SAN FRANCISCO | How many gays are there in the United States? Gary Gates has an idea but acknowledges pinpointing a solid figure remains an elusive task.
Mr. Gates is demographer-in-residence at the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy, a think tank based at the University of California, Los Angeles. For the institute’s 10th anniversary this week, he took a scholarly stab at answering the question that has been debated, avoided and parsed since sex researcher Alfred Kinsey said in the 1940s that 10 percent of the men he surveyed were “predominantly homosexual.”
Mr. Gates‘ best estimate, derived from five studies that have asked subjects about their sexual orientation, is that the nation has about 4 million adults who identify as being homosexual, representing 1.7 percent of the 18-and-over population.
That’s a much lower figure than the 3 percent to 5 percent that has been the conventional wisdom in the last two decades, based on other isolated studies and flaws noted in Kinsey’s methodology.
Brad Sears, the Williams Institute’s executive director, recalled Mr. Gates‘ 2006 estimate, which was drawn from census data on same-sex households and put the nation’s lesbian, gay and bisexual population at about 8.8 million. That news upset some gays who found comfort in Kinsey’s 1-in-10 number, Mr. Sears said.
Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies with the conservative Family Research Council, welcomed Mr, Gates‘ findings as further repudiation of the Kinsey 1-in-10 estimate and also was intrigued by the relatively high portion of bisexual people tallied by Mr. Gates.
“I see this as somewhat of a problem for the gay political movement,” Mr. Sprigg said. “It undermines the idea that being born homosexual is an immutable characteristic that can’t be changed.”
One reason, according to Mr. Gates, is that until recently, few surveys tried to differentiate respondents who identified as gay or lesbian from those who sometimes engaged in homosexual acts or were attracted to people of the same sex. All were lumped into the gay category.
“One of the major questions, when you think about how many [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] people are there, is what do you mean by LGBT?” he said. “This shows there are pretty big differences between people who use the terms to label themselves versus sexual behavior or attraction.”
Mr. Gates found, for example, that another 1.8 percent of the adult population, or a little more than 4 million Americans, identifies as bisexual, according to his research brief published Thursday by the Williams Institute.
He also estimated that 19 million people, or 8.2 percent of the population, have engaged in sex with a partner of the same sex, regardless of how they identify.
Another two studies, conducted by state agencies in California and Massachusetts, yielded what Mr. Gates thinks is the first credible estimate of the nation’s transgender population. He puts it at about 700,000 adults, or 0.3 percent of the population.
Mr. Gates is the first to admit his figures are imprecise. But because so few national population surveys have asked about sexual orientation and the ones that have were not conducted consistently over time, the data on which to base a firm conclusion does not exist, he said.
“Yes, this is a credible estimate, but I’m fine to have a debate with someone about whether I’m right or wrong,” he said. “The academic side of me says everything comes with caveats.”