How Many Gays? Sorting Out the Truth Behind the Reported Numbers of Gays and Lesbians in U.S. Society

April 26, 1993  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  National Review  ·  Misc

Newsweek recently reported that, "like the population at large, the armed forces are 10 per cent gay." The magazine never revealed the source of its information about the make-up of the armed forces. Considering that the armed forces are openly hostile to homosexuals and that military applicants are screened for the AIDS virus, as are active-duty soldiers, such a presumption is probably not warranted. But as to the population at large — well, we all know that’s true, don’t we?

Certainly we are constantly reminded of the assertion. For example, a homosexual group in Madison, Wisconsin, calls itself the Ten Per Cent Society. The 10 per cent figure is also regularly employed by such groups as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which claims to represent "23 million gay and lesbian persons."

Indeed, the 10 per cent figure often seems to be used as a minimum. Outgoing New York schools chancellor Joseph Fernandez, in justifying his Rainbow Curriculum, says: "It’s not about sex, but it’s about the fact that there’s at least 10 per cent of the population that’s gay or lesbian." The Boston Globe recently stated, "According to the classic Kinsey study, 10 per cent of the general population is estimated to be gay — a conservative estimate by all accounts."

Putting "all accounts" aside for now, the main problem with the 10 per cent figure is that Kinsey never said it. At least, not in the way that is suggested.

Professor Alfred Kinsey, in his landmark Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948), did not simply count "homosexuals" and "heterosexuals." Rather, he rated his subjects on a scale of 1 to 6, least homosexual to most homosexual. He then came up with figures for three levels of homosexual behavior. He figured at 37 per cent the proportion of the male population that had "had some homosexual experience" to the point of orgasm. The 10 per cent figure that Kinsey did use was that 10 per cent of males are "more or less exclusively homosexual for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55." The figure for men who are exclusively homosexual throughout their lives drops to 4 per cent.

This, mind you, applied exclusively to men. While Kinsey used no such classification system for women, he did say in Sexual Behavior in the Human Female that the incidence of lesbianism was about half that of male homosexuality.

In addition to misrepresentations of Kinsey’s own words, one problem with the original data is that half the men studied were literally a captive group: they were prisoners. Properly weighting one’s data could reduce this apparent problem; this is what Kinsey defenders have argued. Yet some of his own researchers at the Kinsey Institute thought that the large prisoner sample skewed his data in favor of homosexuality. When two of these researchers retabulated the original data to exclude persons "convicted of any offense other than traffic violations and who did not come from any source which we knew to be biased in terms of sexual behavior," they found that the broadest category of homosexuality was still close to Alfred Kinsey’s 37 per cent figure, but that Kinsey’s 10 per cent figure was really about 4 per cent.

Usually the 10 per cent figure is given in a context implying that no other studies of male homosexuality have been done. Indeed, some writers say as much, lamenting that in the age of AIDS, there are no more current data. In the August 1992 American Demographics, Diane Crispell wrote, "In 1948, the Kinsey report estimated that 10 per cent of men and 2 to 3 per cent of women were exclusively gay or lesbian. No subsequent research has improved on that estimate." In fact, there have been a number of studies and they all point in the same direction.

For example, a telephone survey reported in the January 1990 Journal of Homosexuality, by DeKalb University sociologist Joseph Harry, asked 663 men: Would you say that you are sexually attracted to members of the opposite sex or members of your own sex?" Only 3.7 per cent said they were attracted to their own.

Underreporting is always going to be a problem in such surveys, because of social opprobrium against homosexuality. But even if everyone who didn’t answer the question was classified as homosexual, this would add up to only 5.7 per cent. Professor Harry concluded: "The present data provide no support for Kinsey’s 10 per cent estimate of homosexuality in adult men," but rather "are considerably closer to Gebhard’s one of the aforementioned Kinsey researchers 4 per cent."

Another telephone survey, conducted in 1986 of San Francisco males, found that 56,000 claimed to be either homosexual or bisexual. This accounts for 15 per cent of the total male population of the city, or about 18 per cent of those over the age of 13. Considering that San Francisco probably has one of the highest concentrations of male homosexuals in the country, this would tend to indicate that 10 per cent as a nationwide figure would be quite high.

The largest single analysis of surveys pertaining to homosexual prevalence appeared in the November 1991 Journal of Sex Research. It looked at five surveys conducted between 1970 and 1990, three of which asked questions concerning sexual preference. One of these was actually conducted by the Kinsey Institute and received a fair amount of media attention when it appeared in a 1989 issue of Science. The authors reported: "It is estimated that 1.4 per cent of men had adult homosexual contacts (for example, at age 20 years and older) whose frequency was characterized as being (fairly often’ (at some point in time). An additional 1.9 per cent of men had adult experiences whose frequency was characterized as (occasionally.’ Taken together, these two groups made up 3.3 per cent of the adult male population."

The Science article went on to say that while "these numbers appear similar to the 1948 Kinsey estimate" that "4 per cent of U.S. men are exclusively homosexual’ throughout their lives . . . the interpretation of our estimates is different. Most of the men included in our 3.3 per cent estimate could not be classified as (exclusively homosexual’ throughout their lives."

The report was even more direct in challenging Alfred Kinsey’s 37 per cent figure for any kind of homosexual activity, instead concluding that a more accurate number was about 20 per cent.

When the new Kinsey Institute study was combined with the other four studies, the Journal of Sex Research reported, "an unexpectedly consistent view" emerged. "Roughly 5 to 7 per cent of American men," it said, "report some same-gender sexual contact in adulthood." Further, it said, "the evidence, although sketchy, suggests that same-gender sexual contact may be a sporadic occurrence for many of the men who report such contacts during adulthood." In the category of men who had had sexual contact with other men in the past year it found only "roughly 2 per cent."

Looking at the other side of the coin, the analysis said: "96 per cent of adult American males report some heterosexual contact since age 18," and 87 per cent had had such contact within the last 12 months. Incidentally, the survey analysis found that only 0.3 per cent of the respondents had had sexual contacts with both men and women in the previous 12 months, helping to explain why doomsayers who predicted (and even announced the arrival of) an explosion of AIDS cases among female heterosexuals were wrong.

None of this intrinsically says anything about the morality of homosexuality or homosexual practices. By definition, geniuses account for a tiny portion of the population, yet nobody calls them deviant or demands that they be denied rights. But to the extent that homosexual activists believe it is very important for the world to know that they constitute 10 per cent of the population — and therefore, by inference, 10 per cent of the electorate or of the military — it seems that it ought to be very important to know if they do not.