Measuring the gayness of our country has long proved a controversial task.
Ever since pioneer sexologist Alfred Kinsey boldly claimed in the 1940s that 10 percent of Americans were gay — based on his limited personal experience — various polls have tried to discredit him. But they've been equally easy to dismiss as flimsy, unofficial or somehow exclusionary.
Yesterday's UCLA think-tank numbers are different.
They combine multiple surveys, taken from 2004 to 2010, to come up with a more multifaceted total of 9 million lesbians, gays and bisexuals in the U.S. — and it's way lower than the “1 in 10” figure the LGBT community was running on.
But is that the figure we should really be looking at?
The study also shows that 11 percent of Americans report same-sex attraction. Isn't that enough to begin unraveling the conservative stance that homosexuality is unnatural?
Then there's the statistic that bisexuals now outnumber gays and lesbians combined.
The study's publicist (and gay activist) Cathy Renna says she finds the huge bisexual showing perhaps more significant to the national conversation than the “9 million” shocker.
“How does that make us feel about sexuality?” she asks.
On the whole, Renna and UCLA study author Gary Gates agree that America should be “mature” enough at this point to overcome any notion that the gay community has to boast a fat rounded population like 10 percent to enjoy their civil rights.
Isn't that like saying Filipino Americans don't deserve to marry, because they only total 4 million in the U.S.?
“I didn't know there was some kind of quota system for civil rights,” says Renna.
Gates adds: “At this point, the issue is not whether there are enough LGBT to matter. We know that.”
Instead, he says his biggest hope in releasing these numbers is that bigger survey groups — the American Community Survey, the National Crime and Victimization Survey, even the Census — will feel comfortable asking the sexual-preference question.
UCLA's gay demographic report is dropped in the middle of a huge surge forward for gay rights. California's Prop. 8 to ban same-sex marriage was recently deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge (though that fight's far from over), President Obama all but came out in support of gay weddings and “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” was finally repealed.
So some gay activists are flagging the report — which, coming from the UCLA law school's Williams Institute, is reputable enough to change the national perception from “10 percent” to “3.5 percent” — as a step backward.
“Other key findings were that an estimated 19 million Americans, or 8.2 percent of the population, said they have engaged in same-sex behavior, and 25.6 million, or 11 percent, acknowledged some same-sex attraction.”
Renna acknowledges that — because coming out of the closet can still have dire consequences in our culture, like losing your family, friends and even your job — “of course [9 million] is an undercount.”
However, only an accurate, updated count of who feels comfortable enough to identify LGBT can stimulate the conversation about how come others don't.
“Why this number is what it is?” she says. “If everybody's screaming that there are more of us, why is that?”
Read the full study here. We'll update with highlights from this weekend's conference on the controversial results. But what do you think: Are the new numbers just as bogus as the old ones? How could we get a better LGBT count, and why does it matter?