In his 1948 book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, Alfred Kinsey shocked the world by announcing that 10% of the male population is gay. A 1993 Janus Report estimated that nine percent of men and five percent of women had more than "occasional" homosexual relationships. The 2000 U.S. Census Bureau found that homosexual couples constitute less than 1% of American households. The Family Research Report says "around 2-3% of men, and 2% of women, are homosexual or bisexual." The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force estimates three to eight percent of both sexes. So who's right -- what percentage of the population is homosexual?
It may be that no one will ever know for sure. To some people, homosexuality is a matter of perception and definition. Furthermore, many people have trouble admitting their homosexuality to themselves, much less to a researcher. But when Gallup asked Americans for their best estimate of the American gay and lesbian population, the results made all the figures mentioned above look conservative.
Every Fifth Person -- at Least
In August 2002*, Gallup asked Americans, in an open-ended format, to estimate the percentage of American men and the percentage of American women who are homosexual. The average estimates were that 21% of men are gay and 22% of women are lesbians. In fact, roughly a quarter of the public thinks more than 25% of men and 25% of women are homosexual. It should be pointed out, too, that many Americans (at least one in six) could not give an estimate.
Male respondents tend to give lower estimates of both the male and female homosexual population than female respondents do. The average estimates among male respondents are that 16% of men and 21% of women are homosexual. Among female respondents, the average estimates are that 26% of men and 23% of women are homosexual. Somewhat interestingly, both sexes believe there are more homosexuals in the opposite sex than in their own sex.
Portrayals in Pop Culture
Before the 1980s, the few representations of homosexuality in popular culture tended to consist of potentially dangerous social deviants (think Norman Bates in Psycho). Since then, however, the portrayal of gay characters in pop culture have become far more numerous and mostly positive. That growing representation may have spurred growing acceptance -- and inflated population estimates. In the last 10 years, the number of Americans saying they feel homosexuality should be considered an acceptable alternative lifestyle has gone from 38% (June 1992) to 51% (May 2002).
"Seeing ourselves reflected positively encourages gay people to come out," said Cathy Renna, news media director for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). "And when people know real gay men and lesbians it increases their level of understanding and acceptance." If you doubt that Ellen, Rosie and others have had an effect on Americans' acceptance of homosexuality, consider this -- MTV and Showtime are about to launch a cable channel directed at the homosexual market. They estimate that gays and lesbians make up 6.5% of television's audience.
Whether increased acceptance of homosexuality has led to an upsurge in the number of positive media portrayals of gay characters or vice versa, one result seems to be that Americans now tend to overestimate the gay population in America. While most expert estimates place America's homosexual population at 10% or less, Americans tend to guess that the number is higher, around 20%.
*Results based on telephone interviews with 489 (for those estimating percentages of lesbian women) and 518 (for those estimating percentages of gay men) conducted May 6-9, 2002. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5%.