Karen Ocamb

Video & Interview: The Williams Institute Reports 9 Million LGBT People in the US

Filed By Karen Ocamb | April 27, 2011 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: Gary Gates, LGBT population, statistics, Williams Institute

(Note from Karen: the article below is cross-posted from Frontiers In LA. Because of space constraints in the magazine, I was unable to include an interview with EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum who talks about transgender rights, more from Gary Gates and Nan Hunter, and more photos – which I’ve posted here. Additionally, on Monday the Williams Institute released a video of Gary Gates’ complete presentation (below), which is well worth watching and saving for future reference. Gary also remarked to me about the criticism he’s received, most ardently from The Bilerico Project.)

Williams Institute executive director Brad Sears and scholar Gary Gates (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

There's a scene at the end of the 1997 comedy In & Out in which students, parents, neighbors, friends, firefighters, the postal worker, men and women, young and old, stand up with great fanfare and announce they must be gay because of their relationship with gay teacher Howard Bracken. Anyone just walking into that packed auditorium and seeing about half the audience gleefully self-identifying might think the small town had a huge gay population.

In fact, there were just two actual gay people in the room--Bracken and his newly out TV reporter boyfriend. And that's what made the scene so touching--the straights wanted the lone gays to feel their support in numbers.

Something like that scene is being played out in America today, as more and more polls show support for LGBT equality. But there is very little indication that the cultural shift is a result of concerns about or acknowledgment of the size of the LGBT population.

Nonetheless, when a new study estimating the LGBT population by nationally renowned Williams Institute LGBT scholar and demographer Gary Gates was released on April 7 as the Williams Institute marked its 10th anniversary, some bloggers were intensely skeptical. Gates found that 9 million adult LGBTs live in America, about 3.8 percent, roughly the size of the population of New Jersey. And while 9 million might be an impressive number, critics balked, referring to the unknowable number of gays in the closet and to the oft-cited 10 percent estimate of homosexuality suggested by sexologist Alfred Kinsey in his famous 1948 study of sexual behavior.

Indeed, the belief that one in 10 individuals is gay has been part of LGBT lore since Kinsey's study. Also on April 7, the White Crane Press celebrated what would have been Harry Hay's 99th birthday. The White Crane Press noted in an email that Hay, founder of the Mattachine Society and co-founder of the Radical Faeries, composed the first manifesto of the American gay rights movement in 1948, writing, "We, the Androgynes of the world, have formed this responsible corporate body to demonstrate by our efforts that our physiological and psychological handicaps need be no deterrent in integrating 10 percent of the world's population towards the constructive social progress of mankind."

Harry Hay in 1996 in the desert (Photo from Wikipedia)

Not much later, Hay chucked the apologetic tone and argued that gays (which he identified as "homophiles") were in fact a distinct "cultural minority" and should reject assimilation into the dominant heterosexual society.

These same issues have shown up in Gates' work, with important ramifications for how policymakers with information now based on research and not just instinct or anecdotes should proceed. For his LGBT population study (which can be found at the Williams Institute website), Gates drew on four recent national and two state-level population-based surveys, coming to the conclusion that there are more than 8 million LGB adults and nearly 700,000 transgender individuals in the United States. Some key findings are that among those who identify as LGB, bisexuals comprise a slight majority (1.8 percent compared to 1.7 percent who identify as lesbian or gay) and women are substantially more likely than men to identify as bisexual. Additionally, an estimated 19 million Americans (8.2 percent) report they have engaged in same-sex sexual behavior, and nearly 25.6 million Americans (11 percent) acknowledge at least some same-sex sexual attraction.

During his presentation, Gates spoke about his methodology. "My idea was to look at as many population-based surveys as I could find in a fairly recent time window. I borrowed from RealClear Politics or Nate Silver this kind of poll of polls approach. None of these surveys are perfect--they're all entirely credible methodologically but they're not perfect," Gates said. "So perhaps one way to smooth out potential bias too low or too high is to smooth out the results with an averaging. So that is the attempt here."

Gary Gates during his presentation (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Gates also disputed the common perception that minorities are less likely to self-identify as L, G or B. "I don't find that in a lot of these surveys. There's a difference in 'B' versus 'LG' by minorities. Racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to be bisexual than whites are," Gates said. "I constantly get this thing that you can't measure because there's the closet and people won't answer the question. Except that--if you combine L, G and B--13 percent who use the word L, G or B to describe themselves in the survey said that they had never told another human being that they were L, G or B. And yet they told the survey. So we should not assume that everybody who checks L, G or B on a survey is out to anybody. That's not to deny that there are people who won't tell a survey. But the big difference is only 4 percent of lesbian and gay people said they had never told anybody, compared to 25 percent of bisexuals."

But Gates elicited gasps when he talked about the stereotype of the LGBT community versus the reality. Gates estimates there are now an estimated 1.16 million individuals who are part of a same-sex couple--so 581,000 same-sex couples. But where they live gives a very clear picture of how difficult it is to consider LGBTs a "minority."

"When we lump L, G, B and potentially T as a demographic," Gates said, pointing to maps derived from the 2000 Census, "there's a danger there because 60 or 70 percent of that group is white. And so when we think about it as a demographic, we have to be really careful. What we're capturing here is the geographic patterns of white people in same-sex couples."

It's a completely different map when the focus is on LGB African-Americans. They live in the same areas where there is a high concentration of straight African-Americans. And, Gates said, this is true locally as well as nationally.

"So if you're trying to survey the LGBT community in Los Angeles and you set up a booth in West Hollywood, you're going to get rich, white, gay people. And if you want to find the whole LGBT community, you have to go into these communities of color," Gates said. "That's where LGBT people of color live. They largely do not live in gay ghettos. And, quite frankly, if you did this for male and female, you'd see a different map, too, particularly on city levels. Women don't live in gay enclaves. They live around them," Gates said, to some laughter.

"It's a caution to people doing policy work or doing programatic work to just constantly keep in mind that what's dubbed as ‘gay’ is often white, male and rich, and that's one of the reasons why that stereotype remains, and we need to be much more cognizant of that."

Demographic scholar Gary Gates (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

In an interview with Frontiers about the political push to be considered a minority, Gates elaborated: "That's precisely the challenge. As a group--LGBT--we view it as a minority, but we are different from other minorities in that we come from every other cultural and socio-economic and whatever background, and I think one of the dangers of us just unreflectively grouping us together is not thinking about that diversity and the fact that that diversity changes for some people the meaning of that LGBT identity, and the impact of choosing that identity can be very different, and I think we always need to be conscious of that."

As to the criticism of LGBTs self-identifying at only 3.9 percent, Gates and others suggested that percentages don't really matter anymore in terms of clout or fighting discrimination--offering the equally low percent of the Jewish population.

On how the Religious Right will use the concept of "fluidity” when talking about bisexuality to challenge the authenticity of an identity based on sexual orientation , Gates said:

The data suggests that half of LGBs are B and unfortunately, I think there's some of that from both the right and the LG community to be suspect of bisexuals. One, I don't think it's helpful as a way to dialogue about these issues and secondly, regardless of whether it's fluid, it's their identity at that point in time when you take your snapshot and that's a valid thing.

Gates said he was taken aback by the criticism from The Bilerico Project and later said he has reached out to both Bil Browning and Alex Blaze to communicate directly – but has received no response. At the conference, he said:

They certainly have the right to say what they want to say. I think my work speaks for itself. I think I do very transparent work. I think I'm clear in the report that I gave. And I'm delighted that it causes people to talk about the issue. The one part of the Bilerico thing that I did find a little disturbing - was a comment by Bil Browing that said ‘Thanks for the take-down.' I don't know what that means - but I find that a little disconcerting. It sounds like the idea is - take this guy down. Take me down or take the study down. But my name appeared in every paragraph of that critique and I do find that a little bit disconcerting.

Chai Feldblum and Nan Hunter at the Williams Institute conference (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

I also asked the Williams Institute's Nan Hunter about the criticism of the population study:

"I think some people in the community have an emotional attachment to the 1-in-10 figure, even though it hasn't been considered scientifically valid for years and years. It's hard for me to believe that people didn't realize that sooner, frankly. But I think the emotional attachment comes from the function it served as a marker of visibility, regardless of whether it was true or not. And now we know, frankly, it's not true. And we are politically strong enough so that it doesn't matter. I think the old 1-10 served a real purpose- 30, 40, 50 years ago. But I think the legitimacy has now been established by other means so that, regardless of what percentage we are – we don't treat religious minorities, for instance, as being legitimate or not legitimate depending on whether they've reached some minimum percentage level in the population. We understand treating people differently, based on their religious affiliation, is simply wrong.
Society is rapidly moving and, by some measures, has perhaps already moved to pretty strong support for the principle that treating people differently because of their sexual orientation is wrong. In terms of the research that the Williams Institute is doing, we are just so far beyond trying to concoct slogans and base things on inflated numbers. That's not what the Williams Institute does and I don't think the movement should want to do that."

Chai Feldblum said:

I think this whole conference has been just an amazing opportunity to display the type of rigorous research that is going on in lots of different fields. So I was only here for the second day - but just the panel I moderated on employment - you have a sociologist, an economist, you have a psychologist from a previous panel - people from different disciplines showing that people are being discriminated against right now because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and that we, as a society, need to do something about that. So - 9 million is actually a huge number - but even if it's a small number, someone is being discriminated against based on their sexual orientation or gender identity and that's wrong.

Michael Boucai, Chai Feldblum and Nan Hunter (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

There are two places where we get protection - one is under the Constitution, the other is under statutes. So the mutability issue - to the extent that it's relevant at all - is relevant only for Constitutional protection. Should there be heightened scrutiny? As we know, the Department of Justice and President Obama recently stated that they thought sexual orientation should get heightened scrutiny and the fact that someone could choose if they're bisexual, who they're going to be with - has no difference at all in terms of the Constitutional protection. So to the extent that it has been used before - it's not really a strong factor. But in any event - that's just for the Constitution.

In terms of the statute, the analogy to religion shows you why transgender people are currently covered under Title VII because if you changed your religion, you're discriminated against because of religion. If you change your gender, you're discriminated against because of gender. So therefore, the fact that you can change and therefore be discriminated based on that under a statute - that's already there under sex.

Chai Feldblum (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

What the Department of Justice has said is simply stating a legal position - which I think at this point, shouldn't be a particularly controversial legal decision. If the government classifies on the basis of sexual orientation, they have to demonstrate under a heightened scrutiny standard why they made that classification. So now it's up to the courts to see whether - it won't be the government providing the justification but someone else. They sent the letter to the US Congress so Congress can offer the justification and we can see whether the courts will agree with that.

So everything the Department of Justice had to say dealt with a Constitutional challenge. The Commission is responsible for enforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 so our obligation is to make sure that we are on top of what the cases are saying. That's why I made the point that there is a fair amount of litigation around sex discrimination. It will not protect a lesbian who looks like me. But it will protect a lesbian who is much more masculine. So that's our job - to enforce the law as it is right now. It's other people's jobs to get the additional laws passed.

I think the more important thing is just the day-to-day activities of gay people and transgender people who really just want to have a job, have a family if they want to have a family, have housing - be able to live our lives - just with integrity and that, to me, is the goal.



Williams Institute executive director Brad Sears, Freedom to Marry founder Evan Wolfson, Williams Institute founder Chuck Williams (Photo by Karen Ocamb)



Evan Wolfson and Gary Gates answering questions about the population study (Photo by Karen Ocamb)



Williams Institute's Research Director MV Lee Badgett (Photo by Karen Ocamb)



Visting International Scholar Jovan Kojicic, Brad Sears and Gary Gates (Photo by Karen Ocamb)



My favorite photo - Evan Wolfson and Gary Gates illuminated by data (Photo by Karen Ocamb)



Williams Institute founder Chuck Williams and Executive Director Brad Sears - On April 8, Brad Sears was named an Assistant Dean of the UCLA School of Law (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Gary Gates’ presentation:

(Crossposted at LGBTPOV)


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I would be very curious to hear Gates' defense of his methodology in producing a count of the transgender population. What I read in the report was a joke, not coming from a position of knowledge about the community nor in any way 'credible.'

Nor am I interested in hearing yet another 'glbt' organization which has neither trans employees nor board members explaining the realities of anti-trans discrimination.

I haven't yet watched the 1:11:34 video posted above, but I certainly plan to, in large part because I'd be interested in interviewing Gates about this issue.

That being said, this post strikes me as little more than a p.r piece for Gates. On those lines: did you ask either Bil or Alex about Gates's claim that they did not respond to him? If so, what were their responses? If the point of this was to provide some sort of perspective on that aspect, I'm curious to know why their responses to you were not recorded here.

Lastly, while there's a great deal more to be said about the study, I do want to emphasise that the criticism of it is not based on some emotional attachment to the 1 in 10 number, which is the impression given by the blog post above. I'm amongst those who has been critical of the "new" findings, and as anyone who knows my politics would know (or cares to find out), I certainly have no emotional attachment to the Kinsey findings because I don't think questions around "rights" should be based on numbers anyway. Rather, the criticism has been: if the methodologies involving the studies that were averaged out were themselves faulty and consequently yielded faulty results, how does it make sense to average them out? Wouldn't it have made more sense to look at studies that used more reliable methodologies and were more consistent?

That was the thrust of Alex's post, and this post above tries to obfuscate that entirely. Not successfully, I might add. I'd be curious to talk to Gates directly about this.

Perhaps these issues have been addressed in that video, but in that case, it would help to say so in the text above, especially given the length of the video.