LGBTs Are 10% Of US Population? Wrong, Says Demographer

Host Michel Martin and Judy Bradford of the Center for Population Research in LGBT Health discuss the Institute Of Medicine's report findings, as well as the LGBT community's most prevalent health issues. Demographer Gary Gates also joins the conversation. He is debunking famous sex researcher Alfred Kinsey's claim that 10% of males in the U.S. are gay. He talks about this percentage, the real number of America's LGBT people, and challenges to gathering accurate data.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

With the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat offering up one of the most exciting NBA championship series in years, we're going to hear some trash talk from two ladies who don't normally engage in such. They are the congresswomen who represent Dallas and Miami. They have a wager on the table. We'll hear about it in a few minutes.

But first, to one of those questions that sounds simple but is not. How many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans are there? Or put another way, what percentage of the population is what we sometimes refer to as LGBT?

Back in 1948 sex researcher Alfred Kinsey famously suggested that 10 percent of the males he'd studied were, quote, "more or less exclusively homosexual," unquote. And ever since that 10 percent number has been embraced and frequently cited by various advocacy groups. But a demographer now says that that 10 percent number was always less about science and more about politics. And he says he has a better answer.

His name is Gary J. Gates. He's at the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. That's a think tank that specializes in law and public policy related to sexual orientation. He's co-author of the book "The Gay and Lesbian Atlas" and he's with us from NPR West in Southern California.

And to talk more about why this kind of data matters, particularly for reasons of health, we're joined by Judy Bradford, director of the Center for Population Research in LGBT Health. And co-chair of Boston's Fenway Institute, which advocates for LGBT health. And she joins us from member station WBUR in Boston, Massachusetts. I welcome you both, and thank you for joining us.

JUDY BRADFORD: Thanks. It's very exciting to be here.

GARY J. GATES: Thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: So, Professor Gates, let's start with you and that 10 percent figure. You argued that that percentage was adopted for political reasons, that Kinsey never claimed to have the means to make this scientific estimate. So tell me a little bit, if you would, about why you think that figure was politically attractive.

GATES: Well, I'll start by saying that I'm not the only one who believes this. Also, the Kinsey Institute has - which is the legacy of Kinsey - has stated very clearly that their view is that this was a kind of a political decision of gay activists in the '70s. They needed at that time to convince people that the gay people actually existed and in fact that they were kind of everywhere. And they took that rather obscure passage from a Kinsey book, which was never intended to be an estimate of the number of gay people in the United States and kind of adopted it for political purposes. It was sort of large enough that it made a difference, but not so large that it overly threatened people.

MARTIN: And give us a little bit of a sense of why we don't know more now. We know more about a lot of things, but I want to hear more about the difficulty of coming up with an accurate figure.

GATES: The largest reason is that we don't ask. We just don't ask these on the major federal surveys that are used typically to count Americans or to kind of gauge the health and well being of Americans. These surveys, just for the most part, don't include questions about sexual orientation or gender identity. So we tend to rely on often just individual surveys, very often private surveys. There are some publicly funded surveys that do it, but it's not sort of measured in a consistent way on a consistent set of surveys.

MARTIN: And why don't we ask?

GATES: Survey administrators have fears that these questions are too private and that respondents will be upset or perhaps refuse to answer. Even worse, terminate the survey. We actually find no evidence that that's the case. But they do have those fears. I also think that it's relatively new for the LGBT community to want to be asked these questions on surveys. I think for a long time there was a great fear of confidentiality in making their LGBT status known on federal surveys.

MARTIN: All right. Well, then we've kept everybody in suspense long enough. What is a better number?

GATES: Well, so what I did was I found a variety of what we call population-based surveys. So surveys designed to try to estimate a characteristic that you can generalize to the population. And all of these surveys asked sexual orientation identity questions. So questions like, do you consider yourself to be - and then, you know, you can choose gay, lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual. And across those surveys, if you average it out, it comes to just shy of four percent. So about 3.8 percent who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

And I should also caveat that the transgender number is really based on only two state surveys, so I don't necessarily think that's as strong of an estimate. But it comes out to about 9 million Americans, which if you put them all in one place, it would be about the size of New Jersey.

MARTIN: So how are people responding to the 3.8 percent figure? And I want to mention that you've written about this some. And, in fact, we will link to a piece that you wrote for The Washington Post titled "Gay People Count, So Why Not Count Them Correctly?" which you published in April. What response are you getting to this figure? I'm sure this will be news to a lot of people who are used to hearing the 10 percent figure.

GATES: Yes. And there was certainly a lot of pushback. Virtually all of the kind of response came from within the LGBT community, many of whom weren't particularly happy with me. And I talked about this in my op-ed. The 10 percent number is more than just a kind of demographic figure. It's very many LGBT people, certainly me as a young person who was closeted, we would look around a room of, say, 50 people and think, oh, there must be four other people like me in this room.

And that just was a kind of comfort. And so I think that 10 percent number is really ingrained in people's psyche. And for me to question that was very disconcerting for many people, even though, as I said, my sort of telling of the origin of that number is consistent with what the Kinsey Institute says is the origin of that number. But nonetheless, it certainly created a fair bit of angst.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're speaking with Gary Gates. He's a demographer who recently released a report estimating that the LGBT population makes up about 3.8 percent of the U.S. population. That's a contrast to figures that had long been cited. Also joining us, Judy Bradford, director of the Center for Population Research in LGBT Health.

Judy, I want to hear from you about why this matters. It turns out that there are some health issues that perhaps are not discussed because the data isn't there. Can you talk a little bit more about why you think it's important to have accurate information?

BRADFORD: Well, it's critical to have it. There are a number of well-accepted health disparities in LGBT populations, both compared to the general population of heterosexuals and then within groups. And so the key ones here are HIV and STDs, of course most prominent among gay men and transgender people.

MARTIN: STDs being sexually transmitted diseases.

BRADFORD: Sexually - yes, thank you. Smoking. Very high rates of tobacco use. Alcohol and other substance abuse. Poor mental health such as major depressive episodes in young people. Suicide attempts are much more likely to happen in LGBT people across the age span. And much of this has to do with what we understand as discrimination.

Take what's happened to kids. That's such a big issue now across the country with bullying in school, which, you know, sets a person up to be hidden, to feel worse about themselves and it's highly related with suicide attempts. So the problem with this is that not only do we have these health disparities that are related to who we are and how other people think about us, but we have barriers related to getting culturally competent health care. And thus too many of us don't get adequate screenings and don't get the type of health care that everyone ought to have.

MARTIN: But you also say that there can be health issues within the LGBT community that are not adequately addressed. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

BRADFORD: Some of the things that youth experience are different from what elderly people experience. And right now, you know, increasingly we have stories, very sad cases of what's happening to youth and very difficult things - situations that are faced by elderly, LGBT people who don't have - who are less likely to have children and accepting family than heterosexual people are.

So there's an age difference. LGBT youth are more likely to be homeless than straight youth, for instance. But within our populations, the group that seems to have the most difficulty getting health care and facing health disparities would be transgender people, of whom we know virtually nothing. So you have a higher prevalence of HIV in transgender people, higher rates of victimization on the basis of who they are.

Within women, lesbians are less likely to get preventive care they need for cancer. But lesbians and bisexual women are not necessarily the same when it comes to overweight or obesity. Higher rates of lesbians, for instance are overweight or obese, compared to bisexual females who look more like straight women.

MARTIN: How do you relate to this 3.8 percent figure? Are you worried about it? Are you worried that there will be less urgency around advocating for this community? Particular concerns?

BRADFORD: I think you can't put that ahead of the actual situations of people's lives. And so this ongoing discrimination that can lead to health disparities and to hiding, let's say, or to dropping out of school, these things have to be at least as important as the numbers of us. So I think it's not one or the other. I think they're equally important.

MARTIN: Gary, you finish your piece in the Post saying that I often hear LGBT advocates lament that it seems absurd that they don't have equal rights in this country given how large their community is. As a demographer I look at it a little differently. I'm amazed at how close we are to equality given how small the community is.

GATES: Right.

MARTIN: Talk more about that, if you would.

GATES: Well, I just think it's a different perspective. Yeah, I mean my perspective is that I think there's been remarkable progress around LGBT rights. And given that from my perspective, you know, a relatively small number self identifies as that in a very public way. To have the advances that we've made, I think is a credit to the movement and a credit to the progress that we've made.

MARTIN: Gary J. Gates is a demographer. He is Williams' distinguished scholar at the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law. Also with us, Judy Bradford. She is director of the Center for Population Research in LGBT Health. Thank you both so much for joining us.

GATES: You're very welcome.

BRADFORD: Great. Thank you.

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