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24 June 2021

The great gay awakening of 2020

Traffic to the NHS webpage “Am I gay, lesbian or bisexual?” rose by 60 per cent in the first lockdown.

By Katharine Swindells

Like most of us in April 2020, Mel Anderson was stuck at home, bored and looking for something to do. The 26-year-old from Seattle, Washington, had heard about the app TikTok from friends and decided to give it a try. It was on her ninth or tenth video that it happened.

“[The video] was me doing a transition in my mirror, wearing a red dress,” she explains. “And the audio says ‘Hey ladies, if you want a man, I can help you with that. Step one…’ and then I transition into wearing a suit and say: ‘reconsider’.”

That video now has over a million views – and the comments are full of women who seem to be taking her advice. One reads, “never reconsidered something faster in my life,” another “I’m like 98 per cent straight but will reserve the 2 per cent for you,” a third, more bluntly, simply says “divorces husband”.

Anderson laughs it off when I ask her about the popularity of her Tik Tok videos, but they keep going viral. A scroll through her profile, on the handle @blacksuitblonde, shows that many of her posts, especially those in which she wears a suit, with full makeup and short hair perfectly styled, quickly wrack up hundreds of thousands of views, and the comments are full of similar responses.

Within the LGBT+ community, this phenomenon hasn’t gone unnoticed. Since the pandemic hit in spring 2020, isolated and with more time for self-reflection, it seems many people have started to reflect on their sexuality and gender identity.

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It is, of course, difficult to quantify patterns such as these in real time, but a deeper look at the numbers that are now available suggests a global awakening around sexuality and gender identity.

***

When a person searches online the question “am I gay?” in the UK, the first webpage that comes up is from the NHS. The New Statesman obtained the web traffic data from NHS Digital, and found that this webpage’s viewership had a 60 per cent increase from the start of the first lockdown in March 2020 until the end of summer 2020, while the average NHS webpage stayed consistent throughout the year.

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The NHS’s “Am I gay?” information page saw a 60 per cent increase in web traffic from the start of the first lockdown
Web traffic to “Am I gay, lesbian or bisexual?” NHS webpage, indexed to March 2020

Looking more broadly at data from Google Trends shows a similar effect: in the first lockdown, search volume for questions around LGB identity were significantly higher than they had been in 2019, and then the figures stayed higher for the rest of the year. 

Click on the buttons on the chart to see how search volume fluctuated for questions about being gay, lesbian or bisexual.

The first lockdown saw an increase in web search questions on LGB identities, which continued for the rest of the year
Average monthly Google search volume for the questions “am I gay,” “am I a lesbian,” or “am I bisexual," 2020 index compared to 2019

YouGov conducts a bi-annual survey of sexuality, asking respondents to rank themselves on the Kinsey Scale, where zero is exclusively heterosexual, and six is exclusively homosexual. Between January 2020 and January 2021, the proportion of 25-49 year olds that identified as heterosexual decreased by five percentage points, and those identifying as between a “four” and a “six” increased by the same amount. Among younger people the difference is even starker: the proportion of 18-24 year olds identifying as “zero – completely heterosexual” decreased by nine percentage points.

***

To Anderson, this makes sense. Stripped away of the distractions of everyday life, and free from many of the restrictions and assumptions of the outside world, she thinks it’s only natural that this prompted some self-examination.

“I think sitting by yourself, lots of people took the time to go into that self-reflection,” she says. “Everyone was forced into that headspace.”

This space for contemplation was matched by a rise in time spent on social media, which gives people an opportunity to explore an infinite number of different cultures and lifestyles. 

[See also: Fifteen years on from my first Pride march, it is bittersweet to see how much has changed]

“For people that are in the middle of nowhere in quarantine, with no one, all of a sudden they’re exposed to these different cultures and people that look differently than what they’re used to,” Anderson says, reflecting on why her videos resonated so much.

“I think most of humanity is a little bit gay, but some people haven’t seen women with short hair and suits, blending masculinity and femininity in that way.”

Justin Mahboubian-Jones, who is community engagement manager at the UK charity LGBT HERO and moderates their advice forums, says that they have seen a “huge uptick” in people who are questioning their sexuality and gender identity during lockdown.

He agrees with Anderson that the combination of isolation and social media has been a huge contribution for some people. But he also notes that others, far from being brought to self-discovery through peaceful introspection, may have been more abruptly pushed to confront some personal truths.

“A lot of these people are in long-term relationships, marriages, and this has forced them to look inwards,” Mahboubian-Jones says. “They just have to sit with that relationship with very little input from the outside world, and all they can do is be with that other person. And for some people that’s put a light on how they feel about that relationship.”

LGBT+ support services such as LGBT HERO are seeing the community’s struggles throughout the past year play out in real time. Tash Walker, co-chair of LGBT+ helpline Switchboard, says they had 18,000 conversations on their phone and online service in 2020, an increase of 25 per cent from 2019. At its height, Switchboard was seeing 60 per cent more contacts than the year before.

A spokesperson from Mermaids UK, a charity for transgender and non-conforming young people, says their helpline received 22,000 contacts between April 2020 and March 2021, an 83 per cent increase on the year before. 

LGBT+ support services saw a significant increase in helpline calls in 2020
Percentage change in usage of support services, 2019 to 2020

For many young people particularly, the time trapped at home living with family during the pandemic has created something of a pressure cooker situation, prompting them to address their sexuality. Whereas before people might have found affirmation of their identity from their friends, lockdown has meant the need to come out to parents or other family members, in order to feel comfortable at home.

Switchboard says they saw a significant increase in contacts from younger people: the majority of callers are now under 30, which Walker says is “a real shift”, and 2020 saw 41 per cent more conversations with under-18s. Of those aged under 18, Walker says 46 per cent talked about coming out.

“Staff have definitely spoken to young people who have said they came out to family due to being at home and therefore unable to go out to school or other places where they would be affirmed by their peer group,” according to Mermaids. “Then again, not all families are accepting, and there is a hidden population of gender-diverse teenagers who have been left trapped in an unsupportive environment,”

But, the charity says, perhaps contrary to assumptions, the majority of the cases they have seen have been positive, with young people finding they have been able to talk to their parents in a way they couldn’t before.

“They’ve felt able to connect positively with their families in a more meaningful way because of lockdown, and that has led to some young people feeling more able to come out… Parents are working from home and young people are studying from home, so they're spending more time together, instead of being ships in the night.”

***

It will be a while before we can really assess the outcome of 2020’s impact on LGBTQ+ identity. Although the release of the census later this year, which collected data on sexuality and transgender identity for the first time, is a huge step forward, we may never be able to fully measure something so fluid and intrinsic.

More important than what happened during the pandemic, says Mahboubian-Jones, is what happens as we begin to emerge from lockdown, and how we support the new members of the community, whether they’re young or older.

“Many will have been incredibly lonely throughout this time,” he says. ”And it will be really important, once we can meet up again, to remind everyone that the community itself does exist and it is strong and it is there for them.”

[See also: We need a post-Covid strategy for LGBTQ+ youth homelessness]