Why the Total Number of Gay People Can't Be Counted

Large group of people waving gay right flags at a gay parade
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The number of lesbian, gay and bisexual persons in the U.S. is subjective, and GLB population studies provide estimates at best. The most widely accepted statistic is the 1-in-10 convention – one out of every 10 people is gay. But some research indicates that the number may be more like one in 20.

The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, a sexual orientation law and public policy think tank, estimates that the total number of GLB persons in the U.S. is more than 8 million, representing 3.5 percent of the population. There may be more; there may be fewer. So why can't the actual number of GLB people be accurately counted?

Factors That Contribute to Cloudy GLB Statistics 

First, how does one define gay, lesbian or bisexual? Different studies define GLB people in different ways, and researchers have yet to agree on a common definition. Is being gay a behavior? Does an attraction make one gay? Or is being gay an identity?

Only those willing to identify can be counted, and not all GLB people identify as such. Not all GLB persons are willing to admit their sexual identity, attraction or behavior on paper. Information gathered on surveys is only as accurate as the information given, and it can depend on the way the survey is conducted. How are the questions posed? Are they open to interpretation or do they lead to black-and-white answers? 

Finally, same-sex couples were not recognized under the Defense of Marriage Act until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of DOMA, declaring it unconstitutional, in June 2013. Government agencies such as the Census Bureau could not explicitly ask citizens if they resided in same-sex households until that time. As a result, census data prior to this date only counted same-sex couples as "unmarried partners."

Just prior to the Supreme Court's declaration that DOMA was unconstitutional in 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau offered these statistics by state. The U.S. government only takes a census once every 10 years, so these figures are the best guess until 2020. 

The Measurement of Same-Sex Unmarried Partner Couples in the 2000 U.S. Census gives some insight into the unclear GLB population statistics at that time. 

What Do the Experts Say? 

When asked about GLB population statistics, Senior Research Fellow Gary J. Gates at the Williams Institute had this to say: 

"That's the single question I'm asked the most. The answer is unfortunately not simple. I'll respond with a question. What do you mean when you use the word 'gay?' If you mean people who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual in a survey, the answer is that it's likely not one in 10 but closer to one in 20. A recent government survey found that 4 percent of adults aged 18 to 45 identified as 'homosexual' or 'bisexual.' A similar proportion of voters identify as GLB. If you define gay as having same-sex attractions or behaviors, you do get higher proportions that are a bit closer to the one in 10 figure."

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