Americans Have No Idea How Few Gay People There Are

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Surveys show a shockingly high fraction think a quarter of the country is gay or lesbian, when the reality is that it's probably less than 2 percent.

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One in ten. It's the name of the group that puts on the Reel Affirmations gay and lesbian film festival in Washington, D.C., each year. It's the percent popularized by the Kinsey Report as the size of the gay male population. And it's among the most common figures pointed to in popular culture as an estimate of how many people are gay or lesbian.

But what percentage of the population is actually gay or lesbian? With the debate over same-sex marriage again an emerging fault line in American political life, the answer comes as a surprise: A lower number than you might think -- and a much, much, much lower one than most Americans believe.

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. Overall, "U.S. adults, on average, estimate that 25 percent of Americans are gay or lesbian," Gallup found. 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.

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Such a misunderstanding of the basic demographics of sexual behavior and identity in America has potentially profound implications for the acceptance of the gay-rights agenda. On the one hand, people who overestimate the percent of gay Americans by a factor of 12 seem likely to also wildly overestimate the cultural impact of same-sex marriage. On the other hand, the extraordinary confusion over the percentage of gay people may reflect a triumph of the gay and lesbian movement's decades-long fight against invisibility and the closet.

"My first reaction to that, aside from a little chuckle, is that it's actually a sign of the success of the movement for LGBT rights," said Stuart Gaffney, a spokesman for the group Marriage Equality USA. "We are a small minority, and we will never have full equality without the support of the majority, and a poll like that suggests the majority is extremely aware of their gay neighbors, coworkers, and friends."

In recent years, as homosexuality has become less stigmatized, pro-gay rights groups have come around to acknowledging that a smaller percent of people identify themselves as gay than some of the early gay rights rhetoric claimed, based on Alfred Kinsey's 1948 report, "Sexuality in the Human Male." His survey research on non-random populations in the immediate post-World War II period concluded that 10 percent of men "were predominantly homosexual between the ages of 16 and 55" and that 37 percent had had at least one homosexual experience in their lives, but did not get into questions of identity per se.

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.

Higher numbers can be obtained when asking about lifetime sexual experiences, rather than identity. The Williams Institute found that, overall, an estimated 8.2 percent of the population had engaged in some form same-sex sexual activity. Put another way, 4.7 percent of the population had wandered across the line without coming to think of themselves as either gay or bisexual. Other studies suggest those individuals are, like the bisexuals, mainly women: The same CDC study that found only 1 percent of women identify as lesbian, for example, found that 13 percent of women reported a history of some form of sexual contact with other women.

"Estimates of those who report any lifetime same-sex sexual behavior and any same-sex sexual attraction are substantially higher than estimates of those who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual," the Williams Institute's Gary J. Gates concluded.

These numbers are significant because identity -- and not behavior -- is the central determinant of whether or not someone will seek a same-sex marriage. A straight woman who makes out a couple of times with a female friend in college is not going to seek a same-sex marriage, nor is a guy who fooled around once with a male friend while drunk in high school. Neither individual is demographically relevant to the question of how often same-sex marriages will occur. And it's not clear at all what fraction of bisexuals will seek out same-sex marriages.

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.

Of course, gays aren't the only minority population that has an outsized place in the public imagination. Americans also "vastly overestimate the percentage of fellow residents who are foreign-born, by more than a factor of two, and the percentage who are in the country illegally, by a factor of six or seven," according to a 2012 Wall Street Journal report on the social science of estimating minority groups. In 1993, a group of political scientists reported in Public Opinion Quarterly that "The extent to which minority populations are perceived as a kind of threat is ... related to perceived proportions, though the direction of causality cannot be determined." Correcting the misimpressions about the size of a minority group hasn't been proved to have much impact on beliefs about them in the short-term, but that doesn't mean that they might never.

One thing's for sure: it's hard to imagine the fact that so many think the country is more than a quarter gay or lesbian has no impact on our public policy.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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