About that new federal study saying gays are 3%

So, about this new federal study that claims that gays are around 3% of the population.

Yeah, not so much.

In fact, this study shows what every previous study shows — not how many gay and bisexual people there are in America, but how many people were willing to tell a complete stranger that they’re gay or bisexual. And that’s a huge difference.

Here’s the thing. I get creeped out when I get those occasionally Nielsen-esque phone calls asking me to answer some survey question. I don’t want to tell a telemarketer (which I who I always assume these calls are really from) what my true political feelings are, or who I actually voted for (even though it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who I supported for president last time around). There’s just something unseemly in divulging what I consider personal information to somebody I don’t even know.

Add questions about my sexual orientation to the mix, and you can fuggedaboutit.

gay couple

Gay couple via Shutterstock

So while I find such studies interesting, they’re not terribly dispositive. You simply can’t get people to give an honest answer about their sexual orientation, and certainly not to some stranger who comes knocking on the door.

My problem, though, is less with the attempt to quantifying the gay-gap, than the fact that few articles about such studies ever note the obvious — that these figures are likely gross underestimates. And the Post, true to form, doesn’t mention this at all.

Another problem with such studies — where they were conducted. One might expect to find more gays in a big city than little town. Or at least, more gays who are willing to acknowledge their sexual orientation in a big city, than a little town. So surveys like this run the risk of both over- and under- sampling, depending on where they were conducted.

And let’s not even get started on who claims to be “bisexual” in these surveys. You run, again, the risk of over- and under- counting as bisexuals might fear the same stigma as gays, and thus under-self-report to a stranger. But to the degree that someone is willing to divulge their non-standard sexual orientation to a stranger, you still run the risk of a somewhat trepidatious gay self-reporting as bi, since some people who are just coming out feel more comfortable calling themselves bi than gay.

None of this means that these surveys can’t come up with interesting, illuminating results. But I wish the press would get into the details, and help us understand whether these surveys truly are accounting for all gay people, and all bisexuals, in the population.

Why? Because the religious right LOVES to tell everyone how “few” the gays are (as if it’s okay to oppress someone simply because they’re less than 3% of the population).

Nonetheless it’s

NOTE FROM JOHN: I know I say this a lot, but I’m not kidding, we need your help sharing our content on social media if we’re going to keep AMERICAblog alive. Please share our stories, which brings us visitors, and helps us earn more ad revenue.” Thanks for your help. JOHN

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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  • HenryHolland1

    The Kinsey report was, and is, still criticized for this (as Wikipedia succinctly notes):

    “Criticism principally revolved around the over-representation of some groups in the sample: 25% were, or had been, prison inmates and 5% were male prostitutes”.

    Hmmmm, isn’t that what stats people call a “sample bias”? :-)

    I always remember a story a guy I knew told me in the early 90’s. He was in his 20’s in the 1950’s in a small town in Texas. He was known to be the “town faggot”, which didn’t stop some of the dudes from going to him for blowjobs because their girlfriends wouldn’t put out. He couldn’t kiss them or do foreplay or any of that, just blow them.

    He said that stopped cold as soon as the Pill came out. Were those guys “gay” or “closet cases” or the current stupid usage “self-hating closet cases”? Nah, they just wanted their dick sucked, they weren’t particular about who was doing it.

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  • DGT

    John brought up a problem with self-reported data, especially as it pertains to sensitive information such as sexual orientation. As a researcher with a PhD who regularly works with survey data, I can confirm that this is indeed a problem with survey data, and most researchers will acknowledge this limitation. That’s why it’s not particularly good for descriptive studies, i.e. determining the proportions of elements in a population. If there were thousands more studies, using various methodologies, that all reached the same conclusion, this criticism would be less valid.

    Most of the climate “skeptics” are considered “head in the sand” crazies because their claims are that the data is fabricated, that scientists are part of a global conspiracy, that it is a hoax, that temperatures are not rising, etc. In addition, thermometers are less prone to sampling error than human self-reports, and analyzing and modeling this data is much more complicated than survey data.

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  • Bj Lincoln

    Let them think we are a small minority. It’s all the str8 people who add up to a large part of our support.
    I am not shy about being a lesbian. I am married to a wonderful women and would shout it from the roof tops. But that is just me.
    Some day it won’t be a problem and maybe we can get a more accurate count. Until then, Screw the Right and what they think.

  • Mike_in_the_Tundra

    In answer to your question, everyone is entitled to their opinion. Everyone is also entitled to disagree with those opinions. I can doubt what I want, and you can doubt what you want. There is also a time to fight for your beliefs with the understanding that others will do the same.

    I have a question about one of your past comments. It’s this one: “You’re a tool. I have no idea who NOM is. You’re a fool like those on the right whom you castigate.” Do you live outside of the USA?

  • jomicur

    And let’s not forget that Kinsey found that a whopping 40% of the American male population had had at least one same-sex encounter that resulted in orgasm. Even if that figure is an wild overstatement (which is debatable), it certainly raises a reasonable doubt about figures as low as 3%.

  • Indigo

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  • Mike_in_the_Tundra

    Actually, I meant both. I really can’t think of one person that I know who uses a landline. The people I speak to are using cell phones exclusively.That’s male and female, gay and straight, and young and old. Maybe they’re just smart enough to know that it’s like wearing a belt and suspenders. You don’t need both.

    If someone uses their land just for a connection to the internet, pollsters couldn’t speak to them. That wouldn’t affect the poll, which is what this discussion is about.

  • perljammer

    Do you mean it’s been a very long time since you used a land line to talk to anybody, or since you talked to anybody who used a land line?

    According the the US Census bureau, as of 2011 89% of US households had at least one mobile phone, and 71% of US households have land line phones. Interestingly, A full third of households “led by people ages 15 to 29” (households led by 15 year olds? WTF?) also have a land line. One thing the Census report doesn’t explain is whether or not VOIP users count as land line users, but I would guess not; it probably only counts households with dial tones. Then there are those that have land lines but only use them for a DSL Internet connection; I would guess that those count as land line users.

    Seems that a lot of people (mostly younger) rarely use their mobile phones for making or taking phone calls, anyway.

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  • I’ve been out for 18 years, with my husband for 16 and married to him for 6 years. And I don’t usually want to go through a coming out to a stranger. Whether I answered honestly on a survey would depend a lot on who was asking, how they were asking, and my mood. But if you’d asked me in 1995? No. No way I’d have answered truthfully. A lot of people are chronologically in my 1995.

  • I have become very adept at covering my tracks for over forty years. Why? Get spat upon once and look at the raw hatred in the eyes and then tell me about respecting veterans or other religions , or your elders. Tell me about how my hubby is now burning in hell. Tell me how the dark days are over and that racism has been conquered and there is no war on women’s rights. Then tell me about how your survey is private and will do no harm . Tell me that we are more enlightened than they were in 1920 Berlin.
    I will not take a survey but I will tell them about those eyes.

  • Bill_Perdue

    People who fall for the bundle scam.

  • My guess is that they must take into account some variable for lies. There has to be an algorithm for this kind of thing. I work with a lot of forecasting data models at work and we apply many variables; the problem is how reliable is the info you’re getting the variables from? I would imagine a CDC study would be pretty adept at this, and would factor in the points raised here, but I haven’t what’s exactly in those numbers.

  • You can argue either way about it really, some may have just said yes even though they didn’t mean it because they didn’t want to sound like a bad person.

  • Indigo

    Exactly. And that in turn suggests that the landline polling business today has collapsed into a push-poll for Recidivists.

  • Hue-Man

    I’m supportive of LGBT surveys if they’re going to be used in developing public policy. But VOX takes shaky statistics to the next level with a series of graphs comparing straight, lesbian/gay, bisexual. e.g. “Gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans are more likely to smoke and drink heavily”

    Not only do we not know what the profile of the LGB respondents was, we don’t know whether they compare even remotely to the straight respondents. As an extreme example of this apples and oranges problem, assume that “straight” sampling included only 75 year old Amish males while only 25 year old NYC gay men were in the “gay” category. Only gay-haters are going to quote misleading statements like the one from VOX above – there is little that public policy makers can do with muddled stats; “don’t sell cigarettes or alcohol to LGB customers”?

  • Hue-Man

    But for almost all Americans, the marriage equality question is as relevant to their daily lives as someone asking them “Are you in favor of maintaining the surface temperature of Mars at 69 F?”

    When I still had a landline, I was that horrible person who hung up as soon as the pollster said “I’m calling from….”

  • UncleBucky

    Home RUN!!!!!!

    Well, it was asking to be said…! :D

  • UncleBucky

    And the reverse… I’d do her if there were money in it for me… he said….

  • Hue-Man

    And those special benefits like not getting fired from your job because you’re gay?

  • UncleBucky

    Self-skewing can go several ways. One can say, no, I am straight as an arrow. One can hang up, and let the caller determine what that means, or one can tell all and then TMZ gets it at 10 pm. Nuts.

  • Hue-Man

    And not to Bill Clinton the discussion but what is meant by “sex”? Hugging, kissing, or does it only start when you resort to baseball terms, 1B, 2B, 3B?

  • emjayay

    Well, you live in the boonies.

  • emjayay

    1) The pollsters MUST be aware of all this stuff. Do they adjust for it, ignore it, or what?

    2) Given all this stuff, has anyone done other types of statistical research that would suggest different results?

    3) Seinfeld.

  • emjayay

    Yeah, actually completely absurd at this point.

  • emjayay

    The landline crowd definitely would skew much older and also maybe more conservative.

  • FLL

    So true.

  • emjayay

    But you can be totally gay and never have sex with men, or straight and never have sex with a woman. Or anyone. or be Older and not have sex with anyone for a long time in either case. Neither makes you non-gay or non-straight.

  • Exactly my point. We may not like the news, and people have good points about how it’s a low ball number, but it may be smaller than some of us would like to admit but it shouldn’t matter.

  • There’s a difference between being a Christian and being a good Christian. That comparison is not valid.

  • We do. But it’s not listed.

    Cell reception out where we live is shitty at best.

  • Mike_in_the_Tundra

    It’s been a very long time since I’ve talked to anybody with a landline.

  • Same goes for women with women.

  • Thanks for adding nothing.

  • I would not.

  • caphillprof

    Also, there are men who have sex with men who still do not identify as gay.

  • And even I’d be unsure about telling a stranger on the phone doing a survey that I’m gay.

  • And actually, Mark, as you’ve written a number of times, the official term in many studies is MSM, or “men who have sex with men” since so many men do not see themselves as either bi or gay, even if many of them are. So none of those men are going to admit anything to a survey, if they won’t even acknowledge it in terms of their risks of contracting HIV.

  • I happen to agree with a lot of what you’re saying, however, when a poll or survey tends to go our way, we don’t usually react this way or criticize it. Like when polls on here say “gay marriage is now accepted by 56% of Americans” we applaud it. We don’t really go into length or dissect how it may be wrong. Just something to think about.

  • It simply isn’t possible to un-skew a poll that depends on voluntary participation and self-identification as a measure.

    The only thing you can safely conclude from this study is “about 3% publicly self-identify as gay.” One might further surmise that 3% represents a floor in those numbers and not a ceiling, because there are very few straight people who would lie about being gay, but lots of gay people who will lie — for whatever reason — about being straight. However, to get a sense of whether this theory is true and get a sense of what that number might actually be, one would need to conduct a study with proper controls, as well as taking a more rigorous subject history other than “Hey, I know you don’t know me, but I’m conducting a survey. Are you gay?”

    As FLL noted in another comment, Kinsey’s methodology was far more rigorous and came up with a number indicating roughly 10% are either exclusively or mostly gay, with an even higher percentage scoring in the middle of the scale. And that’s not even a recent study; it is simply not reasonable to conclude that the number of non-heterosexuals have decreases, even as western (and American) societies have become far more accepting and tolerant.

  • docsterx

    I think that the numbers of people who admit that they are gay, or bisexual, in these surveys are under reported. As others have said, people may not want to reveal their sexuality to a complete stranger over the phone. Especially in the time when the NSA or other groups may be listening in. Also, as others have said, calling people on landlines may not be targeting a representative sample or the general population. And we’re not accounting for people who are closeted or questioning.

    What makes a man lump himself in with a group labeled “bisexuals”? Is he a bisexual if he’s had sex with one other man once? Six times? If two men have engaged in mutual masturbation, are they bisexual? I’ve had men tell me that they had sex with other men on occasion, but they list themselves as heterosexual. So, when this survey was done, did they define for the participants what a bisexual is? Men on the down low don’t consider themselves gay or bisexual and would never even consider listing themselves as such, regardless of how that group is defined.

    It also doesn’t make sense to me that, while more gays are now out than ever before, the estimate of the number of gays in the population has DECREASED from the number seen in Kinsey’s work. Back then, almost all gays were closeted. Kinsey and his colleagues did personal, in depth interviews with his subjects. I’d suspect that the data that he collected was more accurate than a telephone/internet/man in the street brief interview.

    I think that as far as gender identity is concerned, that we’re not going to get accurate numbers for quite a while. Till gays and straights are much more comfortable with each other and personal interviews are done.

  • nicho

    And, some people on surveys will tell you that they’re “Christian,” when they’re far from it. They were raised by parents who considered themselves Christian — and they may even go to church once in a while — weddings, etc. — but they are not active or even Christian-behaving.

    For example, if you oppose or protest against giving shelter to a child seeking refuge from violence (which we see happening today) you are about as far from being Christian as is possible.

  • nicho

    Polls about things like this — in fact, polls in general — are enormously suspect. People give all sorts of answers for all sorts of different reasons. Often, as John notes, they don’t want to give strangers personal information. It’s like when you fill out the forms for factory warranties and they want to know “household income.” Really, none of your freaking business.

    I worked in local newspapers for a good part of my career. They would do reader surveys on what people read in the newspaper. It always came in like #1 was Foreign News, #2 was the editorial page, #3 was local news, and on and on — with comics and stuff like that bringing up the rear.

    However, there were days, due to space limitations when we ran with no foreign news. Not a peep. We could have left out the editorial page, I’m sure, and the only one who would have complained would have been the publisher. One day, by accident, we left out the horoscope — and the phones wouldn’t stop ringing. Horoscope came in dead last on the survey. And if we dropped a comic, people would be outside with torches and pitchforks.

    People often say what they think makes them sound smarter — whatever — or tell the pollsters what they think they want to hear.

  • Who has a listed phone number? Who even still has a land line?

  • Is it just me or does this “gays are so few but look how important they are” sound similar to antisemitic propaganda?

  • TampaZeke


  • TampaZeke

    They never check the closets! And how could they? But they don’t make that clear. I don’t know too many gay people, INCLUDING MYSELF, that at some point in their lives wouldn’t have identified as “straight” if polled.

  • The_Fixer

    Sexual attraction, like its companion emotional attraction, are not clearly delineated. Add to that the fact that people are not all that well educated about these subjects, and you’ll find a lot of confusion, therefore, inaccurate results from such surveys.

    Is the person who has an emotional attraction (that has some sexual component) to a person of the same sex bi? Is the person who is sexually attracted to a person of the same sex but can only develop an emotional relationship with someone of the opposite sex straight? These are questions that can’t be answered by choosing “gay, straight or bisexual” on a form.

    Surveys like these are not going to make any sense until the researchers and scientists know more about human sexuality, and this knowledge gets passed on to the public. Being as American society is so Puritanical and maudlin, I don’t expect that this quantification of gay and bi people to be realistically accurate for years down the road.

    This survey suffers from the common flaw of such surveys – the answers depend on the question and how it is asked, as well as the understanding of the subject by the people being surveyed.

  • 2patricius2

    How many hundreds of thousands of people attended each of the LGBT marches on Washington? How many hundreds of thousands of people went to various pride celebrations throughout the country this year? And how many of them were LGBT people (or just L and G people)? Now how many gay people don’t go to pride celebrations? And what is the population of the United States? I think we can figure the percentage of the population that is gay or lesbian is a bit higher than 3%.

    I can see the professional antigay people jumping on this survey to say we are a tiny minority and thus the government should not be catering to us. But I can also see them continuing to say that we have a powerful gay lobby that has used judges and politicians to further our “agenda,” and that we are tools of Satan and responsible for the downfall of society. Much in the same way that people have throughout the centuries blamed Jews – who are a small group compared to other groups – for terrible things in society.

  • Daniel Bennett

    Um. In that Jews are just over 2% (including me), 3% does not seem small. Whether the percentage is over a certain percentage or not should not have anything to do with how a segment is treated. And I do not think that homophobic people depend on statistics to perpetuate hate (or even worry about truth).

  • HereinDC

    I’m male. I had a partner for 15 years. Everytime a sales rep etc would call the house, they would ask for the lady of the house. Finally after 10 years together, I finally started replying with, ” We’re a gay couple” I’ve been out for 25 years and it took me 20 years to finally have the gumption to say that. So I can imagine that there are many people who won’t say over the phone what their sexuality is.

  • HereinDC

    Consider yourself slammed.

  • The number of homes without a landline has been steadily growing, by the end of this year or early into next year, it should easily be half the country. The people who cling to older technology tend to be disproportionately poor, older, and in more rural areas. Making those kind of phone surveys even less representative than they already are, and as is they’re almost always demonstrably inaccurate.

  • SkippyFlipjack

    John, you’re clearly not unskewing the polls. For every person unwilling to tell a complete stranger — a beloved telemarketer, no less — that they’re gay, there are 3 or 4 straight people who will answer that they are gay, just because, like Michael Sam and Jason Collins, they just want to draw attention to themselves and get treated all special. In fact, most “gay” people in the country are straight folks who just want special benefits, like being able to get married and stuff. Everybody knows this, right?

  • Elijah Shalis

    You are right.

  • Elijah Shalis

    I totally agree with you John. It is only the people that self identify publicly that they are counting. If I go by the numbers of guys that I was sexual with in school the % would be a lot higher. I suspect there are more bisexuals than gays and lesbians.

  • Indigo

    All that and the fascinating subtext of polling people with landlines whose phone numbers are actually in a physical phone book. Can you image that? I haven’t had one of those landline machines for . . . well, now . . . I’m not real quick with numbers here . . . maybe 5 years or so?

  • This is the response that I typically hear – that people just aren’t honest. I’m not so sure. Is the CDC accounting for this disparity already in their statistical analysis (I don’t’ know I’m asking)? My guess is they would be. Perhaps it really is just 3% of the population – that lives and identifies as a gay or lesbian person. Obviously the number of people who have had sex or who have sex with members of the same sex would be higher, but maybe just maybe we really are just 3%. I know that Jewish people are just 2% of the population and that number feels a lot larger. Sure, I live in NYC and that’s part of it, but also on TV, media, etc. there seems to be a disproportionate amount of Jewish people compared to the population. Could something similar be going on with gay people?

    I’m sure I’ll get slammed for this, but I’m not convinced the study may be all that off.

  • FLL

    Kinsey’s method remains the only one in which a study will shine any light on the subject. Kinsey’s subjects were extensively interviewed in person, and there were several interview sessions. Although there was still the possibility that a subject would lie or underreport throughout the series of interviews, Kinsey’s method was clearly more useful than answering a question posed by a stranger in a one-time phone call or filling out a form. If the total of Kinsey’s category 5 and category 6 was 10% in 1947, can you imagine what results he would get today? Not to mention categories 2 through 4 (bisexual).

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