Wilfried Rault

Interview with INED researcher Wilfried Rault on a study of gay and lesbian social and geographic mobility

(Interview from May 2017)

How was this study conducted? What makes it unprecedented?

The study is based on data collected for the last edition of major national survey on the family in France. INSEE has been conducting the Famille survey, conducted by INED since the 1950s, is based on the population census and therefore enables us to access a vast, representative sample of the French population. The initial aim of this survey was to study female fertility, but its frame and topics were gradually extended; men were questioned for the first time in 1999. The goal of the 2011 edition, entitled Family and housing, was to provide a fuller account of family situation diversity. Questions on the PACS (France’s civil union arrangement), multiresidence and—our subject here—the possibility of reporting a same-sex spouse or partner were added to the survey questionnaire. With this new information, we have been able to study the social and geographic mobility of gay and lesbian cohabiting couples.
The question was first studied in the 1980s, a period marked by the arrival of AIDS. Michael Pollack, a pioneer in this field, conducted a series of interviews and undertook different studies, but the tools of analysis of the time—surveys based on samples of volunteers—limited the scope of the results; moreover, men only were studied.

What have you found?

Same-sex cohabiting couples have experienced greater social mobility than their different-sex counterparts. With social origin controlled for, gays and lesbians show higher average educational attainment. This may be the effect of self-reporting (people with higher cultural capital are more likely to report atypical couple situations); it may also be explained by the same type of strategic investment in education as is found for other minority groups.
Geographic mobility is stronger among gays and lesbians: they generally live further than their straight counterparts from place of birth and parents and more often in the Paris region (men in particular). However, women in same-sex couples who have children live on average closer to their parents.
It is of considerable interest that life trajectories seem to follow different models by sexual orientation. From this perspective, homosexuality appears not only a type of sexual behavior but also a characteristic likely to structure individual trajectories. 

What would you say were the limitations of the study?

The questionnaire did not collect sexual orientation, which was instead and solely deduced from the indication of spouse’s or partner’s sex. This means that we could not take into account the social and geographic mobility of single gays and lesbians. Another limitation was not having the information needed to reconstruct trajectories in their entirety. The survey could be further developed to collect such information. Generally speaking, in order to catch up in this area, to develop quantitative approaches to the study of homosexualities, the existing tools must be considerably improved.