How Many Gay People Are Out There in the Big Wide World?

Nine million people in the U.S. identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans, according to a UCLA study released Thursday. This translates to 3.5% of the population as lesbian, gay, or bi and 0.3% as trans. An additional 8.2% have participated in same-sex sexual activity, and 11% acknowledge some same-sex attraction but do not identify as anything.

The stat that has been widely cited, especially because it’s used in this Associated Press article, is 1.7% — the percentage of the total population that identifies as either lesbian or gay, before including the 1.8% who identify as bi.

Right-wing anti-gay organizations are, predictably, very excited about that number, since it is lower than the commonly referenced 10% first cited by Kinsey. Bryan Fischer, from the American Family Association, wrote, “Homosexuals represent just 1.7% of populace. Time to stop getting pushed around by such a tiny minority.”

In an interview with AP, Peter Sprigg, from the Family Research Council, argued that the percentages, especially for bisexuality, are “somewhat of a problem for the gay political movement. It undermines the idea that being born homosexual is an immutable characteristic that can’t be changed.”

Sprigg is, of course, wrong, since bisexual is not a new way of spelling straight. And Fischer’s comment is interesting, since a lot of the American Family Association’s activities are dedicated to the idea that the “homosexual agenda” is taking over and “silencing” “believers.” But the general feeling from comments like these is that the fewer gay people there are, the less important gay issues become. Which isn’t true.

In an email interview with David Badash of the New Civil Rights Movement, study author Gary Gates said:

“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.”

Gates looked at data from nine surveys within the past seven years and averaged the results (five were used to estimate sexual orientation, another two were used to estimate the trans population). One benefit of this method is that it gets around some of the problems in discussions of the gay population by embracing several different methods. However, there are so many potential problems/discrepancies that it would be nearly impossible to account for all of them. Such as:

+ Are people identified by their self-identity, by past sexual behaviour, by sexual attraction, or by some combination of these things? (Sometimes these things are related and sometimes they aren’t and making generalizations is counter-productive. Labeling someone else causes everyone problems.)

+ How is the transgender population defined? How are differences in gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation addressed? (Again: labeling someone else causes everyone problems). As the authors of the UCLA study point out, looking at some/all of these things can give a vague idea of who might fall into a researcher-defined category but still doesn’t give a full picture of individual gender identity and expression.

+ What methodology is the study using? Are responses anonymous or confidential, or face-to-face? How large is the sample size? Which questions are asked over what period of time?

+ Does the study have any obvious biases (e.g., conducted by anyone with an obvious agenda, conducted by anyone with access to a specific subject pool which might skew results, conducted via hilarious poll on the internet)? Does it have any less obvious biases, such as being uncomfortable with bisexuality, ignoring trans and/or queer folk, or asking questions in a way designed to get specific answers? What age range is represented?

+ Who actually conducted the study (scientists/social scientists/people with a similar professional background and (possibly) reputations to ruin should they screw up the results? The U.S. Census? Some chick with a laptop? Some anti-gay chick with a laptop)?

+ Do the reports about the study match up with the information actually in the study? (Here is an excellent illustration of how this happens, by xkcd.) And for that matter, does the headline of the article you’re reading about the study match up with the information in the article/study?

The result of all of these potential variables is that nearly every study that tries to put a number on the gay population seems to come up with something different. The Kinsey Report gives the frequently cited 10% for men, 2-6% for women, but other studies have said 7% for women and 8% for men (2010), or 3.6% for women and 4.1% for men (2005). The data from the Kinsey Report has been reevaluated, with different results, at least four times. And Gates argues that Kinsey never tried to make a population-based estimate anyway, and that the 10% number was primarily a political strategy, which worked, sort of, at the time, but which should be re-evaluated.

So where does this leave us now? Does the new number bother you, or not? Will you use it plus math to figure out whether you should hit on the cute barista with the hair who sometimes gives you free espresso (answer: yes)?

Download the .pdf of the study here.

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Carolyn is the NSFW Editor for Autostraddle.com. She is also a freelance copy editor and writer, and her work has appeared in Bitch, Xtra!, Jezebel, the Billfold, and other places. Find her on twitter.

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42 Comments

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    pfff. its so dependent on where you live and what age range you are. also, for the low ones, if they use phone survey to gather info you are of course going to get low numbers, you probably arent taking the whole family into account, or some parents are in teh denialz and say no anyways. in my classes i do counts and theres always around 10%…some higher, some lower (and im not in womens studies fyi). Maybe its because i live in a super liberal urban area and its university age people and yeah, but thats not to say in 30 years when old people gtfo that the statistic will probably be nearer to the truth.

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      Allie, you’re spot on about the age ranges. All the older, closeted folks are bring our numbers down!

      I actually saw Gates present this research a few months back in my department. If you look at people who are 18-29 the number jumps up to about 7% of self reported/self-identified gays and lesbians. The future is gayer!

      Also, LGBTQ populations are notoriously hard to find and study, especially since most major/huge surveys are not really designed with the LGBTQ community in mind. So people end up with Ns of like 300 based on a potentially sketchily worded question. Not that great and potentially full of error. Buuut we gotta use what we we can get and try to be as upfront about the limitations of the data as possible. That is until someone funds a huge national survey tailored towards the queers. A girl can dream.

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      Exactly. If they were somehow able to go into people’s bodies and see how many humans were actually attracted to the same sex the percentage would be astounding. too bad NOM, Washington, and oppressive patriarchal and monotheistic religions make excellent closets that aren’t going anywhere

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    This is a badly-written comment, but I have a lot of feelings about these surveys. The thing that makes me angry/want to cry about these studies is that they all seem to follow a certain pattern:

    - Survey which may be very sound, but often seems to have certain biases/leave certain parts of the population out (e.g. closeted, bisexuals who identify as straight), or offer insufficient anonymity.

    - Survey is then reported by journalists who choose to broadcast the lowest figure without taking anything else into account.

    - Survey results then used as yet another stick to beat queer people with. Politicians, journalists, anyone who’s uncomfortable with the gay then use it as an excuse to try and disenfranchise us.

    I’m not sure what’s more upsetting, the idea that even if the queer population was actually 1% we deserve less rights or that the constant misreporting and misuse of these results is so easily turned against us.

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    Seriously, i don’t believe any stats related to LGBT pop or sex. Its impossible to get complete honesty. I do some counseling in LGBT community and over half of the people I talk to have not come out and many probably never will. Too much anxiety, fear and family issues.

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    Since the percentage of the population identifying as gay is so small, the right wing should just relax and say, “giving rights and respect to this small number of people can’t hurt anything. Plus it allows us to boast that we are fair to all, while taking no serious risks.” I would be interested in hearing their explanation for the extraordinary contributions of this small percentage to the world of science, math, military, arts, business, and politics.

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    “Bryan Fischer, from the American Family Association, wrote, “Homosexuals represent just 1.7% of populace. Time to stop getting pushed around by such a tiny minority.””

    O.o THAT is your reasoning???

    Eh??? Whether the LGBT community is 1.7% or whether it is 10% we still deserve equal rights. The number of people should not matter. We are human beings all the same.

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    I highly doubt that they got ahold of every out gay,lesbian and bisexual person for the purpose of this study. I know I wasn’t involved in it. Or more importantly, that everyone that was involved in this study answered truthfully. What I mean by that is, What about all those people in the closet? Did they all suddenly come out for the purposes of this survey? No.

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    Here’s something I do not get why do Homosexuals want the percentage To be higher you say you suffer and get discriminated endlessly why would you want More people to be in that that exact Situation . knowing that’ Homosexuality most of the time is a psychological disturbance proof is that most of the kids that get raped by a member of the same sex become gay them self we all win with the percentage low

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    No one will never get an accurate count of the LGBT population. Anyone in the social sciences can tell you that people lie like cheap rugs when surveyed about anything having to do with sex.

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    While I’m seeing some woeful understanding of statistics up in here (Google “statistically significant sample”) I do agree that it’s so very hard to get any real numbers on this because many people are closeted.

    I think the “11% admit same-sex attraction but don’t identify as anything” figure is especially telling.

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    I thought the Kinsey findings were that the majority of people on the planet are some degree of bisexual (note, I did not say ALL people – so don’t jump down my throat!)

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    the whole premise for these surveys is bullshit. it makes absolutely no sense to try and get a population count on “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans” people….not just b/c ppl are closeted and theres no way to account for everyone.

    also because these categories don’t always easily make sense for describing people…its not necesarily obvious whether one IS or IS not “lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans.” there is absolutely no comprehensible way to get a “count” on these things and I think the very attempt relies on and reproduces power hierarchies.

    (also it is very silly to collapse all these categories into each other and to erase the socio-historical contexts through which they emerge and hold any meaning at all)

    not to mention its a disgraceful waste of resources.(and I don’t buy the crap that surveys like this are aimed at getting resources for marginalized people…this is not where liberatory work lies. not even close.

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    The thing that always jumps out at me about these studies is the lower numbers of lgbt-identified women vs. men. I always assume it’s because women aren’t really set up to identify or pursue their sexual needs/identities, among other things.

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    I remember learning in high school about consensus polls and seeing a percentage somewhere that probably said 8% of the population is GLBT. Or it might have been 1.8%. Anyway, I think my subconscious tried to correct it because I didn’t want to live in a world where so few people are GLBT and I read it as 18% and it just stuck so I went on believing that it was commonly held knowledge that nearly 20% of the population is not straight. And it just made sense. So my brain always has problems wrapping around such lower numbers. I know that doesn’t have much to do with this discussion just wanted to share.

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      Am I totally crazy for thinking it’s around 20% too?? I mean, I know tons and tons of gay people and I have gay relatives, and my gay friends have gay relatives, and they have kids, and some of those kids are trans and other ones are gay also and then there’s the politicians and Scientologists–and what about all those lesbians in the Arab world that would never ever in a million years come out lest they be stoned to death…and for that matter, anyone ever heard of the Trevor Project? Case in point: we will NEVER get a survey that accurately reports how many gay people there are in this world because I’d say (and this is probably pretty close) 95% of gays worldwide live in situations in which coming out would be dangerous, isolating, or even deadly. The end.

      the only hope is to do away with all the haters and make it a safe world for gays and see how the numbers change

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    Even if only one person in the entire universe were same sex attracted (and possibly quite lonely) that still wouldn’t be grounds for denying that person rights. It is that simple. When a baby is born with three legs we don’t yell ‘blasphemy!’ and throw it out the window. And we don’t suggest that they are a lesser being. Not that I’m suggesting that being gay is akin to having three legs. Not that there its anything wrong with having three legs. Never mind. The numbers shouldn’t matter.

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    Even 1.8% of a population as large as the US is still a LOT of people – larger than some entire ethnic populations.

    Anyways, as a scientist, I really appreciated the break-down of your questions about the study. This one especially needs to be addressed:

    + Are people identified by their self-identity, by past sexual behaviour, by sexual attraction, or by some combination of these things? (Sometimes these things are related and sometimes they aren’t and making generalizations is counter-productive. Labeling someone else causes everyone problems.)

    Health-wise, I think any sexual encounter with the same sex must be noted for obvious reasons. Otherwise, it becomes a very scary maze of grey area when “attraction without action” is taken into account. That, and I know more girls that fool around/make out with girls for attention. Most of my non-hetero friends are pretty chaste, so that seems counter-intuitive. Are the makey-outty “hetero” girls more lesbian than the self-identified lesbians who are still looking for a girlfriend? Lots of issues with this one. Thank you for addressing it (and all the others)

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    Based on well documented research over the past fifty years, including the use of psycho physiological measurements and pheromone response research, most authorities believe four to ten percent of the general population are homosexual, and there are degrees of heterosexuality and homosexuality. Recent research, funded by the Religious Right, using random demographic sampling, estimated the numbers of male homosexuals at one to two percent of the general population. A reported study by the census bureau is at best fraught with social and reporting level difficulties. Homosexuals and other minorities fear any “Big Brother” attempt to misuse information. Silent coding is well known both in the professional and “common sense” population of the U.S. (i.e., pin holes, special inks, etc.) This lower estimate of the numbers of homosexuals relied on randomized demographic designs (among males ages 20-40) and without taking into consideration any contribution to numbers of homosexuals related to overt social and physical trauma to women as in World War II. Such a sampling method is inadequate to estimate numbers of homosexuals, since unlike fifty years ago, many Gays ghettoize in large cities. Random demographic sampling has proven to be an inaccurate measure of structured populations, since the target group is not randomly distributed. A study using a similarly flawed technique estimated male homosexuals and bisexuals to comprise 3.7% of the general population. In the age of AIDS, being openly homosexual in any context, particularly before an unknown investigator, may produce research results based on personal, political, civil rights, or social agendas unrelated to sexual orientation. Since many homosexuals pass as heterosexuals and there are numerous sexual minorities who identify with the Gay community, this further confuses the difference between homosexuals and Gays. In the most tolerant of times, highly sophisticated and scientifically correct studies may underestimate the true numbers of sexual minorities in the general population. While the acceptance of an individual’s homosexuality appears to increase numbers of homosexuals during adolescence, numbers of homosexuals do not increase or decrease based on political and social activities or decriminalization of sexual acts between same-sexed persons.
    Some have postulated that were homosexuals eliminated, human population would explode, causing widespread famine, pestilence, and suffering. Could Jung be right that homosexuality is a natural means of population control

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      Hi, I am interested in this as well. I do some counseling and it would help to actually have authoritative figures to share. I don’t have a lot of trust in most of the surveys out there.

      Without imposing or creating much work for you, could you cite some references or review articles that you feel are particularly authoritative in the field? Similar to the above comment, interested in statistics for both women and men as well as transgender.

      Thanks!!

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    Alright, NOMies… either we’re a tiny population who shouldn’t even be getting rights, or we’re the HUGE GAY AGENDA THAT IS SCARY! You can’t have it both ways.

    I am also very upset about the idea that a smaller population doesn’t get any rights, by definition of being tiny.

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    My question: Is there any conclusion within academe circles about tendencies of human kind to degenerate the longer more and more in effect to a growing gay population?
    LK

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