or Growlr. To illustrate this, Popbitch reports that Qantas sponsored the installation of free Wi-Fi at Sydney's Kingsford Smith airport to identify which websites business travellers were logging on to help uncover new revenue streams. By far the biggest use of the bandwidth? Grindr. And Grindr is a text and picture messaging service, so individual users don't actually use up that much bandwidth compared to, say, someone listening to streamed music or watching a video.


At this point it's worth considering the impact of the advent of the Internet on human sexuality. If you were questioning your sexuality when I was growing up in the '80s, as well as dealing with a more homophobic environment, you were hard-pressed to access a picture of an erect penis, let alone gay porn, without going to a sex shop – even more difficult if you were under 18. If you actually wanted to experiment, you risked humiliation, even violence, if you approached the wrong person or had to try personal ads (which contact phone number would you use?), cottaging (sex in public toilets) or visiting a gay pub or club. Today it's all available to see online – and very easy to meet guys for an anonymous experiment.


So is the vast majority of the adult population secretly harbouring homosexual thoughts, feelings and even desires thinking and they're the only one? Or is there something akin to an Emperor's New Clothes syndrome going on here, with most people realising that, if they're having these thoughts, everyone else probably is too, but everyone being too scared to be the first to break ranks?


As the stigma attached to homosexuality lessens in the western world and increasing numbers of people get honest with themselves, and those around them, without the sky metaphorically falling down, we're surely only going see more people self-identifying as gay and telling the government this. It will be a gradual process and fascinating to see how it pans out. In the meantime, do please ask yourself, how straight – or gay – are you really? But don't ask your lover, partner or spouse unless you’re ready for the truth.




Impolite Conversation would love to hear about your thoughts on this, especially if everyone in your life thinks you're straight and you know you're not; please leave them in the comments box below, creating a pseudonymous account if required.


Peter Panis

About the Writer

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Peter is Impolite Conversation's Sex Editor. He is openly bisexual and lives in London with his partner.


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the clock is ticking and I do hope to live up to this fantastic moment when a football player will come out as gay. Statistically there must be some gay footballers, and given the male-only environment, common showers, cheering up and the society still evolving towards more tolerant perception even general acceptance of gay people, it's only a matter of time. Can't wait!

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