Many of us have heard the phrase ‘it gets better’. This familiar adage went viral in 2010 when, in response to several LGBTQI+ youth suicides in the US, thousands of LGBTQI+ people shared video messages online addressed both to their younger selves and to LGBTQI+ youth (Taylor, 2011). Fast forward to 2018, when the UK Government publishes its LGBT Action Plan for ‘improving LGBT lives’ (GEO, 2018a), representing the first LGBTQI+-specific cross-departmental policy published by a UK government. In this policy, and in parallel speeches delivered by the then Prime Minister Theresa May and Penny Mordaunt MP, we are told a story of progress; that yes there may be room for improvement, but LGBTQI+ lives are getting better – across time, across place, across individual lifecourses, and across normative thresholds such as partnering and parenting – and that this onward progressive trajectory is as linear, uniform and inevitable as the onward march of time (Lawrence and Taylor, in press).
There have indeed been vast legal, political and social developments for people of minoritised sexualities, genders and (to a lesser extent) sex characteristics over time, particularly in the last two decades. Legislation permitting same-gender marriage and comprehensive protections from discrimination, alongside shifts in social attitudes towards LGBTQI+ people, are frequently held up as examples of the ‘world we have won’ (Weeks, 2007). Yet the evidence – such as that collected in the National LGBT Survey (2018), upon which the LGBT Action Plan in purportedly based, and the emerging findings from our own LGBTQI+ Lives Scotland research – tells a far more nuanced and complex story, thus serving to problematise the notion of a collective LGBTQI+ ‘us’ coming forward (Lawrence and Taylor, in press).
Life for LGBTQI+ people
The headline findings from the 2018 National LGBT Survey indicated that LGBTQI+ people are less satisfied with their lives than the general UK population (GEO, 2018b: 3). Conducted by the UK Government Equalities Office and collecting over 108,000 valid responses, the survey found that more than two-thirds of respondents reported that they avoid holding hands with a partner of the same gender in public for fear of a negative reaction, while at least 2 in 5 respondents reported experiencing verbal harassment or physical violence in the preceding 12 months (ibid.). We have seen the images of the bloodied faces of two queer women on a London bus, and we have heard – in our own LGBTQI+ Lives Scotland research – numerous accounts of the ways in which hyper-vigilant LGBTQI+ people self-regulate their behaviours, presentation and use of space in order to lessen or mitigate anticipated harms on the streets, at work, in education, when accessing services, and online. Ranging from othering and microagressions to overt hostility and physical violence, many LGBTQI+ people are forever weighing up which parts of their lives and selves to make known or visible; when, where and with whom.
Such experiences are particularly salient for those living at the intersections of multiple social categories, embodiments and (in)equalities, and the ways these manifest and interact across the life course. Life experiences are necessarily mediated by the static and changing experiences of age, gender, sexuality, class, socio-economic status, disability, health status, ethnicity and race, faith and belief, location, trans status and intersex status; each intersecting collection of characteristics and circumstances – and the social meanings attached to these – combining to generate unique forms of lived experience and inequality. The slice of the metaphorical rainbow cake dished out to each person under the LGBTQI+ signifier is, unsurprisingly, unequal. Can policy rise to the challenge of addressing intersectional (in)equalities?
Researching intersectional LGBTQI+ (in)equalities
We’re coming to the end of the fieldwork for LGBTQI+ Lives Scotland, having so far conducted in-depth qualitative interviews with almost 50 LGBTQI+ people across the country about their life experiences and perspectives on LGBTQI+ (in)equalities. Our research in Scotland is part of a wider NORFACE-funded study ‘CILIA-LGBTQI+: Comparing Intersectional Lifecourse Inequalities among LGBTQI+ Citizens in Four European countries’ – namely England, Germany, Portugal and Scotland. This research aims to examine potential inequalities experienced by LGBTQI+ people at three ‘transition’ points in life: school/education to work; employment progression in mid-life; and, the transition into retirement and later life. Our key objective is to provide cross-cultural evidence concerning lifecourse (in)equalities experienced by LGBTQI+ people, comparing and contrasting these across four European countries. Within this, we are examining how inequalities related to sexuality, gender, trans status, and intersex status vary and intersect with others, such as social class, ethnicity, citizenship status, health status, disability, religion and geographical location across the lifecourse.
Policy challenges: The UK Government’s LGBT Action Plan 2018
The UK Government’s LGBT Action Plan potentially represents a significant UK Government commitment towards LGBTQI+ equalities, operating in conjunction with cumulative legislative advances such as marriage equality, parenting rights and legal gender recognition. However, continuing moments of legislative and policy stasis – and subsequent forestalling of advancing equalities – have been evident even since the publication of the Plan. For example, both the UK and Scottish Governments announced intentions to update the Gender Recognition Act 2004 to streamline the pathway by which trans people can obtain legal gender recognition, whilst also considering legal provision for those aged under 18 and constituting a third gender category for those who experience and identify their gender in diverse and non-binary ways. Recent announcements in Scotland have seen the forestalling of legislative change, with some aspects – such as the establishment of a third gender category – delayed indefinitely. Meanwhile, intersex people and those with variations in sex characteristics receive promise in the LGBT Action Plan of unspecified further ‘evidence gathering’, despite United Nations statements declaring that so-called ‘normalising’ (and non-consensual) surgical and hormonal interventions common in many member states including the UK are deeply unethical and harmful (Al Hussain, 2015; Méndez, 2013). LGBTQI+ people in the UK asylum system are likewise afforded such a symbolic nod, yet the Plan promises no new action to address the intense injustices faced.
Interacting societal factors such as the mobilisation of socially conservative and right wing groups – manifesting currently in debates on LGBTQI+ curriculum content in schools and on trans lives and equalities – combine with decade-long fiscal austerity and deeply entrenched societal inequalities to further complicate notions of progress for a homogenous LGBTQI+ ‘us’, particularly for those rendered ‘outsiders’ by interlocking systems such as class, ‘race’, ableism, and citizenship. With much UK legislation relating to LGBTQI+ lives originating in preceding European conventions and directives, the destabilising socio-political climate of Brexit necessitates further pause for thought in these new times.
To read more of our analysis of the LGBT Action Plan and LGBTQI+ (in)equalities, look out for our forthcoming article published in Critical Social Policy:
Lawrence M and Taylor Y (accepted / in press) The UK Government LGBT Action Plan: Discourses of progress, enduring stasis, and LGBTQI+ lives ‘getting better’. Critical Social Policy, forthcoming.
Al Hussein ZR (2015) Opening remarks by Zeid Ra’adAl Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the Expert meeting on ending human rights violations against intersex persons. Available here (accessed 20 December 2018).
GEO (2018a) LGBT Action Plan: Improving the Lives of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People. Policy paper, Government Equalities Office, UK, July. Available here (accessed 29 August 2019).
GEO (2018b) National LGBT Survey: Summary Report. Report, Government Equalities Office, UK, July. Available here (accessed 29 August 2019).
Lawrence M and Taylor Y (accepted/in press) The UK Government LGBT Action Plan: Discourses of progress, enduring stasis, and LGBTQI+ lives ‘getting better’. Critical Social Policy, forthcoming.
Méndez JE (2013) Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Report, United Nations Human Rights Council. Report, United Nations, Geneva, February. Available here (accessed 20 December 2018).
Taylor Y (2011) Queer presences and absences: Citizenship, community, diversity – or death. Feminist Theory 12(3): 335–341.
Weeks, J. (2007) The World We Have Won. New York: Routledge.
About the authors
Dr Matson Lawrence is the Research Associate for LGBTQI+ Lives Scotland/CILIA-LGBTQI+, School of Education, University of Strathclyde. Twitter: @MatsonLawrence.
Professor Yvette Taylor is Professor of Education and Principal Investigator of LGBTQI+ Lives Scotland/CILIA-LGBTQI+, School of Education, University of Strathclyde. Twitter: @YvetteTaylor0.
Image credit and attribution: https://affecttheverb.com/gallery/disabledandhere/cakecutting/