Updated: January 14, 2014 1:03PM
Assumptions are tricky. They trip you.
How things seem and how they really are can be two different matters.
Ask an American what percentage of their fellow citizens are gay, and they often wildly exaggerate, guessing as much as 25 to 30 percent. The actual number — hard, maybe impossible, to pin down — is from 2 to 5 percent.
Why? That’s easy: Gays are much in the news, much on people’s minds; it’s the same for Jews or illegal immigrants. We think there are a lot more than there really are.
Demography is always a hot issue, because numbers drive politics and, in turn, are driven by politics. Groups like to exaggerate their own numbers, trying to boost their significance. For years, gay advocates seized on a 10 percent figure from the 1948 Kinsey report even though it only dealt with men and seemed to include every man who ever thought Clark Gable was handsome.
With society galloping toward recognizing gays (the preferred term is LGBT, “lesbian gay bisexual transgender,” but LGBT doesn’t strike me as an acronym Joe Sixpack is going to know), now might seem a time when we can finally get a fix on how much of the population is gay. But it’s a complex question.
“I’m a demographer,” said Gary J. Gates, of the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute, which tracks the nation’s gay population, or tries to. “I’m talking to people who self-identify. I’m measuring visibility.”
In other words, people who admit to a pollster that they’re gay. Even that is tricky.
“In Gallup polls, among people under the age 30, more than 6 percent of adults tell pollsters they’re gay,” Gates said. Above 30, the number abruptly drops in half.
“Is that really because young people are gayer?” Gates said. “I think a large piece of that is younger people are growing up in an environment where this is acceptable, so they’re willing to identify themselves as gay.”
As attitudes change, once-invisible communities rise from the mist. The census doesn’t ask about sexuality but does ID same-sex couples. Gates found that between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, “conservative states show the biggest amount of change.” Which either means that toleration causes gays to flock to red states — doubtful — or that when it’s safe to come out, gays do.
We were talking in the wake of an intriguing article in The New York Times on Sunday by economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, “How Many American Men are Gay?”
He used social media stats — Facebook status choices, Web searches for gay porn — to determine “at least 5 percent of American men ... are predominantly attracted to men.”
That 5 percent — or 3, or 7 — is distributed around the country. The most interesting point of the Times piece is that, while we might think a place like Chicago, with its Boystown, has a much higher proportion of gay residents than, say, Phoenix, actually what they are is more visible, since gay people, like straight people, tend to stay put.
“There’s no evidence gay or lesbian people are substantially more mobile than any other group in the population,” Gates said. “You don’t get dramatic differences.”
The Williams Institute statistic for gay men is astonishingly low: 1.8 percent, which doubles if you include lesbians and bisexual men, though that throws the issue back into politics, since some insist that bisexuals are merely men who haven’t accepted their gayness yet, while others see them as a distinct category, and experts consider sexuality more a spectrum, or continuum, than a grid of neat cubbyholes people can be tossed into.
The whole exercise of counting gays could be seen as an echo of their repression, and just as scientists don’t stay up nights categorizing straights by whether they prefer blondes or brunettes, so the acceptance of homosexuals into ordinary mainstream American life will nudge keeping track of them into less controversial scorekeeping, like how pollsters keep track of Lutherans.
The numbers also show the stigma of being gay, while abating, is still strong. A recent Pew Research poll said that half of LGBT people with a living father aren’t out to him.
“That’s still an awful lot of people,” said Gates, who told me a story more evocative than a ream of numbers. He was at a wedding recently in Washington state — he lives in Seattle. The happy couple, two men “had lived their entire lives together.” The vows exchanged, it came time to kiss. But they couldn’t kiss, not in front of all those people.
“They were very nervous,” Gates said. “They had lived their entire lives together, cautiously.” The attendees urged them that “this is OK, it’s what you do at weddings.”
“An awful lot of gay people are like that,” Gates said. “Even when you can get married, it doesn’t undo everything you’ve been told.”