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. 

Joe j

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.

Voice of Reason

So, we're at an interesting crossroads in our country. We've gotten to the point that it's completely unacceptable and taboo to be openly homophobic, but it's only slightly less unacceptable and taboo to actually be gay. I guess the battle is only half over.


Somewhat off topic, but can we stop using "homophobic" as a synonym for disapproval of homosexuality? By definition, a phobia is an irrational fear. Disapproval doesn't equal or even suggest fear, irrational or otherwise. I disapprove of people who drive too slow and think they should be rounded up and executed. That doesn't make me afraid of them. Should I be called "slowdriverphobic"?

When you use the term "homophobic" all you're doing is telling us you have a problem with people who disapprove of homosexuality. That's fine, but there's got to be a more accurate term for your issue out there somewhere. But then I'm "misuse of the term phobic" phobic, so what do I know?


I really want to know what questions proved someone agreed it was "okay to discriminate against lesbian, gay, or bisexual individuals"-- seems open to interpretation.

And if someone is only willing to express this feeling in a double-veiled study, does it actually have any relevance? Surely actions are more important? Do we assume anyone who, in answer to possibly leading questions, expresses an opinion, will act on it?