THE WRONG QUESTION October 22, 2012

Although debates about morality should not be based on quantitative evidence, in practice they tend to be. At a time when homosexuality is so central to religious and cultural controversies, some weight attaches to the numbers involved. Gay rights advocates favor higher statistics for the gay and Lesbian population, to magnify the impact of discrimination. Opponents lean to lower numbers, to present the issue as one that affects a strictly marginal population.

Over the years, estimates for the gay/Lesbian population have fluctuated widely. For many years, the notorious Kinsey figure of “one in ten” men was bandied around, but anyone who cites that seriously today automatically disqualifies themselves from serious debate. More recently, we have a reasonable consensus figure of around 2.0 to 2.5 percent of men defining as gay, with a significantly smaller proportion of women.

All of which brings me to a really puzzling Gallup survey reported over the last few days, which – depending on interpretation – either produces an astonishingly small figure for “Gay America”, or else has serious methodological flaws.

Gallup conducted a very large survey with over 120,000 respondents, asking them “Do you, personally, identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender?” Overall, 3.4 percent agreed. I can reasonably guarantee that over the coming years, that figure will feature regularly in public controversies, and it will morph over time, from “One in thirty are LGBT” to a cruder “One in thirty are gay.” Actually, that last figure would not be far out of line with previous estimates, just a little higher than earlier numbers.

So what is wrong with this picture?

Read the question again. Statistically, we can ignore transgendered, whose numbers are microscopic. But the Gallup question includes gay/Lesbian and bisexual numbers. A major problem here is that we really don’t have a satisfactory definition of bisexuality, a deeply problematic label: does it refer to feelings and impulses, or actual conduct? Is the bisexual activity occasional and rare, or regular? Do same-sex partners account for exactly fifty percent of one’s sexual encounters, ten percent, two percent, or what?

Wisely, the Gallup survey asked merely for self-definition. But previous surveys of bisexuality have produced a broad range of estimated numbers, ranging from 1.5 to fifteen percent. Most reputable studies give figures around two percent.

So what are we to make of Gallup’s 3.4 percent for LGBT? If in fact it includes any likely estimate for bisexuals, then the Gay and Lesbian proportion has to shrink accordingly, to closer to one percent of the population. That is strikingly low, and improbably so.

One basic problem lies in the survey question, which lumped together such a range of behaviors and orientations. I would have loved to see a survey ask people about their sexual identification through a series of individual questions: do you identify as gay? Do you identify as bisexual? And so on. The results would have been very useful. As it is, this survey is a mess.

Even if LGBT is a favored term politically, it is hopelessly inadequate for a survey of this kind, and should not have been used.

By the way, the currently favored term is LGBTQQ, which adds “Queer and Questioning” to the list. I dread the day a pollster might add that to a self-identification question.



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