Homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in the welfare system

This post is written by team member Dr Lee Gregory.

International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT) is held on the 17th May and is an opportunity to raise awareness of LGBTQ+ rights violations and promote the work to improve the rights of LGBTQ+ people. Reflecting at this time on emerging insights from our Assets and Welfare research we can see the ways in which discrimination towards LGBTQ+ people may arise, perhaps unintentionally, within the welfare system. Unintentional, because the historic development of welfare support and the relevant institutions have evolved in ways do not acknowledge the existence of LGBTQ+ people. This may seem at odds with recent developments promoting equal rights, protection, and access to marriage. But the emergence of welfare has a very specific history.

The formation of early welfare interventions in the UK, as with several European countries, in the early 1900s, occur at times when to be gay man was illegal (lesbians were not considered within legislation until much later). Initially punished with the death penalty the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, which made same sex acts amongst men punishable by imprisonment, was still in place as early welfare interventions, even the more formal development of a welfare state in the late 1940s, resulted in an implicit exclusion of gay men from emerging notions of citizenship. The formation of welfare support contained an implicit naturalisation of heterosexuality which also naturalises cisgender identities (cis referring to someone whose gender identity aligns with the one assigned at birth). In a paper I wrote with Peter Matthews, we coined the term “cis-het-izenship” to describe how the social citizenship created in this period was hetero/cisnormative. Contemporary welfare provision, particularly in relation to social security, unfortunately maintains much of this naturalisation. 

From our interviews we can see that the silence around the existence of LGBTQ+ people result in an absence of consideration of how their journeys through the social security system will be shaped because of their LGBTQ+ identity. For Trans people this can often create tensions with name recognition and recording of names which is an essential element of validating one’s identity:

[I]…updated my name but then they changed the title to Mr which was just like, okay that’s kind of hyperaggressive.  Like, you knew that I was {name} before, I have simply changed my first name and you have now gone and changed it to Mr, to not identifying me as female because my name is {name}.  So that was kind of like, oh great, that’s a really lovely experience to have, you know, because everywhere else has been fine.  Like that’s the only place where they’ve literally changed my title after I changed my name without my consent. 

No, I have like a legal self and a me self, I think.  Like it’s all under my deadname, so it sort of feels like a separate official version of me, and then the gay, the trans me that spends the money, but we don’t get it.

These silences also extend to people’s sexuality:

Well I have a long term male partner so bisexuality hasn’t been mentioned and I mean the last form I saw, I don’t think it had a gender option besides male or female so I just decided, sure whatever.

Other examples included seemingly innocuous suggestions of places to apply for work to by work coaches being completely inappropriate for the LGBTQ+ person claiming the benefit, with them either being unsafe, or feeling unsafe, in the workplace; for example, a gay man being recommended to apply for work in a garage.

Even some general health questions within applications can create challenges for LGBTQ+ people in how they answer them. In discussion with an LGBTQ+ advocacy group it was noted that questions about any upcoming surgery can have a different meaning for trans applicants who interpret the question as one about gender reassignment: the term “surgery” having a different social meaning for this group of citizens.

IDAHOBIT encourages us to think about the ongoing forms of phobias that blight the lives of LGBTQ+ people. Whilst this often draws attention to the larger, public debates around rights per se, there is a need to also consider how our institutions have evolved around implicit assumptions which create subtle forms of discrimination which broader equalities policies often fail to detect and correct.

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