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An LGBT Census Possible or Not?

This is not going to be another column about Rick Warren, but something he said has been on my mind in the past week.

Of all the outrageous comments that were published as background information on Warren’s beliefs, his assertion that the LGBT community is two percent of the population really intrigued me. I’m not sure how he obtained those figures, but the question of how many LGBT people exist has been near the top of the list of Things I’d Really Like To Know ever since coming out. Like many LGBT kids, a sense of isolation and “I’m the only one” pervaded my thoughts while growing up and I’ve always been curious as to how true those feelings were.

Alfred Kinsey’s groundbreaking research placed the gay male population at 10 percent and that figure has been accepted by many people ever since. Kinsey’s methods for counting lesbians was different (he only considered women between the ages of 20 and 35, for example), and his estimates ranged between two and six percent.

In recent years there’s been doubt placed on the reliability of these figures, with some people believing he conducted his research in a manner that would inflate the gay population, while others believe Kinsey’s calculations are still too low. I have had conversations with friends and gay relatives who feel like the number is at least twenty percent.

While I personally feel the number of LGBTs is immaterial to the worthiness of our struggle for equality, I understand why people believe that proving we constitute a certain level of the population would make the appeal for gay rights easier. I liken this argument to the search for the gay gene, hoping science can convince homophobes that we are worth of respect and civil rights.

Britain first conducted a gay census since 2001, and now the legendarily controversial activist Larry Kramer is calling for the same thing in the United States. Kramer wants a gay organization to undertake this effort as a service to the community.

This is a good idea in theory, but I’m not sure how you could ensure accurate results with a gay survey. One of the unique characteristics of the LGBT community (indeed, something that scares many antigay people) is the lack of a visible physical chacteristic that outs us. In a lot ways, we are invisible unless we let people know our sexual orientation.

I mention this because a census relies on self-disclosure, and the presence of the closet means it’s almost impossible to get a true count of LGBT people. Some people are so deep in the closet that they would not go near a place that could be a distribution point for a gay census, such as a bookstore, club, or website. The individuals most likely to respond to a questionnaire would probably be the people secure enough, economically and socially, to publicly identify as LGBT. My fear is that this would result in a false portrait and the same dilemma faced by gay organizations and media charges of homogeneity and exclusivity. When it comes to simple demographic analysis, this could be an instance where the community’s diversity, usually a source of great strength, becomes a major challenge.

Another concern I’d have about such a survey would be about who gets to define L, G, B, and T. Would they employ something like the “one drop rule” for black people, where if you had just one type of encounter you were considered part of that group? I would think that the very meaning of bisexual would make it very difficult for someone to define the population. In fact, if they used that kind of logic, there may be more bisexuals than any other group, considering many of us “experimented” with hetero sex before (and after) acknowledging our same sex-desires!

I know there is strength in numbers, and our science-oriented society tends to want to leave no question unanswered, but an accurate count of LGBT people may just be one of the great mysteries of life.

From “Blackout” for 12/29/08 by Anthony Rucker

 

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