Like Stephen, I found the lack of reaction to the CDC report on the number of self-reported homosexual Americans pretty interesting. For those of us old enough to remember being gay in the 70s (that’s the 1970s, for younger readers), it’s hard to imagine that these low numbers, well below the Kinsey-ish estimates of 10%, did not cause much of a stir.
But, indirectly, IGF occassional contributor John Corvino, helped me think about why this is important. His new article at Commonweal, “Thinking Straight,” isn’t about the numbers game; it’s a great analysis of an essay by Michael Hannon called “Against Homosexuality,” which tries to turn Queer Theory against the notion of gay rights. John does a fine job of explaining how wrong Hannon is, but John’s main point is that while categories for sexual orientation do have their problems, they serve a very practical and important purpose. Absent a fairly clear understanding that there are other people who are attracted to members of their own sex, and that homosexual people have an ordered place in society, it’s very hard for young lesbians and gay boys to find a healthy place in their developing psyches for their sexual feelings.
The closet distorted the more ordinary process heterosexual kids go through, from awkward embarrassment to adult relationships. For generations, homosexual kids went from awkward embarrassment to public silence, possibly awkward heterosexual marriage, or at best awkward adult companionship.
In that context, those fighting for gay equality in the 60s and 70s had to establish something new in public discourse: the fact that there were people who deserved the rights we were claiming. Back then, it was hard to get people willing to testify at public hearings. Remember, those were the days when it was still a crime in most states to even be homosexual. We had heterosexual allies, but those of us who wanted to change the laws had the burden of demonstrating that, despite public appearances, there really was a homosexual population that was affected.
The 10% figure served as the proxy for all those closeted people. It wasn’t accurate, but it had some science behind it. And it provided a little comfort to help bring a few more people into the public eye as open homosexuals.
Now that the closet is eroding (it’s not gone by any means — look how hard it was for Ian Thorpe to come out), we seem to have reached critical mass in the number of people who are comfortable being open about being gay. Today, it’s hard for either the general public or, most importantly, young homosexuals, to avoid knowing something about the fact that homosexual people have a place in society, with or without a spouse.
And it turns out that it doesn’t make a difference how many of those people there are. Whether it’s 10% or 2% or 1.6%, the actual number is not what’s at issue. The equal protection clause doesn’t have a numerical threshold. If the law, itself, is being used by a majority (however large) to unfairly discriminate against a minority (however small), the constitution requires the courts to assure that there is a good reason (sometimes a very good reason) for the differential treatment.
So, for myself, I am going to be spending my time in other pursuits as people continue to exert time and resources trying to figure out how many lesbians and gay men there are. Now that we’re on the path to full equal protection of the law, everything else is just demographics.