Thinking Straight about the Numbers Racket

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.

19 Comments for “Thinking Straight about the Numbers Racket”

  1. posted by Houndentenor on

    Exactly. Even if there were only 0.01%, would that 0.01% be any less entitled to equal rights under the law? No.

    As it is, marketing companies, insurance companies, political pollsters and others who do need an estimate of the number of gay Americans put the number at about 2.8% for men and a little less for women. Considering the number of people employed to crunch those numbers, someone in those businesses would have noticed if their numbers were off. But a higher number shouldn’t make us more equal nor a lower one less so. Note, however, that’s exactly what the religious right and their allies (and panderers) try to do with any such numbers.

  2. posted by Jorge on

    Very tought-provoking article, at least the bits I understood.

    “….The new regime, which allows for such alternatives, strikes many of us as a very good thing. It’s not because we believe that desire-satisfaction is always good. Sexual desires in particular can powerfully incline people to favor short-term pleasure over long-term welfare, as Christian moral teaching has long and properly noticed. It’s rather because we recognize that a small but significant portion of our fellow human beings are predominantly attracted to persons of the same sex, and that previous generations’ tendency to ignore or hide or stifle this fact did far more harm than good.”

    Did it really now? With homosexuality swept under the rug, most people saw a clean rug. The demand that has been trying to assert itself for millennia is nothing less than an individual’s desire to feel the life-providing warmth of the sun.

    The Catholic Church has been wrong to pit itself so strongly against those who pushed it to minister to that need in the first place. Should it decide that the distress caused by the emerging sexuality of homosexual people is not an actual need to minister to, only then would it be right.

    As I have said before, my favorite scene in Romeo and Juliet is the part where 13 year old Juliet’s mother is trying to convince her to accept a marriage proposal. Both parents know there’s something wrong with her being married so young, and that it will probably lead to an unhappy marriage, but there are hints that they have tried to prepare and protect her. All is not lost–her mother was pregnant at her age (I think most people interpret the passage as Lady Capulet actually having had given birth long before), and look where she is now.

    Just because we can go back to those times, it does not mean that we have to, and it does NOT mean that we should.

  3. posted by Tom Scharbach on

    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.

    That’s the nub of it. The “numbers racket” has been played by social conservatives for years (for example, Julaine Appling of Wisconsin Family Action has been arguing at least since 2006 that the “institution of marriage” should not be destroyed for the sake of “2% of the population”) but the relative number of gays and lesbians is not relevant to the constitutional question.

    It is also irrelevant to religious conservatives. Conservative Christians oppose marriage equality because “equal means equal” offends their theology. The relative percentage of population and benefits/costs to society are talking points for them, not motivating consideration. It wouldn’t make a bit of difference to religious conservatives if we were half the population of if we had incontrovertible evidence that marriage equality would greatly improve our society. They’d fight us anyway.

    • posted by Houndentenor on

      It is predicated on the idea that if gays can get married it will destroy everyone else’s marriage. It’s absurd.

      While we’re at it, where are all the stories about how out gay soldiers have destroyed troop morale in the armed services.

      The contemporary right can only find horrors of the “liberal agenda” by projecting them into the future. (See: Obamacare) When those horrors fail to materialize they make up new ones. Since our current media is too lazy to actually challenge the people who make these bizarre claims (see the recent libelous claims from Michelle Bachmann), they get away with it.

  4. posted by Tom Scharbach on

    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.

    I’m curious about this, David. I’m probably as old as either Stephen or you are (68), and although I thought that the HHS/CDC estimate was on the low side, I didn’t think that it was a total outlier, either.

    We’ve seen estimates in the 2-4% range for quite a number of years now, both in the United States and Canada, as well as in Europe, and to the extent that estimates can be made, estimates in those ranges seem to apply cross-culturally.

    What I’m curious about is why “it is hard to imagine these low numbers”. The Kinsey 10% has been the outlier for a long time now.

  5. posted by Jorge on

    When I was in college 10-14 years ago, GLBT organizations were still called GLBT, and they and their events used the 10% figure. Is that really such a long time ago?

    I know it’s been debunked many times since, but has that caught on?

    • posted by JohnInCA on

      I wasn’t big on the LGBT orgs in college (it was a small STEM focused university of ~2k students) and graduated 3ish years ago.

      The only time I *ever* heard the “10%” figure was either (a) a joke, or (b) talking about how bad research methodology can dramatically skew your data.

      Maybe my experience was skewed by my outlier school. Maybe people that don’t understand math and good research practices still quote that number as meaningful. I don’t know. But there’s my anecdote for your collection purposes.

    • posted by Houndentenor on

      I cringe whenever I see someone use the 10% number. There have been many study since then with lower numbers. Yes, gays have been guilty of inflating our numbers, just like every other advocacy out there. Hardly anyone takes the median number or the low estimate to make their case.

  6. posted by Doug on

    “. . . the constitution requires the courts to assure that there is a good reason (sometimes a very good reason) for the differential treatment.”

    Just because you don’t approve of me, for whatever reason, is NOT sufficient to discriminate against me IMHO.

    It appears that Mr. Link may not agree with Stephen on the carve out to discriminate.

    • posted by Jorge on

      That’s only true of the government. Public accomodations laws are extra, and trumped by the Constitution. Private accomodations laws are unconstitutional outright.

      If I’m in my private zone, I can do whatever I want, whenever I want, for whatever reason I want. My fist will not end where your face begins. I will use reasonable force to remove you from my home by opening up my fist before it hits your face. If I am in a public place where I have a legal right to be, I do not have a duty to retreat. I will use reasonable force to defend myself against your flailing fists.

      And discrimination has nothing to do with it.

      Do you really want people to start resorting to loopholes?

      • posted by Doug on

        Loopholes are exactly what the religious right is seeking.

  7. posted by Tom Jefferson III on

    I think that the general public; laymen and women tend to want to simplify scientific research and data. That is probably how the 10% figure got tossed around and probably got attached to college gay groups in the 1980s – 1990s.

    I tend to say 4-5% just because that manages to pis## off both the religious right as well as some ‘gayer-then-art-thou-‘ students.

  8. posted by Lori Heine on

    We know that the figure now cited is a minimum. And we know enough about people to realize that the actual number must be higher. Perhaps several percentage points higher.

    I didn’t come out until a month before I turned 35. Up ’til then, I would have answered that I was heterosexual. Even though, from the age of about 25 ’til 34, I thought I was bisexual. If my answer would have been skewed, so would a lot of other people’s.

    The commenters who assert that the exact number should make no difference are absolutely right. If only one out of ten thousand people were gay, they would still be deserving of fully equal treatment under the law. We’ve existed consistently over human history, and homosexuality exists throughout nature. It’s high time honest and decent straight people just got over it.

  9. posted by deejaybee on

    OF COURSE it matters how large the gay/lesbian percentage is. We are always victims of undercounts. Here is what needs to be included: all persons whose primary erotic fantasies are with same sex persons. That….is homosexuality. And for more GLBT people to come out, they need to see that there are far more of us than any data have shown heretofore.

  10. posted by Tom Scharbach on

    As a side note, the 4th Circuit decided in favor of marriage equality this afternoon, by a vote of 2-1. Looking forward, oral arguments will be heard in the 6th Circuit (KY, MI, OH & TN) on August 6, in the 7th Circuit (IN & WI) on August 26, and in the 9th Circuit (ID & NV) on September 8.

  11. posted by Clayton on

    I, too, tend to think the 2-3% figure is low, because many closeted people are not ong to give a truthful answer, even in an anonymous poll.

    But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that 2% is indeed an accuragte figure. The population clock at the US Census site puts the current population at, roughly, 318.5 million. The two percent figure puts the number of GLBT people at roughly 6.4 million. That’s a lot of people with fundamental rights, including the right to have a family.

    In fact, the World Atlas web site contains a list of states ranked by population, and as of 2012 (the year the Atlas used for its data), 35 of 50 states had fewer than 6.4 million people. So if the Congress were suddenly to decide that nobody in the entire state of Tennessee (6.2 million) should have the right to marry because [fill in justication here], well, you can see where it would cause a bit of a fuss.

  12. posted by Jorge on

    all persons whose primary erotic fantasies are with same sex persons. That….is homosexuality.

    I realize homosexuality is the most “clinical” term there is, but is it really?

    What if people who had same sex desires could identify in another way, what if they could identify as, say, “objectively disordered”?

    And what if such a way were made open to them?

    Are not they too, however large or small their group, also entitled to their freedom to love as they wish, the freedom of expression and religion, and to the equal protection of our laws?

    And do not these same rights apply to youth who are before the age of majority? Have I missed history, or have the equal protection of our laws been shed at the schoolhouse gates?

    It is for this reason that the laws that purport to ban reparative therapy are an abomination in spirit, if not design, and must be repealed or overturned immediately.

    • posted by Doug on

      Any suggestion that someone who has erotic fantasies about same sex persons could identify as ‘objectively disordered’ is deeply offensive and just plain disgusting. They may not want to identify as homosexual but they are in no way ‘objectively disordered’.

  13. posted by Tom Jefferson III on

    Not much has been said about the pending lawsuit in North Dakota about the freedom to marry. I would not want to the judges hearing that case.

    If they vote for marriage equality, well their political career is pretty much DOA in North Dakota…for awhile. If they vote to uphold the state ban, their legal reasoning will have to really, really, really twist and turn.

Comments are closed.