LGB&T people and public services

A good practice guide from Stonewall Scotland

Case study One — The problem with making assumptions

To download these files, you may need to right click on the relevant link and select 'Save Target As…' from the resulting menu (the exact wording will vary according to your choice of web browser).

In the box below you can record your reflections on the issues arising from this scenario. What would you do if faced with this situation in your job, or how might you advise someone you manage? After submitting your reflections, you will be able to print them out for future reference and read Stonewall’s advice and guidance on this topic.

Learning Points

Even before they have contacted the housing office, Jo and Linzi are making an assumption that they will encounter a problem. This assumption is something that organisations can tackle easily by making a public commitment to equality and diversity, such as making a clear equal opportunities statement and displaying diverse posters or advertising materials.

Fear of discrimination means that service users often don't want to put themselves on the line – they will often hear stories about friends who have had a bad experience and not want to risk it happening to them. Even if your service is really vital for their needs, they may opt out of engaging if they are not confident.

In a recent Stonewall Scotland survey, Service with a Smile, more than half of the respondents have concealed their sexual orientation or gender identity when using a public service. Stonewall research, Serves you Right, found that one in five lesbian, gay and bisexual people expect to be treated worse than heterosexual people when applying for social housing.

Day to day 'low level' discrimination can have a big impact on LGB&T people's lives. Whether it's homophobic stories in the media, overhearing homophobic or transphobic banter on the bus, or seeing homophobic or transphobic graffiti in their neighbourhood, all of these incidents create a layered effect where an individual can expect discrimination from just about anywhere.

Making assumptions about a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity can cause upset and will send the wrong message to LGB&T people who hear them. The housing officer apparently is not aware of, or considering, LGB&T issues. This makes it more difficult for the couple to come out, as they do not know whether the reaction will be negative and will usually assume the worst.

Seven in 10 LGB&T people have had a public servant assume that they are 'straight' (i.e., heterosexual and not transgender). 68% would feel more comfortable using public services if staff stopped making assumptions about them. (Service with a Smile)

Assumptions are made all the time and the more assumptions in any situation, the worse the individual is likely to feel and the less they are likely to feel that they can come out. As the housing association have not given the couple any indications that they are LGB&T inclusive, they are worried about having to come out in order to get the desired outcome. They are apprehensive as they have no idea how the officer will react to them when they tell her that they are a gay couple.

A Stonewall Scotland research found that a third of LGB&T people are worried, nervous or apprehensive about having to come out before accessing a service.

Direct discrimination occurs when a person is treated less favourably than another in a similar situation on the grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity, such as a lesbian or gay couple being refused a one bedroom property from their housing provider when straight couples are being given one bedroom houses.

Indirect discrimination occurs when a rule or practice is applied across the board, but as a result of doing so it discriminates against LGB&T people, such as if the housing provider only provided one bedroom properties to single or married applicants. Doing this is not directly discriminatory to LGB&T people but as same-sex couples cannot marry each other, and the service does not specify that couples in a civil partnership are considered to be married, they are automatically discriminated against by rules such as these. Such a rule amounts to discrimination only if the service cannot reasonably justify it by reference to matters other than the person's sexual orientation or gender identity.

Stonewall Scotland has produced a guide to the legal action you can take if you think you have been discriminated against by a business or service provider because of your sexual orientation or gender identity. Laws to prevent discrimination in goods, facilities and services provision have been in place since 2007, but despite this, some businesses and service providers still treat people differently and less well just because they identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

Select another case study >