How Many Gay People Are There In America? Nope — You’re Wrong

The New Civil Rights Movement
By David Badash
June 1, 2012

“We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re not going to take it anymore!”
“We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it”
“Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Homophobia’s got to go!”
“Silence=Death”
“Gay by birth, fabulous by choice”

The slogans go on and on — as does the radical right’s perception of how many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people there are in America. How many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people are there in America?

In April of last year, The New Civil Rights Movement was one of the first to report on a new study by the Williams Institute that found an estimated nine million Americans identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. That translates into almost 4% of the American adult population.

Huh? Yes, it’s true, and it’s far less than most people think. Yesterday, writing in The Atlantic, Garance Franke-Ruta reported:

In surveys conducted in 2002 and 2011, pollsters at Gallup found that members of the American public massively overestimated how many people are gay or lesbian. In 2002, a quarter of those surveyed guessed upwards of a quarter of Americans were gay or lesbian (or “homosexual,” the third option given). By 2011, that misperception had only grown, with more than a third of those surveyed now guessing that more than 25 percent of Americans are gay or lesbian. Women and young adults were most likely to provide high estimates, approximating that 30 percent of the population is gay. Only 4 percent of all those surveyed in 2011 and about 8 percent of those surveyed in 2002 correctly guessed that fewer than 5 percent of Americans identify as gay or lesbian.

She adds:
Contemporary research in a less homophobic environment has counterintuitively resulted in lower estimates rather than higher ones. The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, a gay and lesbian think tank, released a study in April 2011 estimating based on its research that just 1.7 percent of Americans between 18 and 44 identify as gay or lesbian, while another 1.8 percent — predominantly women — identify as bisexual. Far from underestimating the ranks of gay people because of homophobia, these figures included a substantial number of people who remained deeply closeted, such as a quarter of the bisexuals. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey of women between 22 and 44 that questioned more than 13,500 respondents between 2006 and 2008 found very similar numbers: Only 1 percent of the women identified themselves as gay, while 4 percent identified as bisexual.

Overall, there have been fewer than 75,000 state-sanctioned same-sex marriages in the United States since they began to be permitted less than a decade ago, according to an estimate by Marriage Equality USA. Over the eight years since Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in May 2004 18,462 same-sex couples married in the Bay State. Another 18,000 were estimated to have wed in California during the few months before Proposition 8 passed in 2008, banning future ones; those marriages remain on the books, as the proposition was not retroactive. It’s not totally clear how many same-sex marriages have taken place in New York, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and the District of Columbia, the other jurisdictions where it is permitted.

In our report here last year, we noted “that 11% of the population, more than 25 million Americans, acknowledge some same-gender sexual attraction.” The study shows that an estimated .3% of Americans are transgender. Additionally, the Williams study shows 3.5% of American adults are gay, lesbian, or bisexual, including 1.8% of American adults who are bisexual.

Regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, 19 million American adults have had same-gender sex.

Since many believe, indeed, were shocked that the Williams Institute numbers were far smaller than what is commonly thought of as 10% of the population being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, I asked Gary Gates, the author of the Williams Institute study that very question via email last year. From our report:

Gates says the 10% figure “is from a passage in a 1948 Kinsey book that reads, “”Ten percent of males are more or less exclusively homosexual for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55″…even if he had used population-based data (which he did not), that is hardly a statement suggesting that 10% of the population identifies as LGBT.  The truth about 10% was that it was a brilliant political strategy as a figure that was large enough to “matter” but hopefully not so large as to threaten the general population.  The fact that the number remains so popular is a testament to that brilliance.  Kinsey was a notable scholar and scientist, but he never made a population-based estimate of the size of the LGBT community.”

I wondered if dramatically reducing the public’s perception of the size of the LGBT community helps us, or is self-defeating. Gates, a Williams Distinguished Scholar, responded,

“I guess I hold to a belief that, in the end, good science will be helpful to the community.  The stereotype of the community as rich, white, male, and urban is nearly as pervasive as the 10% figure.  The emergence of quality demographic data that includes questions about sexual orientation and gender identity has allowed us to highlight the diversity of the community in ways that we’ve just not been able to do in the past.  Getting sound information about the LGBT community is dependent on the willingness of surveys to ask sexual orientation and gender identity questions (and perhaps show that only about 4% of the population identifies as LGBT).   On the whole, I see that as a net positive and absolutely worth the risk.”

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