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Gays and lesbians in America would do themselves a great service by exposing the nature of surveys that claim to assess our number in the population to a severe critique.
Karin Swann

Issue #5, March/April 1993

Familiar to most gays and lesbians in America is the Kinsey Report's statistic revealing that a full 10% of the American population had experienced some form of personal exposure to "homosexuality." This statistic was determined by a survey conducted in the late 1940s which — fifty years later — is certainly worthy of re-evaluation. How was homosexuality assessed in Kinsey's research, and how might today's population be best assessed? Or, perhaps more importantly, would a contemporary survey reveal these numbers to have changed?

The recent attention brought to gays and lesbians by the Clinton administration's position on gays in the military has brought a wave of related reports on the American public. The consequence of coverage on homosexuality is a familiar debate among gays and lesbians who deliberate over the potential value of exposure, regardless of content. Recently, however, a story ran on CNN's Headline News (Friday, February 26th) offering more recent statistics on gays in America which, I would argue, has an indisputably negative impact. In this report, a "general social survey" administered by Tom Smith at the National Opinion Research Center (University of Chicago) revealed that 2% of men and 0.7% of women (yes, that's less than one percent!) report "exclusive homosexual activity in the preceding year."

If this survey is accurate, gays and lesbians are confronted with the reality that in 1992 they were accompanied by less than 3% of the population. Where did the other 7% go? Of course, because the survey's assessment was period-specific, and age cohort- unspecific, it is not surprising that these statistics are considerably lower than the Kinsey Report's. Furthermore, the survey's assessment of "exclusive homosexual activity" is limited to gays and lesbians who were sexually active in the past year. The question arises, however: are statistics limited to respondents who classify themselves as "exclusively heterosexual" best suited to assess the full size of our community? What about those amongst us who shrink away from classifying themselves as "exclusively homosexual" because we don't want to acknowledge what "exclusivity" means in a homophobic society? Or, what of those who are afraid to reveal information about their gayness for a survey... or those who are still closeted, those who suffer in the straight world, fully aware of their secrets, fully aware of the damage that would result from revealing them — victims, in turn, of a paralyzing fear of entering the "unknown" and stigmatized gay world, or of leaving the security of the inadequate but "known" and "normal" straight one. There are, of course, a myriad of other factors which serve to encourage homosexual invisibility, especially of lesbians, in our society. How then are we to best assess ourselves? After all, for anyone who has attended the Castro Street Fair in San Francisco it is hard to believe that those streets alone are not filled by at least 3% of the country!

An interview with Tom Smith of the National Opinion Research Center illuminated certain characteristics of the CNN-reported study: 1. The survey sample size: 2243 men, 3017 women. 2. It was a "totally representative, nationwide, random survey of households." Smith was asked about the value of a random nationwide survey given the tendency for gays and lesbians to congregate in urban areas and in particular cities and regions across the country. Smith responded that "only under very extreme conditions where all the group is concentrated in a particular area" do regional oversights have much of an effect. Furthermore, after some additional commentary on the tried and true nature of the "General Social Survey," Smith assured that for the past ten years San Francisco and New York have, in fact, been included in the sample. When asked if there was any significant in the number of gay/lesbian self-reports in those particular areas, Smith responded that no qualified statistician would isolate those statistics since the respondents from those areas represented a "very small" percentage of the total and would therefore not provide a reliable measure. ...What's wrong with this picture?

The significance of this report airing on CNN Headline News is two-fold.

  1. The survey designed by the National Opinion Research Center was structured in such a way that gays and (especially) lesbians were rendered more "invisible" than they already are. Any gay or lesbian in this country would find these statistics very hard to believe.
  2. The selection of, and report on the nation's #1 news channel of statistics which appear to provide erroneous information on our presence in the population is highly damaging to both gays and non-gays. Certainly we demand to have our rights represented regardless of our numbers, but numbers which aren't accurate take from us the confidence we need to believe we are not alone and the dignity and self-esteem that is necessary for us to consider ourselves worthy of representation. ...And of course, statistics like these make it much easier for those who aren't sympathetic to our lifestyles to argue that we are little more than "a big deal made out of nothing."

All this is not to suggest that we turn today's statisticians back on the past to enforce a reification of the Kinsey 10%. Kinsey's numbers were gathered from intensive and extensive, longitudinal interviews which defined homosexuality in very broad terms. (To Tom Smith's credit, he notes that one of the great gifts of Kinsey's study was its assessment of fluidity in sexual and gender identity.) The results, in fact, may even be seen to overestimate the prevalence of homosexuality in America. However, what I do mean to suggest is that gays and lesbians in America would do themselves a great service by exposing the nature of surveys that claim to assess our number in the population to a severe critique. We should be sure, against all fears, to record the truth about ourselves if we ever find that we are subjects in such surveys and, most of all, we should think of ways in which we can accurately reach one another and develop our own means — our own numbers if necessary — of determining the size and extent of our (wonderful! growing!) community.

Karin Swann is a graduate student in Political Science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. A slightly different version of this article, which was written for Bad Subjects, was printed in the March 20, 1993 edition of the Wisconsin State Journal.

Copyright © Karin Swann. All rights reserved.