Monday, August 4, 2014

America: Now With 50% Less Gay!

When I first saw the research findings a few weeks ago, I knew it would cause a stir.

The National Health Interview Survey is a CDC administrated survey of the population of the United States, one with an unusually large and representative sample.  This was science for the sake of understanding population dynamics, with no agenda.  It was solid, meticulously-designed empirical research, geared to answer an array of questions about our society.

Among the questions: do you self-identify as gay, lesbian, or with a non-traditional sexual identity?

The return on those particular data-points:  About one point six percent of the American population self-identify as gay, or lesbian.  About point seven percent are bisexual.  One point one said they were "other" or did not answer.  Ninety six point six percent were straight.

This is a robust finding, and that worries activists for those who differ from the norm sexually.  Why?  It's less than half of the percentage typically claimed or found in less rigorous studies, and vastly lower than popular perception.

The worry is bluntly political: if there are fewer gay people, that's a problem, because that means fewer votes.   Fewer votes reduces political influence, and reduced political influence will embolden reactionary forces in our culture.  "Look how few gays there are," right-wingers will shout.  "We should be able to oppress them with impunity!"

Or so the thinking goes.

There is a temptation here, no doubt, for advocates to attack the messenger, to pick through the research for flaws in methodology in an attempt to discredit it.  Or to look for ad hominem ways to attack the research team.  But that's dangerous ground, because when you start attacking science, it means you've ceased to be interested in reality.  The researchers involved are already viewing this critically, examining the study themselves without concern for political points.  Because, you know, that's what good science does.  But in the meantime, it's the best available finding.

How can there be so few?  Our culture spends a huge amount of energy on this issue, and...it's that little?

It seems to change the flavor of the issue, taking it from whole-milk to two percent.

It also doesn't *feel* right.  I know so many more LGBTQI folks than that, you say.  I know so many, I even know what all those letters mean.  But your observations are anecdotal, and particular to a subculture.  If you're a creative, and hung around with the drama crowd in high school, sure, you knew more gays and lesbians than that.  If you live in an urban, progressive area, sure, you know more than that. This makes sense.  If you're not actively toxic and hateful towards a certain group of people, you'll tend to know more of them.  They won't lie to you about who they are, or just avoid you altogether.  That's how that works, kids.

This finding reminds us that none of our immediate, local realities is quite as representative as we think.  That's why science is so very useful, eh?

I don't think this is much of a worry, though, for two primary reasons.

First, sure, the number is lower.  We're talking about a smaller minority.  Why does that justify oppressing that minority, or refusing basic human rights to that minority?  It does not morally strengthen the hand of the ultra-conservatives.  If anything, it weakens it.

Here, a small group.  Why are you so insistent on repressing them?  Why is every other sermon your pastor preaches focused on hammering on those sinful gays, if there's a tiny number of them?  Why do your organizations spend all this time going on about what a huge threat tolerating this tiny minority will be?  Perhaps that's a sign that something's gone seriously wrong with the priorities of the people shouting at you.

Second, the number still works, and it works tribally.   What do I mean by that?

Two percent means the odds are there's one in every fifty.

More significantly, there are three in every hundred and fifty.

One hundred and fifty is an important social number.  It's Dunbar's number, the rough number of individuals that make up organic human social networks.  The number of people you know personally, and are part of your sense of the world and your place in it?  That's around 150 total souls.

Even with the social sifting in our culture, everyone will know someone who was just...um...born that way.  Within every American's network of belonging, there will be one or two or three people--a friend, a co-worker, a cousin, a child--who self-identify as gay, lesbian, or some other orientation.  We know them.  They are our friends and our family, and we love them, and now that we know how much our culture has hurt them, we want that to change.

Because, as Horton said, a person's a person, no matter how small a demographic percentage they represent.

Or something to that effect.

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm, one in fifty doesn't sound too far wrong. I've always thought of the gay population as something below ten percent for sure, & probably below five percent, but no matter. The issue of gay marriage is shaping up constitutionally as respected under the "due process" and "equal protection" clauses; increasingly a matter of little concern in the popular mind (judging from recent polls); but a diehard line in the sand for some of the Christian community. (& Jews & Muslims, but let's constrain the debate for the moment.) This is what concerns me as a Methodist. Is schism necessary? Help us out!

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