How Many LGBT People In the U.S.? It's a Harder Question Than You Think

Dear America: There are gay people among us, and the numbers show that the majority of us are okay with it.

In June, Pew released a new global survey of attitudes towards homosexuality in society. Since 2007, the number of Americans who find homosexuality socially acceptable has grown by 11%, with 60% of respondents and 70% of those aged 18–29 now agreeing that it is acceptable.

These data show one important thing, if you couldn't already tel: Americans are rapidly becoming more accepting of their gay brethren. What they don't show, however, is how many LGBT people there actually are in America.

As many jurisdictions in the U.S. have adjusted their policies to protect and extend the rights of gay individuals, and as public opinion on their social acceptability has tipped in their favor, more are"coming out" than ever before in our nation's often puritanical history. But, since gay identity isn't something necessarily outwardly obvious or worn on the sleeve, determining what percentage of the population is actually gay is a serious challenge. The data surrounding the gay community is baffling, conflicting, and, unlike the Pew poll of attitudes, remarkably unclear.

Question: What the hell does "gay" mean?

First of all, I dare you to answer this question with a scientific level of certainty. 

To collect and interpret most data, we must first sort it into unique groups of like things. But first, due to a woefully imprecise lexicon and in order to gain a complete understanding of how to quantify the number of gay people, we must enter the terrifying world of semantics.

The first definition of the word was once "lighthearted and carefree," and now it is simply "homosexual." A homosexual is a person "sexually attracted to the people of one's own sex." Okay, that seems pretty simple, right?

Wrong. Nowadays the term LGBT is the politically correct way to refer to those who don't have heterosexual gender and sexual identities. Sociologically speaking, sex is purely a matter of which sexual organs one has, while gender is a much broader matter encompassing how one relates to those around oneself, especially in thinking about gender roles. Instead of an actual word, LGBT is an abbreviation for lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender. In the English speaking world, we don't even have a word that simply conveys the meaning of "not-strictly-heterosexual sexual and/or gender identity." This is why I like the term "queer." Despite the negative connotations of it to some, I've known many more who identify with it and who use it as a source of strength.

The problem in trying to understand how many gay individuals there are in the U.S. starts in this semantic soup. In the world of big data, do we count those who fit into the LGBT categories as homosexuals? What about those who don't fit neatly into one of those categories and fall elsewhere on the heterosexual-homosexual continuum? Categorization comes down to self-identification. Those you might call gay may very well call themselves something else, and thus identify themselves neither into a standard category of homo/heterosexual nor into a meaningful subcategory. Plus, how do we count those who have same-sex attractions or experiences but who don't identify as gay?

Add the fact that so many people remain closeted because they are still afraid of ridicule and reprisal for their feelings (justly so in some parts of this country), and we can see how trying to quantify homosexuality in America turns into a giant mess where everyone somehow ends up offended or left out.

So What Do We Know?

Gary Gates of the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimates that about 3.8% of adults identify as LGBT, and that's about 9 million Americans. Even more interesting, 8.2% of Americans have reported same-sex sexual behaviors and 11% acknowledge at least some same-sex attraction. These are no small numbers and remember that even these numbers don't tell the whole story of nonstandard sexual identity, but they do give us a rough idea that about 1 in 10 to 20 people (5-100% of the population) are gay, have gay feelings that they don't express, or are otherwise not strictly heterosexual.

Some, of course, will argue that our permissive society and laws encourage more people to be or turn gay. They're wrong. Homosexuality is not a pathological condition and is a natural variation among the human population. Permissive laws are not the cause of homosexuality, instead they are the reason that many feel safer coming out instead of bottling up their feelings and pretending to be straight. The more we can count these people, the greater impact they will have as a group and the more reasonable it becomes to permit them the rights heterosexual couples have always enjoyed.

More quickly than ever, the heterosexual community is beginning to accept homosexuality and its many variations into mainstream culture. Only once individuals feel safe enough to come out with their true feelings without stigma will we be able to get a fully accurate count, and associated understanding, of homosexuals, queers, not-exactly-heterosexuals, and everything in between in America. . As attitudes keep progressing, so too will our understanding of the LGBT community and its impacts on our culture.