In the suburbs of Melbourne where I grew up in the 1990s there was a noticeable lack of any gay “presence”.

The closest thing to any sign of a “gaybourhood” I experienced were the repeated taunts of “faggot” hurled in my general direction and even then, most of the sniggers occurred behind my back.

All the gay characters were onscreen, existing in faraway urbane places like New York and London. If you wanted to see homosexuality in the suburbs you had to stay up late and hope SBS was screening a film about lesbians from Sweden.

The absence of any visible gay presence made me wonder just how many gay people are in our villages.

Exactly how gay are our suburbs? Is there any sense of there being a “gaybourhood”?

The outback has always had a reputation for being bereft of sexual diversity. Bob Katter once famously said that he’d “Walk to Bourke backwards if the poof population of North Queensland is any more than 0.001 percent”.

That was in 1989.

In 2013, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) included same sex couples in the census for the first time and counted 91 people identifying as living in a same-sex relationship in Katter’s Kennedy electorate. That is 0.28 percent of all couples in his electorate – a little higher than @BobKat’s estimate but still pretty low.

The inaccuracies of some blow-hard politician are not nearly as interesting as the ABS’ decision to count same sex-couples in the census. The data shows there are massive disparities in the concentration of same-sex couples in our cities with clusters in inner-city areas. Tanya Plibersek’s electorate of Sydney had the highest rate of couples that identified as being in a same-sex relationship with 8.68 percent, and Adam Bandt’s electorate of Melbourne had the highest in Victoria with 3.81 percent. The poof population living as a couple in Katter’s Kennedy is much lower than Plibersek’s but the electorate with the smallest proportion of same-sex couples is in Chris Bowen’s seat of McMahon in outer-Western Sydney with 0.16 percent.

Why is it that an outer-suburban electorate in Australia’s largest city has the smallest number of people who identify as living in a same-sex couple? Why is there a higher proportion of couples identifying as same-sex in Broken Hill than in the City of Blacktown, only 40km from Sydney’s CBD?

A large part of this story is surely to be told in the migration of gay and lesbians to greener, more accepting pastures in inner-suburban areas. As a gay man, I live in inner-Melbourne and would certainly choose to live in a Malcolm Turnbull-protected inner-Eastern Sydney enclave like Wentworth over the boondocks of Bowen’s McMahon. I grew up in the same suburb in which Neighbours is filmed and I’m not giving up my access to public transport and coffee shops to move back to Ramsay Street – even if there is slightly more affordable housing.

There is more to the story of the discrepancy in the concentration of same-sex couples between rural, urban and inner-urban areas than population mobility, and it is linked to the politics of identity and visibility.

An article in the New York Times recently asked the question of how many American men identify as gay. Using data analysis from sources such as surveys, dating sites and porn searches, an estimate of 5 percent was arrived at in terms of American men who are predominantly attracted to men. What is interesting about this figure is not just the quantum of 5 percent but the distribution. The percentage of men who are attracted to men is consistent across state borders, in contrast to data from sources such as Facebook and public polling that suggests more people identify as gay in progressive states like California and New York over the more conservative Deep South.

This leads to the conclusion that, based on the discrepancy between metrics of same-sex attraction/desire and those that identify as gay, there are a hell of a lot of people who are in the closet.

There is no definitive number on how many gay and lesbians there are in Australia. The ABS census data referred to couples only and even then I find it surprisingly low. Only 33,714 of Australia’s 4.65 million people living in a relationship were counted as being in a gay or lesbian relationship – a meagre 0.7 percent of all couples. What the ABS was counting were couples who cohabitated and were of the same-sex, clearly a lot different from people who identify as LGBTIQ. Living together is much easier to count than counting how many gay people there are.

I decided to identify as gay at the ripe old age of 33. Before that I refused to identify as either gay or straight, and if pressed I would have said I was bisexual. I had to disaggregate a whole set of other personal data, such as grief and mental health issues, before feeling comfortable about donning the gay label. Categorising sexuality can be very complex and is not easily distilled into a question on a census form.

There is power in visibility and it is linked to the process of coming out and identifying. Every pride march around the world since Stonewall has ostensibly been about reinforcing gay rights through the power of visibility. In the New York Times article the link is made between areas that have a low rate of people who are “out” and support for the current proxy of gay rights issues – same-sex marriage. The inference is that if more people came out and were able to realise their sexuality, and be visible about it, then there would be more support for causes that resonate with the LGTBIQ community and supporters. I think this is why there can be an imperative imposed on people who have a level of same sex attraction to identify as gay. Publicly it can be celebrated as another win, another person more visible, while at the same time being a very personal decision embedded in a narrative of sexuality, desire and identity.

Which brings me back to where we started to ask the question, “How gay are the ‘burbs?”

Considering how “hard” gayness is to measure I’m not sure we’ll ever know.

I wonder though whether the suburbs are gay enough for a same-sex couple to hold hands in a suburban shopping centre without feeling self-conscious or fearful of abuse. If they’re not, I can see why comparatively fewer gay and lesbians live there. What counting also doesn’t show is that the more people who openly identify as LGTBIQ the easier it is for others to be visibly gay in places where there is a noticeable lack of a gay presence.

If nothing else, more visibility might result in less discrimination and maybe even less tolerance for politicians who make ridiculous, homophobic, and offensive remarks.

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