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In a fascinating article in the December 7, 2013 New York Times, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a Times opinion-page writer who recently received a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard, asks the question, "How Many Americans Are Gay?" It is an old question and one not amenable to an easy answer. What distinguishes this article from many others that have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to answer the same question is the new techniques used in researching it.
In approaching the question that has yielded answers that have ranged from about 2% to 10% of American men, Stephens-Davidowitz used, in addition to surveys and the census, such previously untapped sources of information as social networks, pornographic searches, and dating sites. From his analyses of these sources, he concludes that "At least 5 percent of American men . . . are predominantly attracted to men, and millions of gay men still live, to some degree, in the closet. . . . The evidence also suggests that a large number of gay men are married to women."
As reported in the Times, the conclusions reached by the study beg a number of questions. How exactly is the term "gay" defined? Is it used as an identity as the question is sometimes asked in surveys? Or is it a measure of sexual activity, as suggested by the phrase "predominantly attracted to men"?
The famous Kinsey study of 1948, which measured sexual activity rather than identity, found that about 10% of American males were more or less exclusively homosexual for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55. Although the Kinsey numbers are sometimes reported as saying that 10% of American men are gay, that is manifestly not what Kinsey reported. Indeed, Kinsey was interested in behavior rather than orientation or identity. His study documented a measure of fluidity in sexual behavior that is sometimes elided in contemporary discussions of sexual orientation.
The New York Times article is interesting beyond its reported estimate that 5% of American men are gay. Stephens-Davidowitz also reveals the continuing significance of the closet in American gay life, documented interestingly by the contrast between the openness of residents of tolerant states and the residents of intolerant states.
Not surprisingly, the openly gay population is dramatically higher in states defined as "tolerant" than it is in states defined as "intolerant." (Definitions of tolerant and intolerant are based on an estimate by Nate Silver of support for same-sex marriage.)
Stephens-Davidowitz points out that "On Facebook, for example, about 1 percent of men in Mississippi who list a gender preference say that they are interested in men; in California, more than 3 percent do." He doubts that this means that there are fewer gay men in less tolerant states. More likely, it indicates that gay men in less tolerant states are closeted.
He also approaches the question of whether intolerant areas actually have fewer gay men by estimating the percent of searches for pornography by men looking for depictions of gay men. The advantage of this data source is that most men are making these searches in private.
He finds that while tolerant states have a slightly higher percentage of these searches, roughly 5 percent of pornographic searches are looking for depictions of gay men in all states. This suggests that there are just about as many gay men in less tolerant states as there are anywhere else, but that more of them are in the closet.
Stephens-Davidowitz writes, "These results suggest that the closet remains a major factor in American life. For comparison, about 3.6 percent of American men tell anonymous surveys they are attracted to men and a tenth of gay men say that they do not tell most of the important people in their lives. In states where the stigma against homosexuality remains strong, many more gay men are in the closet than are out."
Stephens-Davidowitz buttresses his conclusion that many gay men in intolerant states are deeply in the closet by turning to another surprising source: the Google searches of married women. "It turns out that wives suspect their husbands of being gay rather frequently. In the United States, of all Google searches that begin 'Is my husband...,' the most common word to follow is 'gay.' 'Gay' is 10 percent more common in such searches than the second-place word, 'cheating.' It is 8 times more common than 'an alcoholic' and 10 times more common than 'depressed.'"
He found that searches questioning a husband's sexuality are far more common in the least tolerant states. The states with the highest percentage of women asking this question are South Carolina and Louisiana.
He concludes that, despite all the progress the glbtq movement has made recently, there remains "a huge amount of secret suffering in the United States that can be directly attributed to intolerance of homosexuality."
Stephens-Davidowitz's study does not settle the question of how many gay men there are in the United States, but it does introduce a number of interesting new ways to research the question.