Are others watching? Everyday surveillance experiences of sexual and gender minorities

Political Psychology
7 min readJul 11, 2021


By Vera Maren Straßburger (University of Dundee), Caoimhe Ryan (Glasgow Caledonian University) and Stephen Reicher (University of St Andrews)

Historically, sexual and gender minorities have faced surveillance practices which, it has been argued, were used to oppress the group in hetero- and cis-normative societies (Conrad, 2009). For instance, individuals with HIV and AIDS were observed and same-sex sexual behaviours were regulated through policing, justifying such practices under the guise of public health and morality of society. Today, the position of sexual and gender minorities within UK society has changed. Their legal recognition has improved. Transgender individuals have now gained the right to change their gender on their birth certificate, as the Gender Recognition Act was implemented in 2004 (Lawrence & Taylor, 2020). Additionally, in 2019 same-sex marriage was made legal in Northern Ireland and thus in the whole of the UK (BBC, 2019). At the same time, however, reported numbers of hate crimes against sexual and gender minorities have increased greatly in recent years (Home Office, 2019). Considering this all together, we wondered how everyday surveillance is experienced nowadays by sexual and gender minorities in terms of their sense of belonging, identity misrecognition, and emotions.

The social psychological literature shows that identity is bound up with surveillance. Levine (2000) argued that the behaviour of individuals under surveillance is shaped by their own salient identity and the identity of the surveillant. At the same time, the experience of surveillance can shape one’s identity in terms feeling misrecognised and seen as ‘other’. One’s identity is misrecognised when individuals have the sense that others do not see them as they self-define themselves in a particular moment (Reicher, 2019). This pattern was identified during airport security processes, in which Scottish Muslims felt targeted by surveillance procedures, that this implied that they were both dangerous and ‘alien’ and, as a result, felt alienated from Scottish society (Blackwood et al., 2013a, 2013b, 2015). But would that also be the case in sexual and gender minorities when they experience everyday surveillance?

To investigate, I conducted 10 exploratory interviews and subsequently a preregistered online experiment examining the effects of the gaze of authorities on members of the LGBTQ+ community. This was for my German “Diplomarbeit” (equivalent to a Master’s thesis). I conducted the interviews in person and via Skype in June and July 2019, with ten LGBTQ+ participants living in the UK.

Within the interviews, there were different experiences of CCTV (Closed Circuit Television) surveillance, and also of being watched by other people, depending on participants’ visibility as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. On the one hand, CCTV was seen as a safety measure to identify possible perpetrators of hate crimes. In that vein, a female bisexual interviewee (#6, age range 18–24) explained: “it [CCTV] could make me feel safer (…) if somebody were to, I don’t know, shout at us [talks about being visible with potential same-sex partner] or something (…) it would be a proof of that”. This underlines, how CCTV was viewed as positive for the LGBTQ+ community.

On the other hand, participants who did not disclose their sexual identity to their family or relevant others saw CCTV as a potential threat for their identity. They worried, that the CCTV camera footage could define their sexual identity in a way that they do not want to be defined as in this particular moment by relevant others. In reaction to this, participants recalled behavioural regulation strategies to pass as heterosexual. One interviewee acknowledged this, when talking about holding hands with her female partner: “I probably say, not as much [holding hands with her female partner] as when we know there aren’t cameras, I hold her hand a lot more walking down the street (…) cause neither of us are out to our families (…) so it’s almost too risky to do because even though it is so unrealistic, that that footage [CCTV] would go anywhere, it’s like concrete proof that (…) we are together and that’s just a bit scary.” (#2, female, bisexual, age range 18–24).

Participants also talked about how they experienced the gaze of other members of the public when they are identifiable as LGBTQ+. Such gaze was experienced positively, as part of expressing and performing one’s sexual identity to gain space and visibility in society for the LGBTQ+ community. On the flipside however, being watched by others was sometimes experienced negatively — being seen to imply disapproval and exclusion. One interviewee recounted how she was requested to stop same-gender dancing in a club by a bouncer:

I think it was more to do with the fact that we were gay (…) cause a lot of people have gotten in like in that club (…) that was an experience where it was literally like what you were doing is wrong (…) or we don’t accept that, and so, and we got and again it was like a bouncer, who had seen it and had confronted us about it so (…) I don’t want that to happen again

(#2, female, bisexual, age range 18–24). This story shows how powerful the behaviour of authorities (e.g., bouncers) can be in commanding who belongs and who does not (Blackwood et al., 2013b).

Based on the results, we then designed and conducted an online experiment (vignette study), with LGBTQ+ participants to examine the effects of being stared at by authorities (specifically, police officers) when their sexual and gender minority identity was visible (N=254). A one-way between-subjects-design with two groups was used to investigate the gaze of authorities. Participants were asked to imagine and write a story about being out and about on a Friday night with two friends, visible as members of the LGBTQ+ community. They passed by a group of police officers who were dealing with a minor car accident. In one condition the officers take no note of them, in the other, participants are told: “As you pass by, the police officers stop what they are doing and stare at you and your friends”. We found that the staring gaze of authorities increased participants’ estrangement from society and did not affect misrecognition and well-being directly. Further, in exploratory analysis, we identified a process that indicates that the staring gaze indirectly reduced participants’ well-being via increasing distrust in authorities and then increasing LGBTQ+ misrecognition.

Overall, what we find is a fragmented picture of surveillance — CCTV can be seen as protective and gaze can be affirmatory, render sexual and gender minorities visible in society. However, at the same time, especially where gaze comes from authorities and especially where the gaze is seen as critical, it can be upsetting and alienating, affecting the way LGBTQ+ individuals understand their position in society. Thus, in hetero- and cis-normative societies, there is a need to raise awareness that everyday behaviours such as staring at sexual and gender minorities who render their identities visible can increase their feelings of alienation and are indirectly associated with higher perceptions of identity misrecognition and reduced well-being.

About the Authors

Vera Maren Straßburger has recently finished her Diplom Psychology studies (equivalent to a Master’s degree) at Kiel University. She works as a research assistant at University of Dundee and is interested in pursuing a PhD in social psychology. She tweets as @Vera_Strassbu .

Dr Caoimhe Ryan is a lecturer at the School of Health and Life Sciences at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Prof Dr Stephen David Reicher is Bishop Wardlaw Professor at the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at University of St Andrews.

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