These nuggets of demographic insight into same-sex couples were contained in an amicus brief filed in connection with cases before the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of California’s gay marriage ban and the Defense of Marriage Act.
A decade ago, such precise statistics were impossible to come by. Even now, many of the numbers commonly used to shape government policies are, for gays and lesbians, nonexistent.
But as gays become more visible in politics, demographic research into lesbians and gays is emerging from the shadows. Some gay advocates say it’s time for surveys to ask people their sexual orientation point-blank.
“As a political and cultural issue, it’s very important for us to understand how big and visible this population is,” said Gary J. Gates, a prominent demographer of gay statistics who wrote the amicus brief.
However the Supreme Court rules, demographic knowledge about gays and lesbians is poised to expand further.
The National Health Interview Survey of 35,000 Americans has started asking respondents their sexual orientation, aiming to identify health-care needs. Last year, the federal government began putting a sexual orientation question in the annual workforce survey.
A Gallup poll last month found that 3.5 percent of American adults identify themselves as LGBT. That includes 10 percent of District residents, 3.3 percent of Maryland residents and 2.9 percent of Virginians. Gallup did not report percentages below the state level, so it’s not possible to compare the District to other big cities.
Gay activists say more research is needed, just to make the case that they exist.
“When our legislative affairs director goes into congressmen’s offices, they’re often told, ‘I have no gay people in my district,’ ” said Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights group urging protections for gays. “That’s why this demographic information is so incredibly important.”
Yet gay activists have been some of the most vocal critics of Gates, who lives with his husband in Seattle and is affiliated with the Williams Institute, a UCLA School of Law think tank that researches sexual orientation and gender identity. They say his work showing that 3.8 percent of Americans are LGBT underestimates their numbers and marginalizes their concerns.
Some of the controversy is rooted in a 1940s-era study by sexologist Alfred Kinsey, who estimated 10 percent of men had had same-sex experiences. That figure has been cited often by gay activists, according to Gates, to make the case they could not be ignored.
Some opponents of gay marriage say more demographic research can correct misperceptions of the size of the gay community. Gallup has found that Americans believe, on average, that 25 percent of the population is gay, several times higher than any research estimate.