There’s a scene at the end of the 1997 comedy In & Out in which students, parents, neighbors, friends, firefighters, the postal worker, men and women, young and old, stand up with great fanfare and announce they must be gay because of their relationship with gay teacher Howard Bracken. Anyone just walking into that packed auditorium and seeing about half the audience gleefully self-identifying might think the small town had a huge gay population.
In fact, there were just two actual gay people in the room—Bracken and his newly out TV reporter boyfriend. And that’s what made the scene so touching—the straights wanted the lone gays to feel their support in numbers.
Something like that scene is being played out in America today, as more and more polls show support for LGBT equality. But there is very little indication that the cultural shift is a result of concerns about or acknowledgement of the size of the LGBT population. Nonetheless, when a new study estimating the LGBT population by nationally renowned Williams Institute LGBT scholar and demographer Gary Gates was released on April 7 as the Williams Institute marked its 10th anniversary, some bloggers were intensely skeptical. Gates found that 9 million adult LGBTs live in America, about 3.8 percent, roughly the size of the population of New Jersey. And while 9 million might be an impressive number, critics balked, referring to the unknowable number of gays in the closet and to the oft-cited 10 percent estimate of homosexuality suggested by sexologist Alfred Kinsey in his famous 1948 study of sexual behavior.
Indeed, the belief that one in 10 individuals is gay has been part of LGBT lore since Kinsey’s study. Also on April 7, the White Crane Press celebrated what would have been Harry Hay’s 99th birthday. The White Crane Press noted in an email that Hay, founder of the Mattachine Society and co-founder of the Radical Faeries, composed the first manifesto of the American gay rights movement in 1948, writing, “We, the Androgynes of the world, have formed this responsible corporate body to demonstrate by our efforts that our physiological and psychological handicaps need be no deterrent in integrating 10 percent of the world’s population towards the constructive social progress of mankind.”
Not much later, Hay chucked the apologetic tone and argued that gays (which he identified as “homophiles”) were in fact a distinct “cultural minority” and should reject assimilation into the dominant heterosexual society.
These same issues have shown up in Gates’ work, with important ramifications for how policymakers with information now based on research and not just instinct or anecdotes should proceed. For his LGBT population study (which can be found at the Williams Institute website), Gates drew on four recent national and two state-level population-based surveys, coming to the conclusion that there are more than 8 million LGB adults and nearly 700,000 transgender individuals in the United States. Some key findings are that among those who identify as LGB, bisexuals comprise a slight majority (1.8 percent compared to 1.7 percent who identify as lesbian or gay) and women are substantially more likely than men to identify as bisexual. Additionally, an estimated 19 million Americans (8.2 percent) report they have engaged in same-sex sexual behavior, and nearly 25.6 million Americans (11 percent) acknowledge at least some same-sex sexual attraction.
During his presentation, Gates spoke about his methodology. “My idea was to look at as many population-based surveys as I could find in a fairly recent time window. I borrowed from RealClear Politics or Nate Silver this kind of poll of polls approach. None of these surveys are perfect—they’re all entirely credible methodologically but they’re not perfect,” Gates said. “So perhaps one way to smooth out potential bias too low or too high is to smooth out the results with an averaging. So that is the attempt here.”
Gates also disputed the common perception that minorities are less likely to self-identify as L, G or B. “I don’t find that in a lot of these surveys. There’s a difference in ‘B’ versus ‘LG’ by minorities. Racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to be bisexual than whites are,” Gates said. “I constantly get this thing that you can’t measure because there’s the closet and people won’t answer the question. Except that—if you combine L, G and B—13 percent who use the word L, G or B to describe themselves in the survey said that they had never told another human being that they were L, G or B. And yet they told the survey. So we should not assume that everybody who checks L, G or B on a survey is out to anybody. That’s not to deny that there are people who won’t tell a survey. But the big difference is only 4 percent of lesbian and gay people said they had never told anybody, compared to 25 percent of bisexuals.”
But Gates elicited gasps when he talked about the stereotype of the LGBT community versus the reality. Gates estimates there are now an estimated 1.16 million individuals who are part of a same-sex couple—so 581,000 same-sex couples. But where they live gives a very clear picture of how difficult it is to consider LGBTs a “minority.”
“When we lump L, G, B and potentially T as a demographic,” Gates said, pointing to maps derived from the 2000 Census, “there’s a danger there because 60 or 70 percent of that group is white. And so when we think about it as a demographic, we have to be really careful. What we’re capturing here is the geographic patterns of white people in same-sex couples.”
It’s a completely different map when the focus is on LGB African-Americans. They live in the same areas where there is a high concentration of straight African-Americans. And, Gates said, this is true locally as well as nationally.
“So if you’re trying to survey the LGBT community in Los Angeles and you set up a booth in West Hollywood, you’re going to get rich, white, gay people. And if you want to find the whole LGBT community, you have to go into these communities of color,” Gates said. “That’s where LGBT people of color live. They largely do not live in gay ghettos. And, quite frankly, if you did this for male and female, you’d see a different map, too, particularly on city levels. Women don’t live in gay enclaves. They live around them,” Gates said, to some laughter.
“It’s a caution to people doing policy work or doing programatic work to just constantly keep in mind that what’s dubbed as 'gay' is often white, male and rich, and that’s one of the reasons why that stereotype remains, and we need to be much more cognizant of that.”
In an interview with Frontiers about the political push to be considered a minority, Gates elaborated: “That’s precisely the challenge. As a group—LGBT—we view it as a minority, but we are different from other minorities in that we come from every other cultural and socio-economic and whatever background, and I think one of the dangers of us just unreflectively grouping us together is not thinking about that diversity and the fact that that diversity changes for some people the meaning of that LGBT identity, and the impact of choosing that identity can be very different, and I think we always need to be conscious of that.”
As to the criticism of LGBTs self-identifying at only 3.9 percent, Gates and others suggested that percentages don’t really matter anymore in terms of clout or fighting discrimination—offering the equally low percent of the Jewish population.
“I think some people in the community have an emotional attachment to the 1-in-10 figure, even though it hasn’t been considered scientifically valid for years and years. It’s hard for me to believe that people didn’t realize that sooner, frankly. But I think the emotional attachment comes from the function it served as a marker of visibility, regardless of whether it was true or not. And now we know, frankly, it’s not true. And we are politically strong enough so that it doesn’t matter,” The Williams Institute’s Nan Hunter told Frontiers. “We don’t treat religious minorities, for instance, as being legitimate or not legitimate depending on whether they’ve reached some minimum percentage level in the population. ... Society is rapidly moving and, by some measures, has perhaps already moved to pretty strong support for the principle that treating people differently because of their sexual orientation is wrong.”