The long-established wisdom has it that 10% of the American public is gay or lesbian. But when asked, the majority of Americans estimate that almost 25% of their fellow citizens are homosexual to one extent or another.
And here’s the catch: both of those numbers may be wildly off.
According to the majority of recent, well-regarded surveys, less than five percent of respondents identified themselves as gay or lesbian (or anything other than straight, so that would include bisexual).
According to UCLA’s Williams Institute, just 3.8% of the total U.S. population self-identifies as gay or lesbian. The National Center for Health Statistics clocks it at 3.4%, as did a Gallup poll earlier this decade. Pew Research puts it at 4.6%, the General Social Survey has 4.3%, and the National Election Pool came up with 5%.
There are outliers, of course. The Public Religion Research Institute concluded that 7% of all Americans polled self-identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual, and the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior found that 8% of respondents fell under that same banner. Yet, even these more generous estimates fall well below the expectations of most Americans. What gives?
What gives is a complex stew of factors that complicate the popular understanding of how many gay, lesbian, bi, or queer Americans there actually are.
First off, with every successive generation, gay and lesbian people become less afraid to express their identities in public, as even a growing number of Republicans come out. This helps create the impression that there’s an increasing number of them when, really, it’s just that straight people are noticing them more. Also, there’s the very visual tendency of millennials to openly experiment with and question their own sexuality.
When it comes to public representation, gay and lesbian individuals are more prevalent in the metropolitan centers that control the majority of capital in this country, the media industry that creates content designed to reach buyers in those areas, and the very content that industry creates. An ongoing focus on gay and lesbian rights coming from both the left and the right continues to push issues relevant to that community onto America’s front pages.
There are also historical issues. That famous 10% figure not only comes from pioneering sexologist Alfred Kinsey’s misunderstanding of what it is to be gay/lesbian but the strategic choice to offer a number that was big enough to ‘matter’…” but “not so large as to overly threaten a society still extremely uncomfortable with the idea of gay people.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there’s this: According to Gallup, 78% of Americans know someone who’s openly gay or lesbian themselves, be it a friend, coworker, or family member. That closeness, along with all the other factors above, give gay and lesbian individuals an outsized appearance in American culture.
Whatever the actual percentage of gay or lesbian people in the U.S., it’s clear that they’re becoming more of a mainstay in politics and culture, and the majority of Americans support that. According to Pew, 63% of all Americans say that the homosexual lifestyle is morally acceptable, up from 50% 10 years ago.