Groggy from lack of sleep, I rolled over early one morning just before Get Up time and put on my reading specs then turned on the Touch to read the latest headlines. At the SF Chronicle mobile site I find this: Demographer: US has 4M adults who identify as gay. Really? I thought in my groggy haze, four million? That seems kinda low. The story goes on to say that 4 million represents about 1.7% of the 18 and over population. (Under 18s are always heterosexual — goodness knows I was (NOT) — but that’s another story.) Still, 4 million? Hell, aren’t there 4 million gays and lesbians in New York City alone?
The article was based on a report by Gary Gates, a scholar at UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute, a think-tank that works in the areas of sexual orientation law and public policy. Mr. Gates notes the difficulty in assessing the LGBT population for a couple of reasons. One, the data is spotty. Quoting from the Chronicle article:
… 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…
The other issue Mr. Gates raises is that the surveys that do exist often do not differentiate between those who self-identify as LGBT and those who have ever acted upon a same-sex attraction. His report focuses on and makes conclusions about the number of adults in the US that self-identify as gay or lesbian, hence the low number.
Citing surveys from California and Massachusetts, Mr. Gates places the nation’s transgender population at 700,000, or 0.3% of the national population. Again, this is the self-identified population. In his report, Mr. Gates states:
Defining the transgender population can also be challenging. Definitions of who may be considered part of the transgender community include aspects of both gender identities and varying forms of gender expression or nonconformity. Similar to sexual orientation, one way to measure the transgender community is to simply consider self-identity.
(Not sure what he means by “nonconformity” — that sort of rankled me a bit.)
Using self-identity as the sole criteria for doing an accurate count can be a slippery slope when dealing with issues of sexual orientation and sexual identity. As we all know, there are way too many reasons (cultural, religious, societal, safety, to name a few) for people not to self-identify themselves as LGBT. Mr. Gates even notes in his study that surveys dealing with sexual orientation and gender identity are more reliable if they are done anonymously, say over the internet, than if they are conducted in person. Some say that the US Census should ask explicitly for people to identify their orientation, along with race, gender, etc. I agree, but even that would be fraught with inaccuracies. For example, a person in a heterosexual marriage who plays around with same-sex partners on the side is not likely to answer “bisexual” or “gay” on a form that his/her spouse might see. I wouldn’t have answered the question honestly over 23 years ago, because I was not being honest with myself at that time. Such is the power and the tyranny of the closet.
Some have complained that the low number will play into the hands of those who wish to deny LGBT folks proper and full civil rights and the freedom to exist without fear. So the question becomes, how many queer folks does it take to justify proper treatment? 10? 200? 756,210? What’s the threshold where suddenly discrimination against LGBT folks will vanish? In a just society, those questions are irrelevant. A just society does not require a magic threshold where it’s suddenly OK to treat LGBT concerns seriously. As a matter of decency, no society would allow a minority group to be set upon by the will of a vocal group self-identified, associated, or aligned with the majority. LGBT folks are in the minority. That point cannot be denied. Are we then to suppose that this minority status delegitimizes our very humanity?
While standing up and being counted is important, and I’m glad that there is serious scholarship in this area, we must also keep in mind that there are very real forces that make accurate counting an educated guessing game at best. And that ultimately, we must address the issues that make the counting a guessing game, for in that lies the reasons for LGBT oppression.