Why is Rochford England’s straightest place and Brighton its gay capital?

The census suggested people in the Essex district were six times less likely to be gay than those in the East Sussex city

Brighton and Hove, for decades England’s unofficial gay capital, can now wear the official crown. One in 10 people aged over 16 in the city identified themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or “other sexual orientation” in the 2021 census. It was exactly in line with the decades-old estimates based on the works of the 1940s US professor Alfred Kinsey who contended homosexuality was far more widespread than officialdom admitted.

By contrast, the district of Rochford in Essex was shown as the straightest place in England. Only 1.6% of the population there said they were LGB+, suggesting that those living in the largely rural, somewhat conservative area near Southend-on-Sea are six times less likely to be gay than those in Brighton and Hove. People in Rochford were also four times less likely to say they were transgender or non-binary than those in the East Sussex city.

Several explanations present themselves. Perhaps people in Rochford were less open than others in answering the question; about one in 20 in the area declined to answer on sexual identity. Rochford has an older population – averaging 44 – compared with Brighton (39) and the census across England and Wales showed a statistically significant correlation between sexual identity and age, with younger areas having more LGB+ people. Perhaps people move to places where they feel more comfortable.

“Rochford is a little bit sleepy, rural and traditional with pubs rather than wine bars,” said Maxine Carrigher, owner of Southend Eyebrow Microblading in Rochford. She said LGB+ people were likely to move to nearby Leigh-on-Sea where “the nightlife is really lively”.

Carrigher has treated several of the area’s trans and non-binary people – the census recorded 145 to Brighton’s 2,341 – and said there was possibly a level of suspicion of transgender people in an area she described as “socially conservative with an older population”.

“You might be inclined to keep it under wraps or move away,” she said, suggesting some local people might acknowledge transgender people but not engage with them.

Shane Robinson, a studio manager at the Good as Gold tattoo parlour, said he was surprised by the figures ranking Rochford as the straightest place in England and Wales.

“We don’t see it,” he said. “We have a broad range of people coming through the studio – a lovely mix and the door is always open.”

Culture is likely to play a part too. Unlike Rochford, Brighton has a long history of pioneering gay rights, from its bars and clubs to its annual Pride festival. Last year the city said farewell to the self-proclaimed “oldest gay in the village”, George Montague, who died aged 98 after decades of campaigning. The council has an LGBT workers’ forum, runs a “my pronouns” campaign and an LGBT helpline.

“Brighton has a huge amount of LGBT+ venues and community support organisations that makes it a very very attractive place for LGBT+ people to live,” said the gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. “Public attitudes are more liberal than other parts of Britain so people feel safe and comfortable. They also feel more able to be out and visible. But this also makes them targets. Despite the generally more gay-friendly atmosphere there is still a problem with gay-bashing attacks.”

Paul Kemp, the managing director of Brighton and Hove Pride, said the city had “always attracted LGBTQ+ people from across the UK and the world who have fled the often unsafe small town mentality of their home lives to come here and create a safe space and a seek out a community of like-minded spirits. Many LGBTQ+ people have also come here to study at university and decide that it’s where they want to stay.”


Robert Booth and Michael Goodier

The GuardianTramp

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