EARLY IN THIS CENTURY, most people, if they thought about homosexuals at all, tended to believe that there were more lesbians than gay men.
Women, after all, had always been more openly affectionate in public. And pioneer German sex researcher Magnus Hirschfeld had estimated that there were perhaps twice as many lesbians as gay men. Perhaps, too, popular views in the post-World War II era were influenced by the pulp paperback novels, written primarily for a male audience, in which lesbian themes played a highly visible role.
American sex researcher Alfred Kinsey himself took notice of the prevailing view: "There is a widespread opinion which is held both by clinicians and the public at large that homosexual responses and completed contacts occur among more females than males."
But then Kinsey proceeded to turn this conventional wisdom upside down: "This opinion is not borne out by our data and it is not supported by previous studies which have been based on specific data." In fact, just the opposite seemed to be true.
In Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) the Kinsey team reported, as is now familiar, that 37 percent of their men had at least one gay experience to orgasm since puberty, that 4 percent of their men were exclusively homosexual, and that 13 percent of men had more homosexual than heterosexual experience for at least some three-year period between ages 16 and 55.
Five years later in Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), the Kinsey team reported that 13 percent of their women had at least one gay experience to orgasm (vs. 37 percent for men); even including homosexual "experience" that did not lead to orgasm raised the figure for women only to 20 percent. In addition, somewhere between 1 percent and 2 percent of their woman were exclusively homosexual (vs. 4 percent of the men).
Kinsey noted in summary that "the incidences and frequencies of homosexual responses and contacts . . . were much lower among the females in our sample than they were among the males . . . . There were only about a half to a third as many of the females who were, in any age period, primarily or exclusively homosexual."
Originally a zoologist, Kinsey was careful to point out in a footnote the human similarity to other mammals in this regard: "In the class Mammalia taken as a whole, homosexual behavior among males is more frequent than homosexual behavior among females."
Even the famous "10 percent" figure for gays repeatedly proffered by gay activists (a claim Kinsey never made) turns out on examination to be an average composed of the 13 percent of men who have had more gay than straight sex for some three-year period, and a 7-percent estimate for the same category for women.
Surveys conducted since Kinsey, using various research techniques, have varied widely -- from Kinsey and from one another -- in their estimates of the incidence of homosexuality. But despite their differences, for the most part they have tended to reproduce his finding on the proportion of gay men to lesbians.
A study published in Nature by a British team in 1990 reported that 9 percent of the men and 4 percent of the women contacted said they had "some" homosexual experience.
In 1993, psychologist Sam Janus published survey results showing that 22 percent of the men and 17 percent of the women had had at least one homosexual experience. Perhaps more importantly, 9 percent of the men and 5 percent of the women said their homosexual experience could be described as "frequent" or "ongoing." (Slightly less than half of those called themselves homosexual.)
In 1993, a team at the Harvard School of Public Health reported that 6.2 percent of men and 3.6 percent of women reported a same-sex partner in the pervious five years. (Interestingly 8.7 percent of the men and 11.1 percent of the women reported feeling some same-sex attraction but not engaging in homosexual behavior.)
Sociologist Stephen Murray counted the unmarried males and females in San Francisco who checked the "unmarried partnership" category in the 1990 census. He reported in his recent book American Gay that he found 5,437 male couples and 1,379 female couples. While both these figures are absurdly low for several obvious reasons, Murray observes that they do approximate "what I think is the true ratio of three or four self-identified gay men for every self-identified lesbian."
Murray also cites an unpublished study by sociologist Diane Binson, who conducted a random sample of households in multi-ethnic neighborhoods in San Francisco and found 3.4 times as many exclusively homosexual men as exclusively homosexual women.
And finally, a ponderous National Opinion Research Center (NORC) study published in 1994 as "The Social Organization of Sexuality" found that 9 percent of the men and 4 percent of the women reported engaging in at least some homosexual behavior since puberty.
In addition, the NORC study found that 6.2 percent of the men report being attracted to a man while only 4.4 percent of women report any sexual attraction to women. Finally, 2.8 percent of the men and 1.4 percent of the women acknowledge a homosexual or bisexual identity.
There are, however, two anomalous studies. A 1993 survey by the Louis Harris organization had results that were all over the map. They found that 3.8 percent of the men and 2.8 percent of the women had a same-sex sexual partner in the last year; and 4. 4 percent of the men and 3.6 percent of the women had a same-sex partner in the last five years; but 1.8 percent of the men and 2.1 percent of the women reported a same-sex partner in the previous month.
Also anomalously, marketing consultant Grant Lukenbill reports in his book Untold Millions that a 1993 survey of consumer behavior by Yankelovich Partners found that 5 percent of the men contacted identified themselves as gay men, and 6.4 of the women identified themselves as lesbians.
The point of gathering these results together is not to estimate the number of gays and lesbians, but to try to see what basis there is for the current belief by both gays and heterosexuals that gay men are not only more visible but more numerous than lesbians.
The studies have varying degrees of reliability. And they clearly measured very different things-behavior, attraction, identity, openness. But they seem to converge on a finding that there about twice as many gay men as lesbians, no matter what measures are used.