Scoping study to explore understandings and experiences of 'community' among lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people

Lead Research Organisation: Sheffield Hallam University
Department Name: Faculty of Development and Society


This project seeks to conduct a UK literature review and related consultation activities on understandings and experiences of 'community' among lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people. It is often assumed that LGBT communities have a shared experience of oppression or exclusion from broader communities, yet what research exists tends to be disparately located across varied disciplines (e.g. humanities, health studies, social sciences). The term has also been critiqued for neglecting diversities within and between LGBT communities. Nevertheless, research has documented the historical development of LGBT communities, for example in relation to 'gay rights' political activism, community responses to the emergence of HIV/AIDS, and in the growth of the commercial 'gay scene'. The value of social support from community members has been reported as beneficial to LGBT health and wellbeing, particularly where individuals may be excluded from their own families or immediate communities (Keogh et al 2006; Pugh 2002; Weeks et al 2001). The review element of this study will seek to draw together evidence in this area, supplemented by a complementary consultation exercise.

The consultation stage will involve the use of an interactive website and four workshops; three of these will take place within LGBT communities and one will be for professionals working in the LGBT field. Potential participants will be invited to contribute comments or other 'submissions' (e.g. photographs) to the website and/or invited to take part in discussions as part of a workshop. Issues that will be explored within both the literature review and consultation stages will include exploration of how community members perceive their relationship and potential contribution to wider society as well as current policy interests in equality, community cohesion and civic participation within a 'big society'. Greater understanding of these issues also relates to perceptions of community self-reliance and sustainability. Throughout, there will be an explicit focus on an assessment of the implications of understandings and experiences of 'community' for LGBT health, wellbeing and 'quality of life'. The study will contribute to developing thought and discussion about the meanings of 'community' and 'connectedness' more generally within the Connected Communities programme, for example what it is that creates and maintains links between potentially diverse groups of people, currently and over time. In particular, for minority groups, how much does a sense of 'community' relate to historical and cultural contexts (e.g. experiences of 'belonging' or shared identity vs. experiences of exclusion, protest and/or adversity)? Similarly, how much are communities rooted in shared values or experiences (despite their potential diversity), or is there a necessity for physical proximity (e.g. the commercial gay scene, Pride events) and/or virtual connections (via the Internet)? General insights on understandings and experiences of 'community' and potentially socially excluded groups will be gleaned from a close examination of LGBT communities in their specific social and historical contexts.

A study aim is to engage and bring together academics, practitioners and LGBT community members. Final outputs will include an accessible project summary, a Discussion Paper, and a national dissemination event. These will bring together themes from both existing research and insights from the consultation. They will establish to what extent the review themes correspond with participants' and stakeholders' experiences, or if anything is missing from the review, thus pointing to current research gaps. The website will remain as a legacy of the project and its outcomes (including all documents produced and an online references resource).

Planned Impact

This project seeks to engage the involvement of a variety of beneficiaries/participants, including LGBT community members, stakeholders working in the field, and academics with an interest in this area. Bringing together insights from these groups will potentially have an impact on all those involved through the facilitation of greater mutual understanding of community experiences.

The anticipated impact will be at two levels; first, to generate and share understandings about LGBT communities via specific workshops in different localities and through online consultation methods. This will aid awareness about the existence, and potential benefits, of community ties which could heighten senses of wellbeing among some participants as existing research suggests some LGBT people can feel isolated (Formby and Willis 2011; Whittle et al 2007); conversely where this is not the case there can be positive health impacts of feeling part of a community (Keogh et al 2006; Pugh 2002; Weeks et al 2001). Second, it seeks to generate wider discussion about the concept of 'community' as it may be experienced by different groups. These discussions might be within populist and academic circles, during and after study completion, but will be specifically informed by the production of various outcomes connected to the study. This includes:
1. A short document outlining the study (aim and objectives, research process, etc.)
2. Contribution to AHRC meetings/events, as appropriate
3. Summary of study results
4. Discussion Paper
5. Final dissemination event
6. Project website including online bibliographic resource, participant submissions, Outputs 1, 3 and 4 above, and a summary report of the dissemination event
7. Further dissemination via appropriate academic and LGBT community publications and events (at least one: peer reviewed journal submission, practitioner/community publication or presentation, and academic conference presentation)
8. At least one further funding application depending on outcomes of the study

A final dissemination event also plans to engage the interest of academics, practitioners and LGBT community members. In particular, it is envisaged that this event and the website (with its inclusion of downloadable project documentation and an online bibliographic resource), and the allied creation of a clearer understanding of LGBT communities might be useful to a variety of groups, including:
- a broad range of academics and students
- policy-makers and practitioners looking to develop their thinking/practice (or applying for funding) in relation to LGBT support services, community cohesion and equality/human rights more broadly
- educators (such as personal, social, health and economic education teachers in schools or those with a responsibility for pastoral care or pupil wellbeing) trying to support LGBT young people and/or raise awareness about LGBT equality/human rights more generally.

In other words, the study could enhance the effectiveness of public and voluntary sector service provision and education, and/or policy developments within the LGBT/equalities field, as well as stimulate academic debate about the concept of community and related issues more broadly. The former, in turn, could contribute to increased emotional wellbeing and 'quality of life' among LGBT groups, thereby influencing the health of society and the economy at large (more information on this is provided in 'Pathways to impact').

Potential impact of the study will also be maximised by broad awareness raising about the study and its results; this will utilise a variety of media and practitioner outlets, which the applicant has used successfully previously to promote research and disseminate summarised project findings. Thus, the potential LGBT communities and individual beneficiaries are far broader than those directly involved in the project.


10 25 50
Description Key findings:
• In summary, the terms 'community' or 'communities' were often applied to groups of LGBT people (who may or may not know one other), whether physical, online or imagined via a shared feeling of 'acceptance' or 'belonging'
• The study highlighted three key elements, or foundations, to LGBT communities: place/space, (shared) identity, and (to a lesser extent) politics (see also Homfray, 2007; Weeks, 1996)
• A social context of potential/assumed adversity was also key to perceptions of, or the desire for, community; safe spaces were identified as key to avoid 'self-censorship' regularly employed in wider society
• For many participants, communities were conceptualised in broader terms than 'just' friendship groups, most clearly in a sense of (wanting to) share space with, and feel connected to, other LGBT people with whom there may be no personal ties - a sense of solidarity beyond known relationships
• At the same time as there was a sense of solidarity, however, participants also stressed that this did not mean similarity, highlighting the varying experiences and needs within LGBT communities; this was often coupled with a strong desire to challenge existing assumptions
• A sense or experience of community had clear links to reported wellbeing, including combating isolation, heightening confidence and self-esteem, and sometimes improving/maintaining physical health
• However potential 'risks' related to elements of community were also identified (e.g. alcohol/drug consumption)
• Caution is needed when the term community is used in the singular and/or when it is assumed that LGBT people are more alike than not
• It was suggested that the concept of community poses both potential benefits in terms of affirmation and the suggestion of safety, at the same time as posing potential 'dangers' through perpetuating misconceptions and stereotypes about LGBT people
• Policy and practice that draws on the concept of community in the future should attempt to acknowledge the diversity, inequality and power dynamics embedded within LGBT communities, and within broader society - use of LGBT communities in the plural is just the start to this
Exploitation Route Building on the impact described previously, they might inform government policy on LGBT equalities, both at national and local levels. They might also influence community-level support and/or leisure provision aimed at LGBT people, and more broadly influence attitudes towards LGBT people among service-providers, whether in education or healthcare, etc
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Healthcare,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description I am aware they have been used in academia (citations and so on), and have been engaged with by practitioners in the LGBT sector. For example, a community-based organisation/charity used the report in a funding bid to explain/justify the need for safe LGBT spaces outside of the commercial scene. This bid was successful and they now run an LGBT café. The findings also fed into workshops (through a presentation I delivered beforehand) to identify community needs at the launch of a community-led LGBT initiative regionally. In addition, it has informed local authority LGBT hate crime reporting and community safety planning (via my advice to/meeting with local authority staff working in this field). There was also media interest (Nov. 2012) in the gay press (Sosogay), international press (Rainbow Sudan), and regional media (Yorkshire Times). The final project event (which was highly over-subscribed, Nov. 2012) was designed to stimulate discussion about the meaning and desirability of constructions of 'LGBT communities'. It led to very positive feedback from attendees (a mix of 80 project participants, practitioners, academics, and the general public), with comments including "inspiring" and "brilliantly informative". Practitioners emphasised how it would inform their practice: "I found the conference very interesting and it gave me some idea's to discuss with [an LGBT forum]"; "It certainly gave me some food for thought regarding trans provision for young people". The long-term impact of improved professional awareness and practice is therefore on enhanced support for LGBT people, though individual LGBT people have also benefited directly from involvement in the research through being enabled to share their collective experiences.
First Year Of Impact 2012
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services

Description Filmed public debate 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Invited participant in live filmed 'LGBT leaders' public debate by E.D.E.N film productions (Sheffield) discussing 'Do we need a 'gay' scene'. Approx. 30 in the audience; short resultant film (see link below) has had 98 views (audience whereabouts unknown) on YouTube (as of 9.3.16). Discussion included debating the importance of 'safe spaces' for LGBT+ people (where I talked about the AHRC research) - since then there is now a weekly LGBT Sheffield 'pop up' café running which aims to achieve this (see
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Final conference presentations 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Final dissemination conference for award was well attended and garnered much positive feedback, including comments where practitioners talked about how it would inform their practice with LGBT groups (see further detail in narrative impact).

Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
Description LGBT history month public lecture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Formby, E. (2017) What does LGBT community mean today? University of York LGBT history month public lecture.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description LGBT history month talk for DWP staff 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Formby, E. (2017) What does it feel like to (not) belong to an LGBT community? LGBT history month talk for Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) headquarters staff.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Sexuality Studies Association annual conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Formby, E. (2016) Acceptance, belonging and commonality? Questioning the ABC of constructions of LGBT communities in the UK. Sexuality Studies Association annual conference, Calgary, Canada.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Various conference presentations 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Academic conference presentations facilitating research dissemination and discussion:

Formby, E. (2015) "The gays tend to gather..." Exploring (mis)understandings and experiences of LGBT communities in the UK. European Sociological Association biennial conference, Prague

Formby, E. (2013) Living censored lives? Engagement with 'community' among LGBT people in the UK. Recognising diversity? Gender and sexual equalities in principle and practice ESRC-funded conference, University of Leeds (by invitation)

Formby, E. (2013) "I want to be able to walk down the street holding my partner's hand without feeling this is a brave act or something that marks me out as 'different'": Use of public space among lesbian, gay and bisexual people in the UK. Royal Geographical Society annual international conference, London

Formby, E. (2013) "For all the therapy and anti-depressants in the world, nothing will cheer you up more than having more gay friends..." The importance of 'community' for LGBT people in the UK. British Sociological Association annual conference, London
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013,2015