The Impact On Gay Political Power

The "1 percent thing" wasn't mentioned at President Clinton's historic Oval Office meeting with gay and lesbian leaders last week. But the question hung in the air outside: if gays really represent such a tiny fraction of the population, will that stall the political momentum the gay-rights movement has built in recent years? Leaders of anti-gay groups were giddy over the prospect. "Tremendous political impact!" exclaimed the Rev. Lou Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, which represents some 27,000 churches. "Thank you, Alan Guttmacher Institute."

The new report comes at a delicate time for gay political power. Clinton's bid to overturn the ban on gays in the military faces a tough fight in Congress and with military brass. Gay-rights initiatives are under attack in several states. Gay and lesbian leaders, meanwhile, have been striving to liken their cause to the black civil-rights movement of the 1960s. They hope to draw as many as I million people to a march on Washington this weekend, demonstrating to the rest of the country that gays are part of the mainstream. The new report could cost them a key element of that strategy: their claim of vast, secret numbers in the U.S. population.

Kinsey's 10 percent figure has actually been in dispute for years. Most recent studies put the percentage much lower. Annual surveys by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center have consistently found that about 2 percent of sexually active men said they had had sex only with other men during the past year.

Last week many gay leaders insisted that the 1 percent figure was just as flawed. Some charged that since the researchers had relied on face-to-face interviews, and asked subjects for their names, addresses and the names of relatives, gays might have been afraid to answer honestly. But Koray Tanfer, one of the report's authors, said that those questions did not bias the answers since they were asked at the end of the interviews. And he noted: "For the 10 percent figure to be correct, it would mean that nine out of 10 of the gay people we talked to had lied to us. Is that what the gay activists believe?"

Meanwhile, Stephanie A. Sanders, assistant director of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, in Blooming-ton, Ind., said that Alfred Kinsey's notorious findings have been misread. He reported that 10 percent of white males age 16 to 55 said they'd had predominantly gay contacts for at least three years; only 4 percent said they were lifelong homosexuals. The Battelle study found that 1 percent of men age 20 to 39 said they'd been exclusively homosexual for the last 10 years. "The real question is, what are we talking about when we say 'homosexual'?" Sanders said. "Is three years sufficient? Do you have to spend a lifetime?"

To many gay leaders, the numbers are irrelevant. "I don't care if there are only 10 of us in the whole country. Do we have equal rights or not?" demanded Roger MacFarlane, a founder of Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York. But there is strength in numbers, especially in politics. "If a million people go to the march, that'll mean a lot more than a silly survey," says gay author Michelangelo Signorile. But even that won't settle the statistical debate. Will it mean that roughly half of all the gays in America trekked to Washington-- or that many nongays also turned out to show support?

The Kinsey report and the new study provide different counts. Both figures are diputed.

Men who have had same-gender sex exclusively during the pst 10 years (Guttmacher, 1991)

Men more or less exclusively homosexual, for at least three years, between the ages of 16 and 55 (Kinsey, 1948)