About water being wet, the grass being green and the role of LGB research in public debate

By Dr Francisco (Paco) Perales

Wear it Purple Day has a simple message: you have the right to be proud of who you are. Who you love and how you define yourself does not change that.

The University of Queensland community will celebrate Wear It Purple Day on 31 August with a symposium and morning tea. RSVP here.

Being a researcher of sexual identity in contemporary Australia is a dangerous job of sorts.

This is not because the built environment in my academic ivory tower is hazardous in any way. I have access to a nice, cosy, ivory office, with a nice, cosy, ivory window. Nor is it because my superiors try to tamper with my research directions or quibble with my findings – and when they do, they tend to do so constructively. Being a researcher of sexual identity in Australia today is tricky because of the political nature of the topic in question, and the heated debates on cognate issues such as ‘safe schools’, marriage equality or religious freedoms that we are finally engaging with as a nation.

Often, the experience can be best described as being caught between a rock and a hard place. A case in point are the reactions to my recent study on the health and wellbeing of Australian lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people, which I conducted with my friend and very talented student Abram Todd. In a nutshell, we found that the outcomes of Australian LGB people were worse when they lived in electorates with higher percentages of ‘No’ voters in the 2017 marriage equality plebiscite. We attributed this effect to structural stigma against LGB populations in Australia.

The mainstream and social media takes on our study and findings were unsurprisingly polarised – as with some of my other recent work on LGBTIQ+ issues (see e.g., this and that). In this instance, though, the contrast was worthy of further reflection. On the one hand there were those who questioned the legitimacy of the study as a whole, not because of the data or methodology used, but because of it coming from “leftist, elitist, gay-loving academics”. Within this camp, a particularly mischievous student developed several social media threads purposively twisting the study findings as if they stated that (I quote), “gays put pressure on our community and health system”. It should have read “homophobes put pressure on our community and health system”, if you ask me.

Perhaps more interesting were some of the reactions from those which a priori held socio-political views on LGBTIQ+ issues more attuned with our findings. For instance, in response to our UQ media release and piece in The Conversation some (re-)tweeted comments such as: “In today’s news: water is wet”; “The grass is green”; “imagine!!”; “wow guys i gotta tell you that i didn’t see this coming AT. ALL.”, “yall really had to do an entire study to figure that out?” or a very succinct (and my all-time favourite): “Yeah no s***”.

Funnily enough, as an individual, I sometimes cannot help but think along the same lines as these Twitter users:

shouldn’t it be obvious that the disadvantage LGB people experience may come from the fact that they are routinely discriminated against?

As I put on my social scientist hat, however, I take a different view. First, I have learnt with time that what may appear obvious to some of us may not seem so obvious to others – particularly those with whom we disagree. Second, science has taught us over and over again that not all seemingly intuitive ideas are factually correct. Because of this, social science research – including LGB research – is often about generating evidence to back up (or disprove) what may look like fairly common-sense notions. In doing so, social scientists can help distinguish facts from myths, and justifiable, objective and measurable realities from political persuasion, narratives and rhetoric.

Our specific study demonstrates quite clearly that, unlike what’s proposed by some Australian politicians and public commentators, those who identify as LGB are not to blame for their health and wellbeing disadvantage. Instead, the cold statistics reveal that the proverbial finger must be pointed elsewhere: to those contributing to creating and perpetuating social environments that range from ‘unaccepting’ to ‘outright hostile’ towards our LGB peers. While these notions previously stood as ideas held by a chunk of the Australian population, our study contributed to raising their status to that of objective facts validated by solid scientific evidence. In this occasion, water was indeed wet, and the grass was indeed green. To some extent, we helped them become legitimately wet and legitimately green.

Further, our study enabled us to engage in important thought exercises that may guide our efforts in making Australia a fairer and more inclusive society, as championed by events such as Wear It Purple Day. For example, it prompts us to consider ‘what if’ scenarios such as: what would be the level of disadvantage amongst LGB people in the absence of discrimination and stigma? [Spoiler alert: according to our estimates, next to zero]; and what would it be in a fully discriminatory society? Well, I am not giving that one away – you’ll have to read the paper to find out.

Dr Francisco(Paco) Perales is a Senior Research Fellow and ARC DECRA Fellow at the UQ Institute for Social Science Research. Read more about his research online.