Ideas

Brainiac | David Deschamps and Bennett Singer

Who’s gay? Depends on who’s asking

June is Gay Pride Month, a celebration of greater visibility and legal acceptance for the LGBT community. But even now, pollsters still struggle to answer a seemingly simple question: How many Americans are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender? The numbers that researchers report are highly dependent on how the questions are asked.

Some studies directly ask people whether they identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual. More recent surveys ask about gender identity, too. A Harris Poll out this year, like the title of our book “LGBTQ Stats,” defines the community still more broadly, to include people who identify as queer.

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Other surveys, among them some of the earliest research on the subject, have attempted to document same-sex desire or activity — including the experiences of men and women who consider themselves heterosexual.

Of course, people often mislead pollsters to conform to social norms. A few years ago, Katherine Coffman, assistant professor at Harvard Business School, and her colleagues set out to measure this phenomenon by constructing a study that used two methods of questioning. One group answered questions anonymously but directly. A second group responded to a set of statements in an indirect manner that made it impossible to link answers to individual participants; they were given a list of statements such as “I played video games,” “I would vote to legalize marijuana,” and “I consider myself to be heterosexual” and asked how many applied to them.

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Under this “veiled” method, reports of same-sex sexual experiences increased by 59 percent, while reports of non-heterosexual identity rose by 65 percent.

Over time, will greater acceptance for gay people make pollsters’ job easier — or more complex? Recent polling on sexual orientation includes options such as asexual and pansexual; polling on gender identity includes cisgender (that is, identifying with the gender one is assigned at birth), transgender, gender fluid, and more. These surveys also show that younger Americans are more open to describing themselves as LGBTQ, but also more likely to identify in ways that yesterday’s pollsters never considered.

David Deschamps and Bennett Singer are the authors of “LGBTQ Stats: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer People by the Numbers.” Patrick Garvin, a Globe graphic artist, made the charts.
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