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Queer(y)ing policy

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: PublicPolicyDesign, Research
A photo of an civil servants celebrating at a pride event.
Photo: civil servants participating in a pride event.

In our current climate, when the lives of LGBTQ+ people are the focus of political debate in a way that they have not been for many years, you may be wondering why we should “queer” policy at all?

In this blog post I want to outline two ways in which queer(y)ing policy might be useful. Firstly, a practical point that if government wants to make lives better, then we need to understand how LGBTQ+/queer lives are different and how government might support them better. Secondly, and to be more 'academic' about it, I want to suggest that queer(y)ing policy can be a useful tool for analysis in understanding policy problems and policy implementation better.

Understanding queer lives

To consider the first point, you may think that all the public debate about things like equal marriage, and reform to gender-recognition processes, might mean that LGBTQ+ people have been the centre of many recent policy debates (although, honestly, we often wish we weren’t). However, much of this has been legal change to deliver legal equality. When we get into other areas of policy, LGBTQ+ lives are usually absent. As a gay man, I am sadly used to reading Equality Impact Assessments (EqIA) that say “no evidence available” when they get the bit about sexual orientation.

Much of this is simply due to a lack of data. Until criminal sanctions on being non-heterosexual were removed, it was almost impossible to ask questions about non-heterosexuality in surveys. In 2003, the Scottish government pioneered doing so in the Scottish Health Survey, and the standard sexual identity question is now in virtually all surveys. And, of course, from the 2021 Census in England and Wales we now have exciting data about sexual and gender identity. If you want to know more about this, I recommend Kevin Guyan’s book Queer Data.

So, when that EqIA said there was “no evidence”, it was true. But now we have that data. In my current research project LGBT+ Welfare and Assets in Great Britain we are using such data to understand the patterns of non-heterosexuals accessing the welfare system, and also accumulating assets over the life course. This is analysis that has never been done anywhere in the world, to our knowledge.

Even though the project is only halfway through, we have already produced interesting findings from this new statistical analysis that might be important for policymaking. For example, analysing data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study (“Understanding Society”) we found that, controlling for other likely factors, gay men are more likely to access out-of-work benefits, and all working-age benefits, than their heterosexual counterparts. Thus, changes to welfare policy are likely to have a greater impact on this group. We also found that lesbians, gays, and bisexuals are more likely to live in the private rented sector, making this area of housing policy more important for this minority group.

Thus, one way we can usefully start queer(y)ing policy is by using the data to better understand the differences and challenges they face, so we can ensure policy improves outcomes for LGBTQ+ people.

Heteronormative assumptions

To now move onto the second approach to queer(y)ing, what would it mean if we “queer-ed” policy in our analysis? Here, we are doing what trendy cultural studies researchers would describe as “using queer as a verb”. Queer studies finds its roots in LGBTQ+ activism which sought to challenge the everyday categories that were used to oppress sexual and gender minorities. As a gay man, of rapidly advancing years, this practically means something to me: when I lost my virginity, I could have been arrested and imprisoned for up to ten years for gross indecency, for doing something that was perfectly legal for my heterosexual friends to do. The French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault began to explore this in his History of Sexuality.

A photo of Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia Syms in Victim.
Photo: Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia Syms in Victim.

Queer studies then continued to unpack how the term “homosexual” was created by psychiatrists in the nineteenth century to categorise gay men, in particular, and class us as “deviant”. The law then sought to prevent that “deviance” spreading – in my case by having a higher age of consent for men having sex with men, than for a man having sex with a woman. A wide range of media, from Dirk Bogarde’s performance in Victim to Jeffrey Weeks’ excellent book Between the Acts detail the everyday impact on this on gay men.

Queer research also seeks to challenge heteronormativity – or the everyday ways in which heterosexuality is made to be the unquestioned norm in society. A good example of this is the way in which, until equal marriage, the statement “I’m married” was a declaration of your heterosexuality (you could only be in an opposite-sex marriage), whereas to proclaim homosexuality could rarely be done in such an everyday way.

Challenging and questioning categories in this way is, I would suggest, where queer(y)ing is useful for policy analysis, as such categories are often used unthinkingly in our definition of policy problems. Take, for example, “lone parent”. For good reason, we have moved on from using terms like “single mother”, but still the category of “lone parent”, unchallenged, assumes we are describing a young woman trying to bring up young children in a socially rented home. The reality is most lone parents are older divorcees.

Let’s be more queer though – what about “household”? I think most people’s minds would immediately jump to a very heterosexual norm when we consider this term: a heterosexual nuclear family with 1.4 kids living somewhere we call “home”. Indeed, policies like welfare benefits suggest policymakers do this. It is assumed that people live in a family, or a home, and there is a main income earner who can be a benefit recipient; or a main carer for a dependant. These are not intentional choices; they just reflect the way we organise the world around the norms of the heterosexual majority.

A photo of the television adaption of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City.
Photo: the television adaption of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City.

There are some easy, ready-to-hand, ways to “queer” the category of “family”: multi-generational households; reconstituted families (families brought together following parental separation and re-attachment); latch-key kids, living between “homes”; adult-only households; lone-parent households.

But in a changing society, that fully recognises diversity, we can queer this category further. For example: polyamorous households of numerous adults who come-and-go but count one place as “home”; or “logical families” as made famous by Armistead Maupin in his Tales of the City and the lodging house on Barbary Lane; or young adults in professional occupations being forced to share housing in large cities because they simply cannot afford to live alone due to high housing costs.

Finding new policy insight

Such queer(y)ing of categories does lend itself to categories associated with families, households and gendered divisions in society, because of queer studies roots in challenging heteronormative assumptions in society. But, I would argue, such challenging of categories can be applied much more widely. Policymaking is full of categories, and makes categories all the time. Policy analysis does regularly seek to analyse and question these, such as analysis of policy frames, or Carol Bacchi’s “What is the problem represented to be” approach. Queer(y)ing takes such analysis deeper, and challenges the policymaker or analyst to look askance at the categories they are using; ask the question “would I use these categories if society was completely different?”

This might seem an entirely academic exercise, of little use in a busy political context with constant policy demands. But, perhaps looking differently at that category that you use every day, without even thinking about what is contained in it, or who created it and why, might lead to policy insights you never imagined.

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