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What percentage of the population is lesbian, gay or bisexual?

Subjects

When discussing the morality of homoerotic attractions and behaviour, the population size (prevalence / incidence) of impacted people is often raised by both sides of the debate. On the one hand it is used to show that the population being discussed is small, on the other that it is larger than you may think. Implicit in such assertions is the notion that demography impacts morality in some way and that therefore these numbers need to be discussed. Whilst there are legitimate usages of LGBT demographic data (such as addressing economic impact of legislation) this article will not address issues of morality other than agreeing with the philosopher John Corvino who states “…our numbers are irrelevant when determining whether homosexuality is natural in any morally significant sense.”[1] (Page 81).

Instead of addressing moral issues, this article will seek only to show what some of the more recent studies say about the size of this population. During the course of this a number of problems with gaining accurate figures will be acknowledged. The final conclusion is that across two measures and general statements in the literature approximately 4-5% of the population is lesbian, gay or bisexual.

Popular perception

Whilst instinctively veering away from men on the street with clipboards, these men and women who use differing techniques to gather data about our views provide interesting facts about people’s perceptions of LGBT issues. One 2011 Gallup poll sought to find out how many people in the population the American people felt were gay or lesbian[2] According to the average estimation provided by the 1,018 respondents approximately 25 percent of Americans are gay or lesbian. Anecdotally this figure is also close to the number I have been given when asking individuals this question in the past.

A further popular number that is commonly used by people to estimate the incidence of homosexuality in our societies is that of 10%.[3] If this figure is, as is suggested by some, derived from the Kinsey reports, the figure is not an accurate representation of the true incidence of homosexuality in the population. Kinsey never indicated that 10% of people were homosexual, but merely that 10% of the population was more or less exclusively homosexual over a three year period between the ages of 16-55[4]

As will be shown, the popular notion of the population size of the LGBT community is something that demographic studies do not necessarily agree with. Popular perception for one reason or another (some of which will be discussed later) has inflated the true figure and in some instances this inflation has been dramatic.

In order to demonstrate the incidence of homosexuality and bisexuality in the population three reviews of the literature will be undertaken. The first review will look at what books on the subject of homosexuality have to say on the issue. The second review will review studies addressing the percentage of the population that identifies as homosexual. The third review will look at the percentage of the male population that engages in same sex acts.

These three types of review are still not adequate to address the issue of sexual orientation. Self-identification is notoriously difficult to use as an accurate reference for a person’s orientation. Stein notes “Surveys from which the estimates base rate of homosexuality are derived assume everyone is conscious of his or her true sexual desires (or at least a very reliable reporter of such desires), is comfortable admitting them, and is able to fit himself or herself into our commonsense categories of sexual orientation.”[5] Here Stein has introduced another category that could be reviewed – namely that of the person’s sexual fantasies. This will not be reviewed in this article.

This is not a comprehensive literature review; that is beyond the scope of an introductory article on the subject. The books and papers cited are those that I have in my possession and not a randomised selection from a library.

What some of the books say:

Book Percentage / Quote Notes
Corvino, John. 2013 – What’s Wrong with Homosexuality (Page 81, Kindle Ed.) Oxford University Press, Oxford. 2-6%
Brown, Michael 2011– A Queer Thing Happened to America. (Kindle Ed. Loc 3052). EqualTime Books Roughly 3%
Balthazart, Jacques 2012 – The Biology of Homosexuality (page 4). Oxford University Press “It is considered that 3-10% of men are homosexuals in all cultures irrespective of their culture’s attitude vis-a-vis homosexuality… There thus exists in all human populations a significant proportion of gays and lesbians. Although very significant, this ratio never exceeds 10%…” Worldwide
Levay, Simon 2011 – Gay, Straight and the Reason Why – The Science of Sexual Orientation. (Kindle ed. Loc. 321). Oxford University Press. “Fairly typical are the findings of a U.S. study conducted in the early 1990s. In this study, 96.4% of men and 98.3% of women reported heterosexual… attraction. 0.6% of men and 0.8% of women reported bisexual attraction; and 3.1% of men and 0.9% of women reported homosexual… attraction…

With regard to its estimate of the prevalence of gay men… the results of the U.S. survey just mentioned remain near the high end of the estimates in the various studies that have been published”

Eskridge, William N.; Spedale, Darren R. 2006. Gay Marriage: For Better or for Worse? What We’ve Learned from the Evidence (94). Oxford University Press “Under a conservative estimate that 1 percent of the entire population of those countries is homosexual… no Scandinavian country sees even 10% of its gay and lesbian population in a registered partnership. Using a more liberal estimate, that gays and lesbians comprise 5% of the population, less than 1 percent of the gay and lesbian population of Sweden or Denmark, has taken advantage of the legislation.” Scandinavian countries
Caramagno, Thomas C. 2002. Irreconcilable Differences? Intellectual Stalemate in the Gay Rights Debate (119). Praeger “It is commonly asserted by pro-gay activists that 10% of the American population is homosexual, while anti-gay groups insist it is only 1-2%… Over the last fifty years surveys have reported incidence ranging from 1.2% to 22%, and so 10%, while convenient, is oversimplified… Although it is popularly believed that Alfred Kinsey’s pioneering study in the 1940s proved that 10% of the American population was homosexual, he argued against such an easy categorization…”
Rauch, Jonathan 2004. Gay Marriage. Why It is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America (69). Times Books “Assuming that 3-5% of the population is homosexual, between 9 million and 15 million Americans are gay.”

What some of the literature says about the incidence of self-identification as LGB:

In order to further assess the figures, data on self-reported identities will be compared below. It should be recognised that self-identification is notoriously unreliable when taken by itself as a true indicator of the percentage of Lesbian Gay and Bisexual men and women.

Year Article Percentage Self-Identifying Notes
2012 Office for National Statistics – Integrated Household Survey, April 2012: Experimental Statistics 1.5% = LGB (Page 2)

3.6% = don’t know or refused to answer

0.6% = no answer provided

Maximum = 5.7% not counting those who wrongly self-identify

UK

2012 Special Report: 3.4% of U.S. Adults Identify as LGBT

Inaugural Gallup findings based on more than 120,000 interviews

 

3.4%

4.4% did not know or refused to answer

US
2011 Gates, Gary J. ( April 2011). “How many People are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender?” The Williams Institute 3.5% = LGB (Page 6)

 

US
2010 “The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Population at a Glance”. harris Interactive 6.8% (Page 1) Derived from harris Interactive Poll data from 2002-2010

Inclusion of transgender figures complicates this figure

Cahill, Sean. “Bisexuality: Dispelling the myths”. National Gay and Lesbian Task Force 4.1% of men

4.1% of female

Data pulled from
2001 “Facts: Gay and Lesbian youth in Schools” Lambda Legal 5-6% of students Figures taken from the 2011 National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health

Inclusion of transgender figures complicate this figure

2009 Aspinall – “Estimating the Size and Composition of the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Population in Britain” – Equality and Human Rights Commission Research Report 37 2.5% (Page 56).

3.5% if the “don’t know” etc articles

UK

Based on a range of surveys

2008 “Sexual Orientation Research Review” – Equality and Human Rights Commission Research Report 34 Surveys vary between 0.3-7% (Page 70) UK
2007 Not Yet Equal: The Health of Lesbian, Gay, & Bisexual Youth in BC 2.4% (page 5) British Columbia Students
2010 “Men’s Sexual Orientation and Health in Canada.” Canadian Journal of Public Health – vol 101, no. 3 (Page 256) 1.9% of males (page 256) Canada
For further studies: www.kinseyinstitute.org/resources/bib-homoprev.html

Whilst the numbers above vary significantly, one thing that should be clear is that they are less than the 25% given by the Gallup poll respondents noted earlier. They also fall below another commonly used figure of 10%

What some of the literature says about the incidence of same-sex sexual activity:

The following table outlines the percentage of males deemed to be men who have sex with men (MSM). This is a behavioural statistic rather than one of self-identification and will comprise both gay and bisexual males. Despite what may seem to some as an objective and straightforward manner of collating the data, even this methodology is not as straightforward as might be expected. To be MSM the measurement could be based on ever having had a same-sex encounter or perhaps having had it at some specified period in the recent past.

Whether or not someone who is classified as MSM can be seen as homosexual or bisexual is also debatable. A one-off experimental sexual encounter that is not intended to be repeated would classify one as MSM, even if that encounter was subsequently seen by the individual as distasteful and not to be repeated.

The data that comprises this table is largely drawn from reports on health statistics where the terminology MSM is commonly used. This is due to sexual practice being the issue where physical health is of concern. My purpose here is not to portray homosexuals in a negative light, it is merely to collate the data.

Year Article Percentage MSM Notes
June 2012 CDC Fact Sheet – HIV and AIDS among Gay and Bisexual Men Roughly 4% (Page 1) US
May 2012 HIV Among Gay and Bisexual Men Roughly 2% (Page 1) US
2010 HIV in the United States: At a Glance Roughly 4% (Page 1) US
2011 “Sexually Transmitted Infections in Men Who Have Sex with Men in the UK: 2011 Report” – Health Protection Agency 3.4% (Page 4) UK
2011 Sexual Behavior, Sexual Attraction, and Sexual Identity in the United States: Data from the 2006-2008 National Survey of Family Growth. 5.8% of men

12% of women

US

Conclusion

Whilst the estimated prevalence of homosexuality in the world varies across the different studies, the reported % falls below that of the popular perception. A number of factors may contribute to this, difficulty in accepting one’s orientation, differing measures of orientations, unwillingness to discuss the subject in surveys, researcher bias (intentional or unintentional) etc. The fact remains that the homosexual population across all of the studies seems to have a mean average of approximately 4-5%. The use of research on homoerotic desires and fantasies may positively modify this number. Regardless, as John Corvino has noted, these numbers do not affect whether or not homosexual practice or orientation is moral or not.

Ultimately, the conclusion of this article is that homosexuality is less common than popularly believed, that this is the case across at least two measures of homosexuality (self-identification and same-sex practice).


[1] Corvino, John. 2013 – What’s Wrong with Homosexuality (Page 81, Kindle Ed.) Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[4] Jones, Stanton L.; Yarhouse, Mark A. 2000 – Homosexuality – The Use of Scientific Research in the Church’s Moral Debate. (36). Intervarsity Press

[5] Stein, Edward. 1999 – The Mismeasure of Desire – The Science, Theory and Ethics of Sexual Orientation. (208). Oxford University Press


1 Comment

  1. mattlonghorn says:

    Among the many things that I did not point out in this article are the following:
    1. I am not a demographer nor do I have training in statistics – please find the articles cited and read them for the opinions of trained professionals.
    2. My conclusion that there is an average of 4-5% of the population who are lesbian, gay or bisexual is based on the average of the studies cited. I did not correct for instances where resources cited the same source material. This will skew the results that I have provided.

    Despite these caveats, I still believe that the article gives a good guideline to the prevalence of homosexuality in western societies

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