Estimating the number of
lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults in the U.S.
Unfortunately, many sexual terms are used by therapists and sexual researchers
in a scientific sense, and by some faith groups as a pejorative term -- as "snarl"
words to denigrate sexual minorities. The term "homosexual" is one example. We
term throughout this website in its scientific/medical sense.
Why nobody knows accurately how many lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults live in the U.S.:
Even if accurate data and universally accepted definitions were available, various groups may well distort the information to better support their belief systems.
Counting numbers of sexual minorities is made much more complicated because of the lack of a single definition of terms like "heterosexual," "bisexual," and "homosexual:"
Religious and social conservatives often define these terms according to a person's sexual activity or behavior.
Lesbians, bisexuals, gays, religious and social liberals, human sexuality researchers, most therapists, etc. tend to define the terms according to a person's sexual orientation -- the gender, or genders, to which a person is sexually attracted and perhaps about whom they fantasize being sexually active.
Whether one uses behavior or orientation as the criteria is important because:
Some bisexual individuals decide to confine their sexual experiences exclusively to either the same gender or the opposite gender. If a person's sexual identity is defined solely by behavior, then some bisexuals would be viewed as either exclusively homosexual or exclusively heterosexual, even though their orientation and feelings of attraction remain bisexual.
Similarly, a homosexual person might decide to remain celibate even though their sexual attraction which is only to persons of the same-gender remain strong. Should this individual be considered as an ex-gay or formerly gay person simply because they are not sexually active with members of the same gender?
A small minority of persons would consider any individual who has experienced a single sexual experience with another person of the same-gender to the point of orgasm to be a gay or lesbian. According to a study by Alfred Kinsey shortly after World War II:
"... at least 37% of the male population has some homosexual experience between the beginning of adolescence and old age.... This is more than one male in three of the persons that one may pass when walking along a city street."
Among those males who remain single to the age of 35, an average of 47% to 59% of them -- depending on their educational attainment -- fall into this category. 1
It is important to recall that the average age of marriage in the late 1940's was many years younger than it is today.
Thus, if a single same-gender sexual encounter makes a person a gay or lesbian, then a substantial percentage of the population meets this criterion. One might assume that the Kinsey data was based upon males who were willing to disclose their sexual history to an interviewer. The actual values are probably significantly higher, because not everyone with such sexual experience would be willing to reveal it to others.
Groups differ on the actual number of sexual orientations:
Many, perhaps most, parachurch groups, individual believers, secularists, human sexuality researchers etc. recognize three sexual orientations among adults:
Heterosexuals who are attracted only to members of the opposite gender.
Bisexuals who are attracted to both men and women, but not necessarily to the same degree.
Homosexuals, who are attracted exclusively to members of the same sex.
Some groups and individuals recognize only two orientations. They deny or ignore the existence of bisexuals, and acknowledge only heterosexuals and homosexuals. This belief has been strengthened by multiple lab experiments in which volunteers were shown erotic/pornographic movies and their sexual response measured. These studies often failed to detect any bisexual sexual arousal. Yet there is a significant minority of adults who assert that they are bisexual and who are or have been sexually active with both men and women.
On the other hand, many professionals in the mental health and human sexuality fields use a classification system developed by Alfred C. Kinsey, who was perhaps the most famous researcher of human sexuality. He rated persons' psychological response -- even though it does not necessarily result in sexual activity with another person. He introduced a scale from 0 to 6:
0 = entirely heterosexual.
1 = largely heterosexual, but with incidental homosexual history.
2 = largely heterosexual, but with a distinct homosexual history.
3 = equally heterosexual and homosexual.
4 = largely homosexual, but with a distinct heterosexual history.
5 = largely homosexual, but with incidental heterosexual history.
6 = entirely homosexual. 1
Although this scale is often helpful, it can introduce other problems. Everyone would probably agree that a rating of 3 matches that of those bisexuals who are equally attracted to men and women. Also, a rating of 6 matches at least some homosexuals and 0 matches some heterosexuals. But it is not obvious whether a rating of 4 or 5 should be considered bisexual or homosexual. Similarly, it is not clear whether a rating of 1 or 2 should be considered bisexual or heterosexual.
The generally accepted three orientations: heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual.
Two gender identities: being transgender or transsexual. A person's gender identity is the gender that they perceive themselves to be. In the vast majority of persons this matches the gender they were assigned at birth and the genetic gender implied by the sex chromosomes in every cell of their body. (The presence of a "Y" chromosome indicates male; its absence indicates female) But a a transgender person has a mismatch between their perceived gender identity and their assigned/genetic gender. This generally causes gender dysphoria -- emotional suffering associated with being transgender.
Also included among sexual orientations are two dozen or more paraphilias such as bestiality, necrophilia, voyeurism and even dendrophilia -- sex involving trees. (Author's note: How this last paraphilia can be actually performed is beyond my ability to imagine. Full disclosure: Although I appreciate the beauty of trees, I have never been sexually attracted to any of them.)
A few additional behaviors, such as incest, prostitution, were tossed into the mix to bring the total to over 30.
These religious groups found that their novel definition of sexual orientations was quite useful during their battle against a federal hate crime bill. That bill attempted to protect people of all sexual orientations without actually defining the term. The authors of the bill apparently assumed that everyone understood that there were three sexual orientations. The bill was signed into law in 2009 and gives higher sentences to violent crimes motivated by hatred of the victim's gender, disability status, sexual orientation and/or gender identity. The fundamentalist groups argued that the bill not only protect heterosexuals, bisexuals, and homosexuals from attacks, but would also protect people who engage in sex with young prepubescent children, with pubescent children, with dead people, with other family members, animals, trees, etc.
Some commentators assume that the 10% incidence of gays and lesbians estimated by Alfred C. Kinsey is valid. Others allege that his finding is not accurate because Kinsey's sampling was not truly random. He relied to some degree on prison populations, for example. However, more recent reworking of the data by the Kinsey Institute has found that his estimates are reliable.
Gallup found in 2011 that some groups of American adults believe that 30% or more of American adults are gay or lesbian. However, actual surveys of the public seem show percentages that are much lower: from 1.7% to 10% of the total population.
Unfortunately, none of the main U.S. sources of population information -- the Census Bureauâs decennial count, the American Community Survey, the National Health Interview Survey, the Current Population Survey, have included questions about sexual orientation or gender identity. 2 This may change in the future, although collecting accurate information will probably always be difficult because of the lack of generally accepted definitions, and the reluctance of some persons to admit their sexual identity to pollsters, who are typically strangers.
There is a novel surveying technique that might overcome the reluctance of some members of the LGBT community to openly reveal their sexual orientation. When the technique was tried out in a survey of the percentage of Atheists in the U.S. the result was 26%, which is more than double the percentage given by conventional phone sampling techniques. 3,4 This same technique could be used to estimate the percentage of persons with heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual and asexual orientations.
"Hiding in Plain Sight," American Atheist magazine, Second Quarter, 2017. Available to American Atheist members and magazine subscribers from Scribd at: https://www.scribd.com/ It should be freely available on the American Atheist website by mid-2018 at: https://www.atheists.org.