Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Q & A: How Many Americans are Gay?

Believe it or not, the government asks and tells. According to recently released results from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), nine out of ten people aged 15 to 44 (the survey is limited to that age group) identify themselves as heterosexual. The proportions are almost identical for men (90.2 percent) and women (90.3 percent) and do not vary significantly by age within the 15-to-44 age group.

Does this mean the remaining 10 percent are homosexual? Maybe, but it's hard to say. The government allows respondents to identify themselves as homosexual, bisexual, or "something else." Among men aged 15 to 44, only 2.3 percent identify themselves as homosexual, 1.8 percent say they are bisexual, 3.9 percent say they are something else, and 1.8 percent did not answer the question. Among women the proportions are 1.3 percent homosexual, 2.8 percent bisexual, 3.8 percent something else, and 1.8 percent refused to answer. Just what is "something else"? According to the government report Sexual Behavior and Selected Health Measures: Men and Women 15-44 Years of Age, United States, 2002, some of those saying they are something else may not understand the terminology. So the 10 percent figure may be too large—or maybe not.

The NSFG explores sexual orientation in other ways as well. It asks respondents whether they are attracted more to people of the same sex or the opposite sex. It also asks about lifetime and past-year sexual contact with opposite-sex and same-sex partners. On the attraction question, 92 percent of men aged 15 to 44 say they are attracted only to females—more than the 90 percent of men who say they are heterosexual. Among women, 86 percent say they are attracted only to males—less than the 90 percent who say they are heterosexual. Six percent of men say they have had oral or anal sex with another man in their lifetime. A smaller 2.9 percent say they have done so in the past 12 months. Eleven percent of women say they have had a sexual experience with another woman in their lifetime, and 4.4 percent have done so in the past year (the survey asked men and women different questions regarding same-sex experiences, making it difficult to compare results by gender).

It's likely that many people do not want the government to know their sexual leanings—especially if they are gay. The NSFG interviews were conducted in a way to minimize this hesitancy. Respondents wore headphones and entered their responses into a computer, preventing the interviewer from knowing how they answered the questions. Nevertheless, there's little doubt homosexuality will be under-reported, making the 10 percent figure as good a guess as any.

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