Homosexuality Is Undercounted; So Is Homophobia

(Photo: torbakhopper)

(Photo: torbakhopper)

That is the argument made in a new paper (abstract; PDF) by Katherine Coffman, Lucas Coffman, and Keith Marzilli Ericson, entitled “The Size of the LGBT Population and the Magnitude of Anti-Gay Sentiment Are Substantially Underestimated”:

Measuring sexual orientation, behavior, and related opinions is difficult because responses are biased towards socially acceptable answers. We test whether measurements are biased even when responses are private and anonymous and use our results to identify sexuality-related norms and how they vary. We run an experiment on 2,516 U.S. participants. Participants were randomly assigned to either a “best practices method” that was computer-based and provides privacy and anonymity, or to a “veiled elicitation method” that further conceals individual responses. Answers in the veiled method preclude inference about any particular individual, but can be used to accurately estimate statistics about the population. Comparing the two methods shows sexuality-related questions receive biased responses even under current best practices, and, for many questions, the bias is substantial. The veiled method increased self-reports of non-heterosexual identity by 65% (p<0.05) and same-sex sexual experiences by 59% (p<0.01). The veiled method also increased the rates of anti-gay sentiment. Respondents were 67% more likely to express disapproval of an openly gay manager at work (p<0.01) and 71% more likely to say it is okay to discriminate against lesbian, gay, or bisexual individuals (p<0.01). The results show non-heterosexuality and anti-gay sentiment are substantially underestimated in existing surveys, and the privacy afforded by current best practices is not always sufficient to eliminate bias. Finally, our results identify two social norms: it is perceived as socially undesirable both to be open about being gay, and to be unaccepting of gay individuals. 

Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



View All Comments »
  1. NZ says:

    Not terribly surprising.

    Let’s also keep this in perspective: if current self-reports of homosexuality in America mask 60% of the homosexual population (i.e. if better self-reports would increase the current population by 65%), then the most generous estimates would still put the homosexual population at maybe 4% (current realistic estimates based on allegedly flawed data are between 1-2%). Contrast this with the popular figure of “1 in 10.”

    So, someone who delves into the available numbers may be getting a very slightly undervalued estimate of the homosexual population, while someone who just goes by what he’s used to hearing is still getting a vastly inflated estimate of it.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 36 Thumb down 7
  2. 164 says:

    Do the researchers have a vested interest in the outcome of their research? Also are any special interests funding the study?

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 17 Thumb down 14
  3. Scott Kennedy says:

    Any quick Google search will show how difficult it is to measure “homosexuality” in America. The most public poll I saw recently was the 2013 Gallup “state-by-state” poll which estimated it at 3.5% of the US population as “openly LGBT”. However, when the question in surveys is asked along the lines of people who “had at one point in their life experienced some form of homosexuality” the various results of studies seem to be more in the 7-10% range.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1
  4. Renee says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 26
    • Linch says:

      Wait, what?

      Forgive me for being dense, but I don’t understand what you’re trying to say. Why are adoptive gay parents any worse parents than adoptive straight parents? Or are you against adoption, other forms of reproduction, etc?

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1
      • Renee says:

        But why should he child removed from all family to begin with? That includes aunts and uncles.

        If you even do an adoption search on your states Department of Families & Childten , you will notice that state adoption workers fit that child’s wants. Yes, a child in state custody can ask or even need a father in the home.

        I had a teen ask for two gay dads, because didn’t do well with women.

        I had a grandfather raise his grandchildren, and they lived with the grandfather’s sister.

        Eventually children being raised by two women, will want a male role model/mentor. Think about some of the posts here on father absence?

        There are many differing constellations. But for the child, if a child loses one or both parents its about them and their needs and not our wants.

        Thumb up 5 Thumb down 5
      • pawnman says:

        Well Renee, if there were enough relatives that cared enough to take in the kids when parents can’t/won’t care for them, we really wouldn’t need the foster care/adoption system, now would we?

        Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
    • cbp says:

      There’s a vast difference between ‘acknowledging differences’ and legislating against people making a personal choice that affects no one but themselves.

      There is no law and never has been law against heterosexual couples marrying if they do not intend to have children. Why should it be any different with gay couples?

      Thumb up 6 Thumb down 4
      • Renee says:

        But they could? And even back in 2006 NY Courts made that conclusion. If a relationship really had no effect on others, then why doesn’t the government get out of marriage all together? Most people who favor gay marriage tend to have that view. A Howard Law Journal paper also from that same year, echoes the same concern. Obligations (children) arise from heterosexual behavior, even gay children.

        Now paternal (male) involvement, has played a key role in the needs of children. Just go to fatherhood.org and look at the positive influences dads have. If not marriage, because if you dare call it that well… consider your responses to mine.

        Fathers are equally important to mothers in the needs and obligations of a child. We have a community interest that children have a full relationship with both parents. We always called it marriage, not out hate or bigotry. I can’t be living in fear of being smeared falsely as homophobic.

        Thumb up 6 Thumb down 5
      • Joe j says:

        “If a relationship really had no effect on others, then why doesn’t the government get out of marriage all together? Most people who favor gay marriage tend to have that view.”

        Wondering where you are getting that view, since it is opposite to most every person I’ve heard in favor of gay marriage.

        Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2
      • NZ says:

        If by “personal choice that affects no one but themselves” you are referring to marriage, then I disagree.

        People’s attitude to marriage has changed vastly over the years, and a main reason for that is changes in how marriage is generally perceived. The way marriage gets perceived has a lot to do with who’s getting married and for what reasons, among other things.

        Personally, I consider the purpose of marriage to be a binding contract which allows the stable formation of a nuclear family in perpetuity. Seems reasonable: that’s been a common view of marriage for a long time–up until recently.

        Nowadays, marriage seems to be more a way for a couple to get a big stamp of approval (a gold star, if you will) next to their currently-held affection for each other. This allows many people to write marriage off as a hollow ritual, or as an old-fashioned and outdated patriarchal institution. Children are no longer considered part of the equation. (Heterosexual couples marrying without the intention of having kids was also, up until recently, very uncommon.)

        Unsurprisingly, there is a resultant greater demand for marriage among straight women than among straight men. And of course now you see catastrophic out-of-wedlock birthrates. But at least being a groom is still considered manly–it’s almost still a straight male rite of passage! Once being a groom loses that association, do you think more or fewer young straight men will be interested in taking on that role?

        I don’t intend to use this reasoning to argue here for or against gay marriage. Personally, I believe that long-term monogamously cohabiting gay romantic partners should be able to enjoy the legal and financial benefits they might enjoy if one of them were the opposite gender, if that is seriously what they’d like to pursue.

        But I consider it disingenuous to claim that gay marriage affects only the parties directly involved and nobody else. We live in a society, with cultures and institutions, and the perception of these institutions can change. If we value an institution, then it is worth protecting, and if it’s worth protecting, then we must be mindful of what changes to the institution may do to the way it is perceived.

        Just going on the numbers alone, marriage appears to be extremely valuable: married people are healthier, happier, live longer, and the long-term outcomes for their children do better in just about every regard than those of divorcees or never-marrieds. (Interestingly, the children of widows and widowers do almost as well as those of marrieds–it’s almost as if just the *intention* of getting and staying married helps the kids!)

        Thumb up 8 Thumb down 4
    • Renee says:

      High number of dislikes because I actually care and love people who are gay or because I think a mom and dad love their gay child?

      Or simply because I disagree with gay marriage, because for non-homophbic reasons?

      Thumb up 8 Thumb down 8
      • Joe J says:

        I’ll toss this out, Your writing is confusing, it looks like you edited out some sentences.

        For example: “But why should he child removed from all family to begin with? That includes aunts and uncles”
        I think I understand what you are getting at. That even if kids (for whatever reason ) can’t be with the parents, why not relatives rather than adoption. But I’m guessing.
        Except that is a brand new different topic no one brought up. No one, including you, made the claim that relatives were or weren’t being excluded. Or why. Or why that would be a part of this discussion at all.

        I’m not saying it should or shouldn’t be, but you are the one bringing up the side track, so it is your part to say why it is relevant to the discussion.

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0
      • NZ says:

        Probably because you disagree with gay marriage. There’s a big intersection between Freakonomics readers and listeners of NPR/readers of NYT, which is a largely white and liberal audience. No big surprise; the Freakonomics website used to be under the auspices of the NYT, and Dubner appears on NPR’s “Marketplace” regularly on behalf of Freakonomics.

        The NPR/NYT audience tends to hold the belief that there are essentially no non-homophobic reasons to oppose gay marriage. This is because they believe that eligibility for a marriage license is a fundamental human right, just like the right to not be killed or enslaved, so any opposition to that is an opposition to human rights, and you’d have to be a bigot or a homophobe to oppose human rights. (I haven’t yet figured out precisely why these human rights shouldn’t also extend to child marriages or polygamy.)

        Anyway, I think it’s strange and perhaps a bit unfortunate that comments on here get hidden for having a lot of dislikes. Also a bit ironic, since one of the things Freakonomics allegedly prides itself on is contrarianism.

        This comment, too, will probably receive a large number of dislikes, but considering the circumstances I’d consider that a sign that I must be on to something.

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 6
      • Response to Renee says:

        Saying you “disagree with gay marriage, because for non-homophbic reasons?” sounds a lot like saying you disagree with equal rights for black people, because for non-racist reasons.

        Thumb up 5 Thumb down 8
      • NZ says:

        @Response to Renee:

        You said: “Saying you ‘disagree with gay marriage, because for non-homophbic reasons?’ sounds a lot like saying you disagree with equal rights for black people, because for non-racist reasons.”

        How do you square your comment with the fact that there were black people who disagreed with the Civil Rights Act, and there are still a lot who do not consider the Civil Rights Movement to have been a net benefit for black people? There were even ex-slaves who decided they were better off under slavery, and could back up their point with rational arguments–not just nostalgia or Stockholm syndrome. Are those people racist against themselves?

        My point is, just because something has the word “rights” in it does not mean that you must be a bigot to oppose it. For example, children are fairly independent and are certainly human beings, yet we deny them the right to earn money for their work. This isn’t some age-old time-tested thing, either; it’s only in the last hundred years that we started doing this. Do you have a problem with child labor laws? Are you an ageist bigot? Probably not; you just think there would be negative consequences of allowing children to work that outweigh the benefits, because children are not the same as adults in some way that is specifically relevant to the issue.

        What I think you’re really doing is trying to derail the conversation by artificially tying a less emotional issue to a more emotional one: it’s a lot more taboo to question the Civil Rights Act than to question gay marriage. Therefore, if you can force someone to equate their opposition to gay marriage with what most people presume to be vile Dixiecratic racism, you can make them shut up. That is not intellectually honest, but it’s also not polite either.

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0
  5. Chris L says:

    I think there aren’t actually that many people who are 100% homosexual or 100% heterosexual. I believe it’s more like a spectrum, with perfectly homosexual people on one side and perfectly heterosexual people on the other, and the vast majority of people being somewhere in between (even if they have a strong preference for one or the other). From that perspective, it makes sense that most people would give the more “socially acceptable” answer to a question. They may even choose a relationship with a person in their “second preference” gender if they perceive the price of a relationship with a person less “sociallly acceptable” might be too high.

    There was a piece on a Freakonomics column in 2005 that talked about “The Economy of Desire”, and cases of people “changing” their sexual preference due to a fear of AIDS. Clearly a case of someone deciding that the price for their first sexual preference is too high (i.e. the risk of contracting a deadly virus), and so seeking to obtain their second sexual preference for a lower price. The point is, a person who has a “perfect preference” for one side or the other would not have a “second choice”, because there would be zero attraction, and thus would be more likely to simply abstain from sex than have sex with a person for whom they had zero attraction.

    It also explains why people in prisons often engage in homosexual sex when they wouldn’t under normal circumstances. Clearly, a person who is totally incapable of feeling attraction for the same gender wouldn’t engage in homosexual sex (at least not voluntarily) even if people of the opposite gender were not available.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 22 Thumb down 11
    • NZ says:

      I’ve heard the “we’re all on a spectrum” argument before, but I have trouble understanding it.

      For example, what exactly disqualifies a man who considers himself 100% heterosexual from actually being so? Are we counting random stray thoughts that involuntarily flit into one’s consciousness once in a blue moon, or are we drawing the line just at explicit sexual activity?

      Whatever criteria we decide on, do we start counting them in adolescence while the hormones are raging, or do we get a clean slate starting with adulthood?

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 6
      • Enter your name... says:

        The endpoints (0% and 100%) are still part of the spectrum.

        FWIW, I’ve heard that the spectrum argument is a better description of the data for women than for men, whose distribution appears to be much more bimodal.

        Thumb up 6 Thumb down 2
      • NZ says:

        @”Enter your name…”

        You said: “The endpoints (0% and 100%) are still part of the spectrum.”

        I was responding to Chris L, who said “I think there aren’t actually that many people who are 100% homosexual or 100% heterosexual. I believe it’s more like a spectrum, with […] the vast majority of people being somewhere in between…”

        I’m not necessarily saying that there is no spectrum, I just don’t see the evidence that most people aren’t completely heterosexual. If I had to break it down using your endpoints 0 and 100 to mean completely heterosexual and completely homosexual respectively, I’d guess it’s probably something like this:

        0 – – – – – – 94%
        1-99 – – – – 3% (with Gaussian distribution perhaps?)
        100 – – – – 2%

        Thumb up 2 Thumb down 5
      • reuben says:


        “The Kinsey scale ranges from 0, for those who would identify themselves as exclusively heterosexual with no experience with or desire for sexual activity with their same sex, to 6, for those who would identify themselves as exclusively homosexual with no experience with or desire for sexual activity with those of the opposite sex, and 1-5 for those who would identify themselves with varying levels of desire for sexual activity with either sex, including “incidental” or “occasional” desire for sexual activity with the same sex.”

        Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
      • NZ says:


        Right, I have no doubt that there are established ways to model this spectrum, some of them put forward by bisexual polyamorists like Kinsey. I don’t even doubt that the spectrum is relevant. I just don’t see any good evidence that most people are anywhere but on one extreme end of it.

        Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1
    • Steve Cebalt says:

      Hi Chris: Don’t forget that there is a third choice: no sex at all. The fact that some people switch teams for a lower price (in your AIDS and prison examples) only means that SOME people may be willing and able to change their orientation or “preference” to match adverse circumstances. But that doen’t preclude other people from being “absolute” in their orientation — unwilling or unable to change sexual behavior no matter what. Put simply, many hetero people in prisons never (voluntarily) engage in same-gender sex, and many people never switch teams because of the AIDS risk. Many simply choose to be sexless.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0
  6. NZ says:

    Reading the quoted section again, I’m getting the feeling that the researchers were biased. For example, they consider it “anti-gay” to express “disapproval of an openly gay manager at work.” But what does being an openly gay manager at work entail? How would you find out that your manager was openly gay? Focusing for now on a hypothetical *male* gay manager (for the sake of keeping pronouns simple), I can think of several possibilities (flip the genders to apply to a lesbian manager if you prefer):

    1. In the course of casual conversation, the manager reveals matter-of-factly that he is gay.
    2. The manager and a gay partner are seen together engaging in unmistakeably romantic behavior (i.e. they’re obviously more than buddies) by the employees during business hours, on a break, or just before or after business hours.
    3. The manager expresses his sexual attraction to a male employee, coworker, superior, or customer.
    4. The manager makes sexual advances towards a male employee, coworker, superior, or customer.

    #1 is clearly not inappropriate, and someone with no anti-gay sentiment should have no problem with it. #2 could be inappropriate in some situations depending on the company’s policies; you wouldn’t necessarily have to be anti-gay to disapprove. #3 and #4 are inappropriate in just about any work environment. Even most pro-gay people would disapprove.

    So, there are several methods for your manager at work to show that he is openly gay. Even assuming you are not anti-gay, half to three quarters of these methods could still warrant legitimate disapproval.

    (Note: I did not include in my list “Manager uses cultural/behavioral clues to signal that he is gay,” because I don’t think that would be enough to qualify him as *openly* gay.)

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 6
    • lvlln says:

      “But what does being an openly gay manager at work entail? How would you find out that your manager was openly gay?”

      What does being an openly STRAIGHT manager at work entail? How would you find out that your manager was openly STRAIGHT?

      If asked that question, I wouldn’t assume that the inappropriate cases 3 & 4 (sexual harassment) would be the way that someone is “openly straight.” I would naturally assume cases 1 or 2 – casually mentioning that they’re attracted to someone of the opposite gender, or inadvertently showing a preexisting romantic relationship with someone of the opposite gender.

      Unless some form of sexual harassment is specified in the question, it makes no sense to assume that being “openly gay/straight” means “display that they are gay/straight through sexual harassment.” Much like being “openly a fan of Freakonomics” shouldn’t mean to imply “display they are a fan of Freakonomics by coercing employees to read it.”

      Thumb up 4 Thumb down 6
      • NZ says:

        Since well over 90% of the population is straight (probably over 95%, even if we take the most generous interpretation of the study mentioned in the blog post), it’s reasonable that an assumption of heterosexuality is the default, so being “openly straight” typically just means doing nothing that would indicate being gay.

        Meanwhile, most people I’ve met haven’t heard of Freakonomics, so I would only know someone is a fan of Freakonomics if they displayed it in some way. Since liking Freakonomics has nothing to do with sexual or romantic activity, there are probably more work-appropriate ways to display that you like Freakonomics than there are work-appropriate ways to display that you do not share the sexual preferences of 95% of the population.

        Of course, I suspect you already understood this. So, what did you really want to say?

        Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2
      • NZ says:

        PS. After rereading a few times, it looks like you basically just meant to say “But of choices 1-4, 1 and 2 have a much greater likelihood of being how you’d discover that your manager is gay.”

        I would agree. But basic my point was that because homosexuality is not the default assumption, to be “openly gay” at work your sexual preference has to come up at some point, and in a work environment that can often be inappropriate. Thus, you can disapprove of an openly gay manager without harboring “anti-gay” sentiments. I suspect a significant portion of those studied fit that description, which means the conclusions drawn from the study would be inaccurate.

        Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3
      • lvlln says:

        “so being ‘openly straight’ typically just means doing nothing that would indicate being gay.”

        This is where we disagree. Yes, most people will by default assume that someone else is straight (and they’d be right the vast majority of the time). That does not in any way mean that “doing nothing” = “openly straight.” Being openly anything means actually displaying concrete evidence that one fits that criterion. Inaction isn’t evidence, and someone who never mentions his or her sexual preference cannot reasonably be said to be “openly straight.”

        And, again, it makes no sense to assume that an open display of sexual preference has ANYTHING to do with sexual harassment, unless it’s specifically mentioned. It is a gigantic leap to go from that to simply assuming “openly gay” implies “gay sexual harassment,” just because it’s a work setting, because there are just as many appropriate ways to openly display one’s sexual preference as to openly display any preference. If some people chose to disapprove of an openly gay manager at work because they took the nonsensical jump from “openly gay” to “gay sexual harassment,” then that certainly does display “anti-gay” sentiment. It reeks of the same anti-gay sentiment of paranoia over gays in the Boy Scouts or in the military.

        Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2
      • NZ says:

        I think the disagreement we’re having is over what is meant by “openly.” I’m saying that, in this context at least, to “openly” display preferences that are overwhelmingly common and therefore assumed by default, one need not actually display the preference at all–one only needs to *not* display some other unusual preference. Another way to put it would be that being “openly” straight is the same as just being straight. Conversely, you don’t hear much about “closeted” straight people.

        Again, this is a pretty reasonable way of seeing things and so I suspect you already understand it.

        My guess is that instead, you take issue with the existence of the resulting double standard. Perhaps you wish that people threw out their experience-based assumptions and made a concerted effort to approach all new experiences with a recitation about their ignorance. “I will resist the urge to draw upon my past experience for the purposes of understanding the present, and will instead always wait for new information.” But that is at best not ergonomic, and at worst quite self-destructive. The double standard is here to stay, and for good reason.

        Or maybe you wish that gay people didn’t have to be either “open” or “closeted,” but could just “be,” the way straight people can. But I don’t see how that’s possible either (at least not outside of a few districts in certain cities): homosexuality is uncommon and people’s experience with this uncommonness will inevitably color their assumptions. Asking people to ignore the lessons of their experience is, for reasons I stated above, both a bad idea and unlikely to work anyway.

        Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1
  7. Bada Buddha Bing says:

    I worked for a great manager. One day I discovered he was gay. This didn’t bother me one way or the other. I never mentioned it to anyone either.

    Only years later did I come to understand that HIS fear that I might have discovered his hidden homosexuality probably cost me any company advancement and I was always thereafter excluded from his circle of trust, meeting, gatherings. etc. I really should have artfully and quietly left the company.

    It’s the secret coverup that is so damaging.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 2
  8. Joe j says:

    I see one concern with this study. It in effect studies two things homosexuality and ant- gay sentiments (using the term homophobe is a cheap shot label), which I and many others would say are both on sliding scales. Sliding scales which are difficult to measure, and are being used to make a declaration of how many are X. Well to get more or less X all you have to do is move one way or the other on said sliding scale. But the paper seems to be more about anonymity to the ones performing this test. So this could very well be a test of do the participants want the psychologists to know they are gay or not, as opposed to the public in general.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1