People in same-sex relationships have larger social circles, but fewer of those connections are family

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Even the Netherlands can't escape social exclusion. (AP Photo/Patrick Post)

People in same-sex relationships may have larger social networks than people in different-sex relationships, and those social networks seem to be made up of more friends and fewer family-of-origin ties, according to new research from the Netherlands that suggests marginalized groups employ resilience strategies to counteract social exclusion. 

The Netherlands became the first country in the world to allow same-sex marriage when Queen Beatrix formally signed into law the world's first same-sex marriage bill on Dec. 21, 2000. Since that time, the Netherlands has been thought to be an epicenter of equality with respect to sexual orientation, but this new study, published March 23 in Social Forces, is challenging that perception. 

"I've been trained in the Netherlands, and the Netherlands has one of these reputations of being particularly accepting for anybody who is not heterosexual," Mirjam Fischer, author of the study and postdoctoral research associate at the University of Cologne, told The Academic Times.

Indeed, a 2016 report from The Netherlands Institute for Social Research found that 91% of people from the Netherlands agree with the statement that gay and lesbian people should be free to live their lives as they wished. 

"But having lived there for close to 10 years, I saw with my own eyes that it's actually not that simple of a story," Fischer said. "In my research, I found that if you look at people's social networks, there is evidence of such social exclusion happening still, and I kind of took that as evidence that maybe it's not as simple as just looking at what people are saying."

The study used a national sample of people in same-sex and different-sex relationships in the Netherlands, yielding a final sample of 1,329 people between 30 and 65 years old who are currently living together with a partner. Fischer drew her sample with a two-stage stratified sampling strategy. 

In the first step, the sample was broken into three geographic regions — North/East, West and South — and three degrees of urbanization — marginal, moderate and strong.

In the second step, local authorities who worked with Fischer drew random samples from three groups of addresses from their population registers: mixed-sex couples, same-sex couples and same-sex couples with children. Fischer broke them into these three groups, "because, usually, the number of same-sex couples are already very low per cell of region and urbanization," she said. "We wanted to oversample them to make sure that we have sufficient observations to actually make comparisons."

"The Dutch population registers are very rich," Fischer said. "So, I could narrow in on households where people between the ages of 30 and 65 live. We confirmed in the survey whether they're really in a relationship with each other."

What makes Fischer's sample "very special," she said, is that she actually knew some demographic information about the respondents — such as age and gender — prior to asking them.

"We can actually be sure that the answers that we have used are representative of same-sex couples in the Netherlands in this age bracket that we have sampled," she said.

Fischer studied participants' social networks by asking respondents: "Who are the people with whom you like to do things or discuss important matters with?" Respondents were able to list between zero and eight names of people who live outside their household.

This measure allowed Fischer to investigate daily social networks — a mixture of people who provide companionship and conversation, other than the cohabitating partner or spouse.

"I compared the personal networks, the social networks, of people who are in same-sex and different-sex relationships," Fischer said. "I found larger networks among people in same-sex relationships, and they differ slightly in composition. So, people who are in same-sex relationships have slightly fewer ties with their family-of-origin, and they have more ties with friends."

On average, people in same-sex relationships had 5.5 network ties, while people in different-sex relationships had 4.6 network ties. 

"For women in mixed-sex relationships, around two of these people were from the family-of-origin," Fischer said. "For all the other people in the sample, that was much lower; it was only about 1.5 people, which is a lot if you consider the small range [eight people total] of the network measure."

On average, she said, people in same-sex relationships have three people in their network who are friends, and people in different-sex relationships have 2.5.

"This kind of plays into this old idea of when people have problems with their family-of-origin — when they come out to their family and they're not accepted — they may try to replace some of these lacking ties that everybody needs like friendship ties," Fischer said. "There's exclusion happening, but people are really actively trying to build alternative communities and actually so much so that we see larger networks on average."

Fischer also found that men in same-sex relationships have the fewest same-gender ties in their network. While men in same-sex relationships had an average of 2.8 same-gender ties in their personal network, men in mixed-sex relationships had 3.8. This difference was not present among women, who had an average of 4.4 same-gender ties in their personal network regardless of the type of relationship they were in.

"Men in same-sex relationships don't have many men in their networks as friends," Fischer said. "We do know from previous research that heterosexual men have the most negative attitudes towards sexual diversity in general and also with regard to men who are not straight in particular, so this is something I can really see mirrored in the network."

Additionally, Fischer found that people in same-sex relationships had one more person who identified as a sexual minority in their network than people in different-sex relationships. 

These findings are striking since the Netherlands is thought to be a place that has achieved a high degree of equality on the basis of sexual orientation, but, as Fischer wrote, "Tolerance cannot be equated to true acceptance."

"I think one reason why it is so interesting is because this is a country where sexual diversity is quite visible," she said. "So, the fact that I can find evidence of social exclusion in a context like that probably lets us conclude that in other places, where sexual diversity is maybe less accepted, we would even find bigger differences in terms of personal networks. So, I really kind of like this case study of the Netherlands because all around it appears so accepting."

In addition, the findings of this study relate only to lesbian women and gay men who do not violate gender expectations too severely. Sexual and gender diversity continues to sprout, and marginalized groups with more diverse identities are far from being accepted, according to Fischer. 

"There are so many other people out there with different, more diverse sexual orientations and diverse gender identities that are actually far from being accepted by the mainstream," she said. 

Fischer added that she hopes her research raises some awareness about modern sexual stigmas and how they develop.

"I would like to invite people to think about how they can confront sexual stigma in themselves," she said. "People shouldn't fall into the trap of thinking everything is fine just because there's a couple of rights and people have some sort of visibility; not fall into the trap of thinking, 'OK, well, we have gay marriage now so everything's fine.'"

The study "Social Exclusion and Resilience: Examining Social Network Stratification among People in Same-Sex and Different-Sex Relationships," published March 23 in Social Forces, was authored by Mirjam Fischer, University of Cologne.

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