Gay people are everywhere. An Urban Institute study of data from the 2000 U.S. census found same-sex couples living in 99.3 percent of the counties nationwide. In Illinois, all 102 counties have gay couples living in them, as do 636 of the largest 688 Illinois cities, towns and villages. And while gays are thought of as being concentrated in Chicago's Halsted Street Boys Town, the fact is they live in every neighborhood of the city, practically on every street.
They show up in concentrations you might not expect: For instance, 9 percent of Chicago Public Schools high school students said they were gay in a survey this year.
Perhaps. The actual number could be less — or more. A reliable approximation of the number of homosexuals in society has long bedeviled researchers, who come up with statistics ranging from half of 1 percent — the number of couples living together who tell the census they are of the same sex — to 21 percent, the share of the population Harvard researchers found who reported having homosexual urges or experiences after the age of 15.
"Estimating the size of the gay population is an incredibly difficult number [to find]," said Gary J. Gates, a researcher at the Center on Labor, Human Services and Population at the Urban Institute, who conducted the census study.
These numbers are not the stuff of dry sociology. With the issue of gay marriage being hotly debated nationwide, numbers are seen as important political allies. The 350,000 or so people expected to march in or watch Sunday's Pride Parade are an indication of societal strength and acceptance, as are presence in businesses and on voter registration lists.
Thus, not only are the numbers affected by who is being considered, but by who is doing the considering. Gay activists, for instance, tend to embrace a figure of 10 percent — the number put forward by the landmark Kinsey studies of human sexuality in the 1940s.
Social conservatives tend to find fault with those numbers — Kinsey's methodology was later criticized as flawed — and they support subsequent researchers who found a figure closer to 3 percent. A comprehensive 1994 University of Chicago study found that 2.8 percent of American adults are gay. And Gates' study, which uses census data, concluded the nationwide figure is between 2.8 percent and 3.5 percent, depending on what percentage of gays conceal their identity.
That becomes a particularly important issue when dealing with students — how many are too intimidated to even truthfully answer a confidential survey — or how many are uncertain or even joking.
Almost one in 10 answered b, c or d. And while that figure might seem high, it doesn't to educators.
The 9 percent number for the CPS comes from a survey funded by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Every other year since 1991, the survey has asked high school students 87 questions about "risky" behaviors, such as alcohol and drug use. This year, for the first time, students were asked two questions about sexuality. One was whether they had had sexual intercourse — 55.1 percent said yes — and the other was: "Which of the following best describes you a) heterosexual (straight) b. gay or lesbian, c) bisexual and d) not sure.
|"Les Baigneuses," Renoir (Musee d'Orsay)|
"I wasn't surprised," said schools CEO Arne Duncan. "That was my sense, 9 or 10 percent."
"It could be more," said Shannon Kenney, consultant to the Coalition for Education on Sexual Orientation and project director for the Mental Health Association of Illinois. "Being gay is such a stigma that not everyone self-identifies."
The truth is that we just don't know how many people are gay.
"We know that this is very, very underreported because a lot of people aren't going to report that they're in a same-sex household," said Rick Garcia, a longtime gay activist here. "You're not tapping into African-American couples, you're not tapping into Latino couples, you're not tapping into Asian couples. They're not going to tell governmental bodies much of anything."
A few other trends are worth noting. There seem to be twice as many homosexual men as women. And as with any major city, Chicago has a higher concentration of gays than the nation as a whole — perhaps two or three times the national average, drawn to the city for its vibrant gay community and the anonymity a city offers.
Gates said what was most important in his study was not the percentage of the population that is gay but how widely distributed gays are and how, for instance, one quarter of gay couples are raising children and those couples tend to live, not in gay communities, but in communities where there are other families.
While gay people have been increasingly accepted into mainstream society, the struggle for rights is bound to be connected to their prevalence in society.
"If the question is of discrimination and civil rights, it is not important for a group to be numerically large if you believe in fairness," Gates said. "It shouldn't matter in the end how many people are being discriminated against. It should matter that discrimination is wrong."
— Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 27, 2004
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