For years, the gay-rights movement has sought safety in numbers. Its leaders have long claimed that homosexuals constitute 10 percent of the American population. They cited Alfred Kinsey, who interviewed thousands of men and women for landmark studies on human sexuality in the 1940s and 1950s. Activists seized on the double digits to strengthen their political message-that millions of citizens are excluded from the mainstream by anti-gay discrimination. Policymakers and the press (including NEWSWEEK) adopted the estimate--despite protests from skeptical conservatives-citing it time and again.
But new evidence suggests that ideology, not sound science, has perpetuated a 1-in-10 myth. In the nearly half century since Kinsey, no survey has come close to duplicating his findings. Most recent studies place gays and lesbians at somewhere between 1 and 6 percent of the population. While experts say these survey results are biased by underreporting from reticent participants, the gap is still significant. Some gay activists now concede that they exploited the Kinsey estimate for its tactical value, not its accuracy. "We used that figure when most gay people were entirely hidden to try to create an impression of our numerousness," says Tom Stoddard, former head of the Lambda Legal Defense Fund.
So how many gays and lesbians are there? No one knows for sure. Kinsey, who interviewed 12,000 male volunteers between 1938 and 1947, rocked post-World War II culture with an unprecedented peek into the American bedroom, featuring data on sexual habits, adultery and homosexuality. But experts say his sampling-weighted toward institutional populations like schools, prisons and hospitals-is unscientific and can't be meaningfully extrapolated to the general population. The 10 percent-which represents adult males who said they were predominantly homosexual for at least three years--suggests that a significant part of Kinsey's sample was gay, but nothing more. "It's just not a real number," says University of Washington sociologist Pepper Schwartz.
There are compelling reasons to develop a reliable gay census. One of them is AIDS. "Simple facts about the size of the homosexual population ... give you the scientific basis for understanding what's driving the epidemic," says Charles Turner, former director of the National Academy of Science's committee on AIDS research. Scientists have tried unsuccessfully to get federal underwriting. In the late 1980s, Congress approved two national surveys of sexual behavior, one for adults, the other for teens. But conservatives, led by Sen. Jesse Helms and Rep. William Dannemeyer, killed the measures. They argued that the studies would confer unwarranted legitimacy on homosexuality.
With no prospect of public funding, scientists have turned to private sources. Between 1989 and 1992, the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago added two sex questions to its annual General Social Survey. The results have been consistent. Among men, 2.8 percent reported exclusively homosexual activity in the preceding year; women registered 2.5 percent. NORC is still tabulating the results of a full-scale, 3,000-person sexual behavior study, but experts don't expect the numbers to be appreciably different.
The anti-gay right has used its own studies to challenge the 10 percent claim. Child-pornography researcher Judith Reisman argues in her 1990 book, "Kinsey, Sex and Fraud," that homosexuals constitute perhaps as little as 1 percent of the population. Her findings were used by anti-gay activists in Oregon last year in their unsuccessful campaign to exclude homosexuals from state civil-rights protections. In sponsoring a 1992 constitutional amendment overturning gay rights in three Colorado cities, Coloradans for Family Values claimed that the figure was closer to 3 percent, citing estimates by the Washington-based Family Research Institute. Its founder, psychologist Paul Cameron, is up front about his bias. "It's hard to find anyone who writes in this field who is not driven by ideological concerns," he says.
Many gay activists refuse to back off from the 10 percent, as if a lower estimate somehow makes violence and discrimination against them less of an outrage. "Until I see a different number, 10 percent is the number," says Donna Redwing, a Portland lesbian organizer. But others see a risk in defending a questionable claim. "If you say a number that you can't prove, there's always the chance that by disproving one part of your argument, your opponents weaken you overall. I think that's dangerous," says Tim McFeeley, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, a gay political-action committee. The truth is that growing gay political clout-more openly elected officials, a larger voice in the Democratic Party and $3.5 million in contributions to Bill Clinton's presidential campaign last year-makes reliance on Kinsey less important. In the long run, gays may discover that a maturing political movement is best served by credibility, not numbers games.