SAN FRANCISCO — How many gay men and lesbians are there in the United States? Gary Gates has an idea but acknowledges pinpointing a solid figure remains an elusive task.
Gates is demographer-in-residence at the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy, a think tank based at the University of California, Los Angeles. For the institute’s 10th anniversary this week, he took a scholarly stab at answering the question that has been debated, avoided, parsed, and proven both insoluble and political since pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey said in the 1940s that 10 percent of the men he surveyed were “predominantly homosexual.’’
Gates’s best estimate, derived from five studies that have asked subjects about their sexual orientation, is that the nation has about 4 million adults who identify as being gay or lesbian, representing 1.7 percent of the 18-and-over population.
That’s a much lower figure than the 3 percent to 5 percent that has been the conventional wisdom in the last two decades, based on other studies and attempts to discredit Kinsey.
One reason, Gates said, is that until recently, few surveys tried to differentiate respondents who identified as gay or lesbian from those who sometimes engaged in homosexual acts or were attracted to people of the same sex. All were lumped into the gay category.
“One of the major questions, when you think about how many [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] people are there, is what do you mean by LGBT?’’ he said. “This shows there are pretty big differences between people who use the terms to label themselves versus sexual behavior or attraction.’’
Gates found, for example, that another 1.8 percent of the adult population, or a little more than 4 million Americans, identifies as bisexual, according to his research brief published yesterday by the Williams Institute.