Research into gays emerges from shadows

Once considered career suicide, data on group's demographics now in high demand


The Washington Post

Just a few salient facts are known about the Americans whose lives might be changed by a Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage expected this summer.

About 1 in 5 gay and lesbian couples are raising children that are under age 18. Same-sex couples are less likely than traditional married couples to have health insurance covering them both. One in 10 men with a male partner or spouse is a military veteran. As many as 6 million Americans, roughly 2 percent of the population, have a parent who is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

These nuggets of demographic insight into same-sex couples were contained in an amicus brief filed last month in connection with two cases before the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of California’s gay marriage ban and the Defense of Marriage Act. Although posed in dry, academic language, the statistics represent a remarkable step forward in what is known about the lives of lesbians and gays.

A decade ago, such precise statistics were impossible to come by. Even now, demographers cannot say with certainty how many Americans are gay. Many of the numbers commonly used to shape government policies are, for gays and lesbians, nonexistent.

But as gays become more visible in politics, challenging laws that stigmatize their relationships, demographic research into lesbians and gays is emerging from the shadows. Some gay advocates say it’s time for surveys to ask people point-blank to identify their sexual orientation.

“There is quite a bit about the LGBT population we don’t know,” said Gary Gates, the most prominent of only a few demographers focusing on gay statistics, who drew on census data for the demographic brief filed in the Supreme Court. “As a political and cultural issue, it’s very important for us to understand how big and visible this population is.”

However the Supreme Court rules in the gay marriage cases, demographic knowledge about gays and lesbians is poised to expand further.

The National Health Interview Survey of 35,000 Americans started in January to ask respondents to identify their sexual orientation, alongside questions about health insurance, obesity, vaccinations and smoking. The goal is to identify disparities in health needs that could be addressed, officials say. Last year, the government began asking employees their sexual orientation in the annual workforce survey.

A Gallup poll released last month found that 3.5 percent of American adults identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. That includes 10 percent of District of Columbia residents, 3.3 percent of Maryland residents and 2.9 percent of Virginia residents, according to Gallup. The poll did not divvy up percentages below the state level, so it’s not possible to compare the District to other big cities. People in every state identified themselves as gay to Gallup, from a high of 5.1 percent in Hawaii to a low of 1.7 percent in North Dakota.

Gay activists say they need even more research done, sometimes just to make the case that they exist in every community.

“When our legislative affairs director goes into congressmen’s offices, they’re often told, ‘I have no gay people in my district,’ ” said Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights group urging protections for gays. “That’s why this demographic information is so incredibly important. Gay and lesbian couples live everywhere across the country. We are not some kind of unique species.”

Yet gay activists have been some of the most vocal critics of Gates, who lives with his husband in Seattle and is affiliated with the Williams Institute, a UCLA think-tank that does research on sexual orientation and gender identity. They say his research, showing 3.8 percent of Americans are LGBT and fully half of those identify themselves as bisexual, underestimates their numbers and marginalizes their concerns.

Some of the controversy is rooted in a study done in the late 1940s. Sexologist Alfred Kinsey wrote in a passing reference that 10 percent of men had had same-sex experiences. That figure has stuck, in part, according to Gates, because gay activists cited it to make the case they could not be ignored.

Some opponents of gay marriage also say more research should be done into gay demographics, in part to correct common misperceptions about the size of the gay community. In several surveys, Gallup has found that Americans believe, on average, that 25 percent of the population is gay, several times higher than any research estimate.

“I think serious data on this is important to inform the debate,” said Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council, which has argued that same-sex marriage is harmful to society. “People have an exaggerated view of how many homosexuals there are in the population. They don’t realize what a relatively small population it is.”

Yet many gay activists and some academics say they suspect the percentage is higher than most demographic research shows.

“I’m a 7 to 10 percent girl,” said Jaime Grant, a feminist researcher at Kalamazoo College who heads the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership. “When people look at demographics, they’re often about white gays living in the ‘gayborhoods.’ But in communities of color, there’s already a resistance to filling out census forms, and it’s even more so for gays of color.”

One reason for the relative void in gay demographics is that it was long considered career suicide to specialize in research into lesbians and gays, said Kenneth Sherrill, a political scientist at Hunter College who has studied the gay community since the 1970s. It was considered groundbreaking when exit polls began asking voters their sexual preference in 1992. Over the ensuing years, 3 percent to 5 percent have said they are gay.

“I had some interest, being gay,” said Murray Edelman of his decision to add the sexual orientation question when he ran exit polling for the networks. “If you weren’t on the exit poll, then you didn’t exist. . . . It was another way of being counted.”

Since then, more lesbians and gays have been willing to identify themselves, and there has been a growth in demand for statistics about them.

“Public health agencies, the military and marketers have all found the need to have a better understanding of the LGBT population,” said Sherrill. “And as public acceptance of LGBT people has grown, it’s become easier to do good studies.”

Some of the biggest hurdles have yet to be worked out. Researchers say phrasing a question that captures data about gay people is much more complex than asking about race, ethnicity or income. Should people be asked about their sexual attractions, behavior or identity? Which of the many commonly-used synonyms for gays should be used? How do researchers capture the number of gay individuals who are not living with a partner?

“We have guesses we’re missing over half the gay and lesbian population if we just focus on partnered individuals,” said Amanda Baumle, a University of Houston sociologist and demographer who is researching gay parenting.

The decennial census now provides hard numbers on the number of same-sex couples, or at least the growing number who are willing to identify themselves as such. The 2010 census counted 646,000 couples living with same-sex partners, including 130,000 same-sex married couples.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which waged a Queer the Census campaign urging same-sex couples to identify themselves on the questionnaire, wants the census and other government surveys to ask more questions about sexual identity and behavior.

“It makes us visible and helps us identify ways our community needs support,” said Darlene Nipper, deputy executive director of the group. “I’m concerned the issue is the stigma around the community. But I think people can be asked about who they are and who they love. And there are ways to do that.”

Gates, 51, a former software engineer and seminarian who came within six months of being ordained as a Catholic priest, sits on advisory committees helping the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics formulate questions.

He believes demographics can only bolster the case for marriage equality.

“If the arguments wind up being anecdotal, the arguments of both sides end up being given equal weight,” he said. “The challenge is, science doesn’t always find everything that fits a particular political agenda.”