Quick! Pop quiz! How many people in the U.S. identify as gay or lesbian?
If you’re anything like the average American, you’re probably way overestimating that number -- according to a 2011 Gallup poll, most U.S. adults think that a whopping 25 percent of Americans are gay or lesbian. This, despite the fact that only around 3.5 percent of the U.S. is estimated to identify as gay or lesbian. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a pretty honkin' big difference.
I have to admit, though, I’m definitely in Camp Two-bit. It might be a virtue of my upbringing or environment, but I tend to default to wearing Gay Goggles whenever I find myself in a group of strangers. Honestly, one in four doesn’t seem that out of the ordinary. I mean, I can’t count how many of my own friends have splashed around in Lesbian Creek over the years. It’s only natural that I tend to just mentally default to “Pansexual until proven otherwise.”
Welcome to my brain.
My first instinct would be to chalk up that giant discrepancy between perception and reality to people like me, who went to all-girls’ high schools, live in liberal cities, and not-so-occasionally get their bang on with someone of a similar chromosomal makeup.
But interestingly enough, homophobes and perfectly reasonable people alike both estimated that roughly one in four U.S. adults are gay or lesbian. In fact, people who think same-sex relationships should be illegal also think that 26.2 percent of Americans are gay.
I actually think this is kind of exciting, because I like to keep homophobes on the edge of their seats. I envision them as the protagonists in a rainbow-flagged “Silent Hill:” you never know when one of the adults around you is going to turn out to be a 25-percent-er, drag you under a car, and try to corrupt your children. We could be anywhere!
Weirdly, the biggest factors seem to be age, sex and income: 18-to-30 year-old women who make less than $30,000 a year seem to be the ones guiltiest of idly slapping around the gay label. So basically, English majors who read too much E.M. Forster in undergrad and got a little too subtext-happy. No surprise there.
In reality, though, I think a large part of this also tends to be the influence of the media on our perception of the world. After all, Gallup reported that Americans went from assuming an average of 22 percent homosexuality to 25 percent from 2002 to 2011.
And in just the last few years, more and more LGBT characters -- particularly “safe” LGBT characters who gravitate toward monogamous relationships and traditional values -- have emerged in television and movies to embed themselves in our consciousness.
It’s easy for 18-to-30 year-olds to believe that every high school has a Kurt that or every power-grubbing medieval family has a Renly; the cultural zeitgeist has begun to favor carving out a space for at least one gay character to have a microphone in the typical five-man band.
Whether you’re a homophobe or not, you’re still going to assume that people who fit certain LGBT stereotypes are playing that token homosexual role -- the only difference is going to be how you react to them.
I do, however, find it a little problematic that some commentators seem to be viewing this survey purely in the context of the same-sex marriage debate. The Atlantic, for example, quotes a spokesman for Marriage Equality USA as saying that the vast overestimation is representative of a victory for LGBT rights. Gallup itself tagged the study with an uncharacteristically navel-gazey introspection about the survey’s results in relation to the growing public approval of same-sex marriage.
And don’t get me wrong: I am absolutely tickled that we seem to be actually experiencing an overcompensatory sea change away from assuming that everyone we meet is as straight as Fred and Wilma Flintstone.
Not to be the No-fun Bisexual (and there’s an oxymoron if I ever heard one), though, but I don’t think it’s insignificant that Gallup didn’t include us switch-hitters in their survey lineup. Maybe they were afraid they would break their participants’ brains, but it’s more likely that bisexuals are a wild card when it comes to the same-sex marriage debate. In fact, in its analysis of the issue, The Atlantic lumps bisexuals in with what my friends in college called “two-beer queers:” people who occasionally experiment but are unlikely to settle down in a non-straight identity:
“A straight woman who makes out a couple of times with a female friend in college is not going to seek a same-sex marriage, nor is a guy who fooled around once with a male friend while drunk in high school. Neither individual is demographically relevant to the question of how often same-sex marriages will occur. And it's not clear at all what fraction of bisexuals will seek out same-sex marriages.”
Obviously, there’s a big difference between people who identify as straight and people who identify as bi (or pan, or whatever). But because bisexuals might not seek out same-sex marriage, statements like this imply, they’re both “demographically” -- and politically -- “irrelevant.” Which is not the case at all. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’d assume that bisexuals are way more likely to group themselves politically with the same-sex marriage set, even if we end up inconveniently falling for members of the opposite sex.
Yet for some reason, Gallup only used the labels "gay" and "lesbian" to stand for the entire LGBT movement. Not surprising, exactly, but pretty annoying all the same.
If we’re only counting the people likely to settle down and get married as demographically relevant, then I hope we’re also discounting the lesbians who told their mothers that they were going to live on a farm full of Jack Russells instead of getting hitched.
I’m not saying that using same-sex marriage as a symbol for the larger gay rights movement is incorrect; quite the opposite. I just think that if you automatically equate “gay and lesbian identified” with “same-sex marriage candidate,” you’re skewing the whole shebang to not include whole swathes of commitment-phobic everyone-philes.
And who knows? Maybe some of these surveyed Americans actually meant to include the two-beer queer or the Pansexual Princess in their 25 percent gay/lesbian estimation. Hell, I probably would. But as long as Gallup doesn’t include it as an option, we’ll never know.
One thing’s for certain, though: Chances are, if you’re not already partnered up, this means the next time you’re at a high school reunion, at least one person is going to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to gently lead you out of the closet. Statistically speaking.