In a federal report released on Tuesday, the 2013 National Health Interview Survey found that just 2% of Americans over the age of 18 identify as gay or lesbian — or at least, that’s the factoid making splashy headlines. In fact, gathering accurate statistics on the overall number of LGBT people is a longstanding issue, and a follow up report by the same agency reveals that their 2% weighted estimate on LGB people (out of the almost 35,000 people originally surveyed) is almost certainly too low. Transgender identity isn’t formally addressed at all.
A small number of sexual minorities (n=5) who identify as something other than gay/lesbian or bisexual were identified, and a number of responses were reflective of a sexual identity in flux (e.g., “not figured out or in the process of figuring out your sexuality”). More concerning are the 45 respondents who indicated that they did not understand the words used with the initial sexual orientation question. While this number appears small, so was the total number of adults identifying as bisexual (n=233). If those respondents who struggled with the terminology would ultimately identify as a sexual minority, the estimates for gay/lesbian and bisexual could be impacted substantially.
Given the very low percentage of adults identifying as gay/lesbian and bisexual, if nonresponse to the question is related to respondents’ sexual orientation (a case of nonignorable nonresponse; Little and Rubin, 1987), the potential for bias in estimates of sexual minorities is considerable.
In plain English: not everyone responded to the questions about sexual orientation, and there’s a good chance that many of them they didn’t answer specifically because they’re queer. In spite of recent political gains, there are still plenty of reasons why queer people might choose not to come out, either in a survey or in their day to day lives. As Andrew Markle at Bilerico aptly observed, “Data is data, but people are people and that is the unpredictable variable in this entire equation.”
Unfortunately, underestimation of the LGBT population often has political ramifications. In today’s society, respect is rarely received on the basis of shared humanity alone; in order for people to “count,” they need to be quantified as voters, consumers and supporters. As Carolyn has written, many feel that the fewer gay people there are, the less important gay issues become.
Considering how difficult it is to make people give a fuck, we might be better served to focus on getting better data.
Feature image via Corporate Ink