I’ve commented in the past about the focus on sex, drugs and mental health in LGBT research. Indeed, it’s the title of this blog. One of the more depressing examples of this is in research on LGBT people’s use of the internet. Now, I expect it won’t come as a shock to you that quite a lot of LGBT people find relationships, friends and sexual partners online or via smartphone apps. When I volunteered on a LGBT switchboard, and in my subsequent membership of various LGBT and trans groups, one of the most common questions which gets asked is “where are good places to meet people?” If you live in a large city, you may have a choice of a few places to go in the real world, but if you’re in a rural area and can’t or don’t want to get to a bar or a club, the internet or an app is often your best bet.
I think it’s a good thing for people who want to meet people to be able to do so. The subsequent encounters don’t need to be committed, or involve binding promises, or only involve two people (though of course they can be all those things). They can be entirely about sex, or not involve sex at at all. Connections can be changeable, fluid and fun. But whatever you’re into it is a good thing for people to be able to find people who they want to socialise with in their preferred manner. Those kinds of connections have a massive impact on people’s mental health, on their wellbeing and ultimately their physical health too.
So what is the research agenda on LGBT use of the internet? As Grov et al point out, it’s basically “how many sexual partners gay and bi men have when they meet online”, and “do they wear a condom”. There’s nothing about the quality of the relationship (except insofar as that affects talking about safer sex or cuts down on multiple partners). As for lesbian and bi women, or trans people, forget it. Do we use the internet? How do we use the internet? Nobody knows. Nobody cares. Occasionally you might see a bit of research on how young LGBT people use the internet, but it tends to be focused on coming out and identity formation early on. The ongoing impact of the internet and socialising for LGBT lives is pretty much unexplored.
You might think that perhaps researchers should stay out of LGBT online socialising. There’s a couple of ways you could make that argument. You could say that researchers should stop poking into private matters about our lives and identity and let us be. Stop treating us as lab rats. Except that they don’t: the journals of sexology and sociology are filled with endless stuff about whether sexuality and gender identity is due to your genes, or how many older brothers you have, or neglectful parents, or sex hormones in the womb, or some bit of the brain being too small/large. There are loads of papers on identity formation, and coming out. Researchers are not staying out of this from respect for our privacy.
Another argument is that research and health speding should focus on proper, serious subjects that can either be used to make money or save people’s lives. Relationships and the internet seem like a slightly dubious area, with little public relevance. Well, we have an ageing population and a government committed to public sector cuts. The UK NHS and social care service is struggling, and realistically it’s going to end up dumping a lot of the responsibility for caring out into the community. It’s going to expect partners, children, friends, relatives and the voluntary sector to pick up even more of the slack than they already do in terms of supporting the elderly and the ill. There are already plenty of initiatives aimed at “empowering” carers, or providing them with respite, because getting carers to do the work is very cost-effective. But many of those initiatives have a lot of unspoken assumptions about who cares for who, and often don’t take into account some of the differences in LGBT social structures. Indeed, there are many examples of studies looking at relationship status and later life health that apparently haven’t considered the possibility that heterosexuals might have important people in their lives who they aren’t married to. Even outside the issue of providing care, it is also pretty well-known that being lonely is terrible for all sorts of health conditions, mental and physical. So putting a bit of money into understanding LGBT people’s relationships, and even into helping people make the connections that make them happy, seems like it might be pretty cost-effective.
It’s not just online issues that matter. LGBT groups up and down the country support many, many people by running coffee mornings and walking groups, moderating Facebook groups and internet forums, manning switchboards and undertaking advocacy. Many of them have no paid staff, and volunteers put their own time and money in until they burn out. Many of the things that would make a difference to those groups – enough money to produce publicity material, access to photocopiers, training for volunteers – could be provided by statutory bodies at marginal or no cost. But at the moment, there is very little research that says that social isolation in LGBT people is worth thinking about.