As a non-heterosexual, or non-cisgender person you are endlessly “coming out” – making what would be invisible, visible by saying who you are. You are endlessly making the subtle judgment of “is this place ok?” or “are these people ok?”; “will they kill me?” It gets a bit tiring.
It’s a tricky thing for this project when we’re trying to work out “so what?” – we’re sitting on a mountain of evidence now which shows LGBTQ+ people have very specific experiences of accessing the welfare system in the UK. They come with a background of experiences that non-LGBTQ+ do not have.
This means that an LGBTQ+ person is very unlikely to walk into a Job Centre and announce “I’m gay” or “I’m trans”. In fact many of our participants say that their sexual or gender identity “doesn’t matter”. As Eli, a pansexual, non-binary participant explained:
“like I don’t tend to come out to anyone at the jobcentre or anything like that, like I just let them believe whatever they want to believe if you know what I mean”
September is bisexual visibility month. Bisexual are commonly “erased” through biphobia in wider society and offensive assumptions, such as that they have “not made their mind up yet”.
The data from our research also shows that for bisexuals within the welfare system, there are further layers of complexity to this. Rhodri, a bisexual man talked about using similar approaches to those reported by other LGBTQ+ in our research to manage his identity:
“[I] Just try and present as kind of an ordinary person that’s not going to attract any further questions or assumptions made about me.”
He went on to explain how this then affected how he presented his masculinity:
“often when, especially back then when I was engaging with services and stuff, I would try and make sure that I – I’m not the campest presenting person anyway but I’d try and make sure that I didn’t present that way, just in case”
For any lesbian, gay or bisexual person, the time when you can out yourself within bureaucratic processes regarding welfare is when you talk about your partner. When asked about this, Rhodri replied: “I was single at the time, so just single”; his single status enabled him to continue to hide his bisexuality from the Department for Work and Pensions.
There was a very different experience for bisexuals in relationships with opposite-gender people. As Jenni, a bisexual woman, explained:
“I’ve said to them that I’m living with my partner and they’re aware that he’s male, I do think that, I’ve never been open with them about my sexuality”
Essentially, Jenni’s relationship gave her a “cloak” of heterosexuality. However, for Little Tree, a pansexual, disabled trans woman, her relationships were not disclosed to the DWP because of the impact this would have on their claim:
“I’ve had a partner and applied, it basically limits really badly limits how much you get. Especially if you’re classed as disabled, that really hampers your money and set up to basically deny people equal access to partners and marriage.”
Another bisexual woman who participated in our research, Zella, had a very particular experience because she had chosen to have children by accessing fertility treatment privately. For her, a particular issue was the internalisation of negative discourses around welfare benefits from wider society. As she explained:
“the right wing press that would have an absolute field day with benefits mum pays two grand on fertility treatment to make another baby to drain the state of more money…I would like to have another child, and again, now it’s like, is that an ethical thing to do, to be taking essentially tax-payers’ money…It is tied to being queer in a way, yes”
The experiences of our bisexual and pansexual participants point to a specific way in which their sexuality becomes invisible in the welfare system by design. The heteronormative assumptions of the welfare system are that claimants will be, at some point, in a heterosexual monogamous relationship (possibly with children) and the amount of money you get will be designed around that. Little Tree realised that this would mean she would get less money, so kept her relationship secret. This allowed Jenni to “pass” as heterosexual. It meant Zella got more money as she was perceived to be a “single parent”; and Rhodri was just treated as a single adult.
What is emerging from the data in the project is how much this is a moral imposition of lifestyles on individuals – the state is saying “this is the family and household structure we expect you to choose”. If people do not fit into that moral norm, they then have to decide whether to hide that fact from the system, or negotiate their way through it in different ways.
To go back to the “so what?” question – we could, and probably will, recommend to the DWP that they work to try and make Job Centres more inclusive. This will hopefully be a positive thing for LGBTQ+ claimants – they might feel more comfortable to reveal their identity.
However, the more radical proposal would be for the state to stop making moral judgements on how people live their lives through the operation of bureaucracy, and just give people resources for living.