How Many People Are Queer? Probably More Than Two Percent

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.

The NHIS Quality Assessment report states,

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

Laura Mandanas is a Filipina American living in Boston. By day, she works as an industrial engineer. By night, she is beautiful and terrible as the morn, treacherous as the seas, stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love her and despair. Follow her: @LauraMWrites.

Laura has written 211 articles for us.

37 Comments

  1. It all has to do with how questions are asked. In a place where the is so much stigma around same-gender attraction and so much compulsory heterosexuality many people are going to be unwilling to claim that they are gay, or queer. They may also not identify with those terms, or have come to the realization that their attractions might mean they are something other than straight.

    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/what-percent-of-the-population-is-gay-more-than-you-think-5012467/

  2. This AS article from 2011 is relevant:

    “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.”

      • Yep! I wish these surveys allowed for open ended answers to multiple spectra, like: Identity, Expression, Behavior. Sometimes behavior doesn’t define the person’s identity and sometimes identity doesn’t dictate behavior. Surveys, such as this one, only look at strict silos of sexual identity, not spectral sexual behavior or identity expression, and then people inaccurately interpret the numbers.

        They’re not alone though… methodology is all over the place with sexual orientation studies – the most famous of which: twin studies. I’m friends with two women who are twins. They have participated in a huge number of twin studies. Most recently, they participated in one about sexual orientation of female identical twins – one of them identifies as gay and has a girlfriend, the other identifies as straight and has a girlfriend. The straight twin has dated women in the past and speaks openly about her attraction to women, but maintains a straight identity and there was no option on the survey for fluid sexuality. Therefore, these two friends of mine were coded as “One Homosexual Twin, One Heterosexual Twin,” a cohort that is often cited as evidence against the existence of a genetic predisposition for same-sex sexual orientation.

        • A person’s life need not be a political statement, but it seems that she is doing a great disservice to the LGBT community by not identifying as queer/bi. If the study asked about past vs present behavior then she could be presently straight, but nonetheless this seems like an instance of bi erasure that leads to people misunderstanding sexual orientations other than straight.

  3. The entire methodology section is just a mash-up of flawed heteronormative interpretations of sexual orientation and identity. The option to identify as straight is worded as: “Straight, that is, not gay”. In other words – “Straight, No Homo!”

    I’m curious (and about to google each of the authors) if there were any LGBTQ people consulted in the design or interpretation of this study at all. Clearly there’s a ton of hetero-bias if “Something Else” and “I Don’t Know” as responses to sexual orientation questions are not coded as queer or questioning.

    I mean, really, how would a “Something Else” response be read as anything BUT queer? Hmmm “Something Else… I’m actually a pigeon.”

  4. There are a number of people I know who identify as straight but, after I came out to them, felt comfortable enough to tell me about their bisexuality/non straightness. It actually surprised me a lot and makes me think its hard for these surveys to really get accurate numbers.

  5. The available options to me are a major issue. If you are not definitively gay, lesbian, or bisexual, then, should you chose to answer you could pick “something else,” at which point they asked follow up questions. Though I would really like to know what those follow up questions are, they didn’t include any of this follow-up data in this study and chose to eliminate it for future work. What really gets me is that in their final data tables, if you look at their percentages, they’ve dropped the data for those who identify as “something else” or refused to answer the question and ADDED THAT NUMBER to the “straight” category, inflating the already likely inaccurate “96.6% are straight” result to 97.7. As if they thought “Oh they said something else, what else COULD there be, they must be straight!”

    Though there are a lot of heteronormative flaws, I get that they’re trying to bring awareness to LGBT health disparity (and for the first time for the NHIS), which is good ! But they can’t effectively do so if the representation of the reality is so skewed. Even with the smaller population numbers and higher standard errors for LGBT groups, there’s definitely some things that stand out, like almost double of the average LGBT associated groups experienced serious psychological distress in the past 30 days compared to the straight population surveyed. I’d really like to see this done better with a better sense of what the entire population under the LGBTQ umbrella is, especially considering that comfort with being “out” to health care providers is one of the issues with LGBT health disparity.

    • I agree. I’m also interested to see how these numbers look once the 2014 data comes out. For example, one in four bisexual women reported that they were uninsured in this survey. Curious to see how the ACA impacts that.

    • The follow up questions are described in the NHIS Quality Assessment Report- the link above the block quote. The reason some of the folks (note that it wasn’t all of them)were bumped from “something else” to “straight” was that upon further questioning, they identified as straight.

    • Actually, 35,000 is a lot of people to take a survey! But it’s really all about the methodology and representativeness of your sample. You could actually have a survey with far fewer respondents but as long as your method and sampling were on point it could be even more accurate than a survey with larger numbers but not as careful sampling.

      That’s the beauty of statistics!

  6. It’s funny, because my ginormous crush friend and I were discussing this the other day. We were expressing our skepticism at most of the statistics gathered about how many queer people actually exist, and ways that surveyors could gather better quantitative data. And then we got off topic talking about how we were going to follow the gay agenda and convert everyone to quietness. (Because the gay agenda is such a legitimate thing, you know?)

  7. I understand that for the masses to understand the queer community they have to mash it into a nice little acronym, but I wish everyone would put a little less stock into the letters it contains and realize that there are more than four ways to be queer.

  8. it’s not that hard:

    1. are you straight?
    (ie: are you attracted exclusively to members if the opposite sex? always.)

    yes no

    survey complete. we get everyone who answers no.

  9. Agree. Queer fluidity is where it’s at right now, hopefully leaving bickering about definitions in the rear-view mirror. All cheers to the political gains but I do not intend to climb onto anyone else’s categorical bus just to get the right to a state-approved marriage license. We built this city from the street, not the ballot box.

  10. “More concerning are the 45 respondents who indicated that they did not understand the words used with the initial sexual orientation question.”

    This happened a fair amount with the diversity survey distributed to students recently at the college where I work. In the “comments” section a number of people complained that they wanted explanations for the terms used in the sexuality question (and they were pretty basic terms, not even getting into things like pansexuality, fluidity etc.). I was baffled.

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