Most people in Northern Ireland have no problem with working or living near a gay person despite a consensus that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are amongst the most unfairly treated in the country, a survey shows.

The findings are part of an Equality Awareness Survey commissioned by the Equality Commission which assesses awareness of equality issues amongst the general public in Northern Ireland.

When people were asked to identify which groups they thought were treated most unfairly in our society, racial groups headed the list with 20%. Elderly people, people with disabilities, Travellers, lesbian gay and bisexual people, and children with special educational needs, also figured strongly in people’s perceptions of unfair treatment, with 10% or more of those surveyed saying they were the most unfairly treated group. In comparison, far fewer respondents thought Protestants and Catholics were most unfairly treated, 4% and 3% respectively.

Opinion was divided on the issue of gay, lesbian and bisexual couples having the same rights as married heterosexual couples, with the majority of the public supporting this (55%), 30% being unsupportive, and 13% undecided.

The survey found that the majority of the public in Northern Ireland hold positive attitudes towards gay, lesbian and bisexual people, with 86% reporting they would not mind having a gay, lesbian or bisexual person as a work colleague, as a neighbour (86%), or if a close relative or friend were in a relationship with a gay, lesbian or bisexual person (71%).

However, although most people in Northern Ireland hold positive views towards this group, there is a significant minority who do hold negative views.

Views on having a gay, lesbian or bisexual person as a work colleague were found to be significantly associated with respondent age, sex, educational attainment level, disability, community background and political affiliation

Respondents under the age of 65 years (16-29 years, 58%: 30-44 years, 58%: 45-64 years, 55%), were more likely to perceive lesbian, gay and bisexual people to be treated unfairly compared with those aged 65+ years (43%). Respondents without a long-term illness or disability (56%) compared to respondents with a long-term illness or disability (47%) were more likely to perceive lesbian, gay and bisexual people as being treated unfairly. Further, respondents who defined their sexual orientation as gay, lesbian or bisexual (76%) were also more likely to hold this view compared with heterosexuals (53%).

The perception that lesbian, gay and bisexual people are treated unfairly was also found to be associated with respondent educational status. Those with a lower level of educational attainment (43%) or no qualifications (54%) were more likely to hold this view compared with those with a higher level of attainment (39%). In regards to community background and political affiliation, Roman Catholics (61%) and Nationalists (62%) were more likely to report this view, compared with Protestants (49%) and Unionists (47%).

Respondents living in Belfast (71%) were more likely to view gay, lesbian and bisexual people as treated unfairly compared with those living in other areas

Bob Collins, Chief Commissioner of the Equality Commission said: “This survey demonstrates that people’s perception of equality in Northern Ireland has become much more complex and varied.

“In measuring the response of people to different equality issues, this survey will help the Equality Commission, and others working in this field, to plan and focus our work to address the new tensions now surfacing in our society.

“It is noticeable, for example, that while the majority of people surveyed expressed no prejudice towards any of the equality groups, the level of negative responses towards Travellers and lesbian, gay or bisexual people, while still a minority, were significantly higher. 40% of people said they would mind having a Traveller as neighbour, for example and 29% said they would mind if a relative or friend had a relationship with a gay, lesbian or bisexual person. Comparative figures for similar connections to other equality groups were small, well below 10% in most cases.”