Attempting to count how many people identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) is a complicated prospect, and a new study shows that social stigma is a limiting factor regardless of how the questions are asked. Researchers at Ohio State and Boston Universities found that survey respondents were more likely to disclose aspects of a same-sex orientation when the questions were asked in a way to help hide the answers, and they were also more likely to reveal anti-gay sentiments.
The study juxtaposed responses to “Direct Report” questions (where participants had to directly answer questions) to “Veiled Report” questions (where participants answered questions as a group, thus “veiling” how they are answering the sensitive question) , then compared the averages between the two types of responses. The study was not a random sample, so it doesn’t provide any census-like conclusions about how many LGB people there are, but the comparison between direct and veiled responses shows just how difficult answering questions about LGB identities really is.
There are many ways to assess LGB identity, including whether people actually openly identify with a label such as “gay,” whether they’ve had same-sex attractions, and whether they’ve had any same-sex experiences. The study included a variety of these examples and found that with the extra privacy and anonymity of a veiled response, participants were more likely to disclose an LGB affiliation with each measure:
- In terms of whether they identify as not heterosexual, responses increased from 11 percent to 19 percent, a 65 percent increase.
- In terms of whether they have had a same-sex sexual experience, responses increased from 17 percent to 27 percent, a 59 percent increase.
- Same-sex attraction did not show as significant a difference, with responses only increasing from 14 percent to 15 percent, an 8 percent increase. This suggests that disclosing attractions is not as sensitive as disclosing behavior or identity.
The study found a similar effect when it came to disclosing anti-gay sentiment. When given the extra secrecy of a veiled response, more participants were willing to indicate opposition to LGBT equality, particularly in the workforce:
- In terms of whether they’d be unhappy to have an LGBT manager at work, responses increased from 16 percent to 27 percent, a 69 percent increase.
- In terms of whether they believe it should be legal to discriminate based on sexual orientation, responses increased from 14 percent to 25 percent, a 79 percent increase.
Veiled responses also prompted higher opposition to marriage equality and same-sex adoption, but in less significant ways. This suggests a type of Bradley Effect, which may explain past discrepancies between polling on same-sex marriage referenda and actual voting results.
One surprising response came to the question of whether respondents believe sexual orientation can be changed by choice. In the veiled report, fewer people suggested this was true, indicating that participants thought that it was more socially acceptable to indicate that sexual orientation can be changed. As the study concludes, this directly contradicts a general “pro-LGBT” norm, though it could also suggest that even those who claim to believe sexual orientation is just a choice don’t actually believe that it is.
A 2011 study by the Williams Institute estimated that about 3.5 percent of the population openly identify as LGB, but it pointed out that as many as 8.2 percent have engaged in same-sex sexual behavior, and as many as 11 percent acknowledge at least some same-sex sexual attraction. If the present study is any indication, all of these numbers are underestimates, suggesting there are many more people who fall under the non-heterosexual umbrella than can currently be assessed.