“When people look at demographics, they’re often about white gays living in the ‘gayborhoods.’ ” said Jaime Grant, a feminist researcher at Kalamazoo College who heads the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership. “But in communities of color, there’s already a resistance to filling out census forms, and it’s even more so for gays of color.”
It was long considered career suicide to specialize in research into lesbians and gays. That began changing in 1992, when election-day exit polls asked voters their sexual identity.
“I had some interest, being gay,” said Murray J. Edelman, who ran exit polling for the networks. “If you weren’t on the exit poll, then you didn’t exist. . . . It was another way of being counted.”
Since then, more lesbians and gays have been willing to identify themselves and demand for gay statistics has grown from public-health agencies, the military and marketers.
Some of the biggest hurdles remain. Gathering data about gay people is much more complex than asking about race or income. Should people be asked about their sexual attractions, behavior or identity? Which of the many synonyms for gays should be used? How do researchers count gay individuals who are not living with a mate?
“We have guesses we’re missing over half the gay and lesbian population if we just focus on partnered individuals,” said Amanda Baumle, a University of Houston sociologist and demographer.
The decennial census now provides hard numbers on the growing number of same-sex couples willing to identify themselves as such. The 2010 census counted 646,000 same-sex couples, including 130,000 who were married.
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which waged a Queer the Census campaign urging same-sex couples to identify themselves, wants more government surveys to ask about sexual identity and behavior.
“It makes us visible and helps us identify ways our community needs support,” said Darlene Nipper, deputy executive director of the group.
Gates, 51, a former software engineer and seminarian, sits on advisory committees that help formulate questions on government surveys. He said demographics can only bolster the case for marriage equality.
“If the arguments wind up being anecdotal, the arguments of both sides end up being given equal weight,” he said. “The challenge is, science doesn’t always find everything that fits a particular political agenda.”