Identity matters: sexual identity in Australia

WARNING: This article includes discussion of sexual identity, discrimination and experience of violence. If these topics raise any issues for you, help and information are available from beyondblue on 1300 224 636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.


Statistics on sub-groups of the population are of interest to policy makers and researchers from a range of areas, including health, education, law, employment and social welfare. While the 2021 Census did not collect information on sexual orientation, the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) General Social Survey provides estimates of the number of people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or other (not heterosexual). For the survey releases, these expressed identities are combined into a single group, hereafter referred to as LGB+. In 2020, this group represented almost 4% of the population aged 15 years and over (see Table 5). The survey does not provide estimates of the number of people who identify as transgender or intersex (for more information see the ABS standard).

Park’s framework (2016) for data collection and sexual orientation (also, gender identity), suggests that sexual orientation is best derived from three components:

  • self-identification (how a person sees themselves)
  • sexual behaviour (what sex are a person’s partners)
  • sexual attraction (the sex or gender a person is attracted to).

Of these, the first is addressed by the ABS survey through a single self-identification question, which elicits a response from a predetermined list. The lack of additional questions, as well as the potential for survey participants to fear negative consequences of self-identification, are likely to result in an underestimate of LGB+ people (see for example, Pega et al, para 3.1.3 or the EU LGBT survey, p 80). A person could also say they did not know or did not want to answer this question. In 2020, about 5% of participants did not identify their sexual orientation.

Age profile

People who identify as LGB+ have a younger age profile, with many more in the under 40 years category than those in the older age cohorts (see Figure 1). While a change of participant age from 18 years in 2014 to 15 years in 2019 would have had some impact on the youngest age group, almost half (49%) of LGB+ identifying people were aged 25 to 39 years in 2020. In 2014 this age bracket also constituted the largest group of people identifying as LGB+, at 43%.

Figure 1: age profile of people who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or other (LGB+)

Source: ABS, General Social Survey 2014, 2019 and 2020 (Canberra: ABS, 2021); Parliamentary Library calculations.

Marital status and relationships

Following the Australian marriage equality postal vote in 2017, it was expected that registered marriage rates for LGB+ couples may increase to some degree. However, from 2014 to 2020 the proportion of LGB+ people who stated they were in a registered marriage declined. This could be partly due to the estimated numbers for both time periods being considered relatively unreliable and providing only a broad indication. One of the impacts of COVID-19, however, is that the marriage figures from the ABS show an overall decline in registered marriages, including for same-sex couples. From 2014 to 2020 there was an increase in LGB+ couples in de facto relationships, from about 23% to 30%.

Participation in work or study

From 2014 to 2020, there were strong increases of participation in work and/or study by people identifying as LGB+ (see Figure 2). This increase likely reflects the aforementioned changes in the age scope (more younger people included), but may also reflect behavioural changes due to the strengthening of the ‘learn or earn’ criteria for receipt of the JobSeeker Payment. In comparison, people identifying as heterosexual had higher levels of non-engagement. This difference potentially also reflects the higher proportion of heterosexuals with children (in 2020, 37% of heterosexuals compared to 27% of LGB+ identifying people were part of families with dependent children).

Figure 2: people’s level of engagement in work and/or study by sexual identity

Source: ABS, General Social Survey 2014 and 2020 (Canberra: ABS, 2021); Parliamentary Library calculations.

In terms of paid work, people identifying as LGB+ had higher employment rates than heterosexuals, at 68% compared to 61% in 2020. Unemployment figures from this survey provide only a broad indication of job-seeking behaviour and due to statistical unreliability have not been presented here.


Perhaps reflecting greater tolerance of diversity, the majority (95%) of LGB+ identifying people agreed it is a good thing for society to be comprised of different cultures. This proportion was about 10 percentage points higher than agreement from heterosexuals in 2020, with a similar gap evident in 2019. People identifying as LGB+ were more than twice as likely as heterosexuals to have experienced discrimination in the 12 months prior to the 2020 survey (30% compared to 12%). Similarly, this group were more likely to have experienced physical or threatened assault in the year prior to the 2020 survey (9% of LGB+ identifying people compared to 4% of heterosexuals)1

[1] Some caution should be used when interpreting the figures as the estimates are subject to some unreliability.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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