Why Do Americans Think There Are Way More Gay People Than There Really Are?


What percentage of Americans are gay?

The standard, pop-educated answer is 10% — based on research from Alfred Kinsey from the 40’s that has become stuck into the collective wisdom. The problem is this number is considerably higher than the actual figure.

Interestingly, though, people not familiar with the 10% idea are even more inaccurate. In the poll cited below–and consistent with polling in the last decade–Americans, as a whole, think that a full quarter of people are gay or lesbian.

The reality? 1-4%

This article from The Atlantic says less than 2%. This piece from Bloomberg cites research indicating 3.8%.

How can we be so far off on a figure?


I credit the overestimation to the same phenomena leading us to believe that there are more vegetarians (3% of Americans) than there really are in America, or Jewish people (2.2% of Americans). Certain groups in the US have a larger footprint than their representative population might indicate. This is to their credit, as policy, attention, etc. are then paid. And indeed, these groups are unified, organized, have a pronounced culture, and are dedicated to benefit their cause.

There is also an argument made that fear contributes to the overestimation. A feeling that “they’re everywhere,” which is said to be involved in overestimates of foreign-born Americans and illegal immigrants. Yet with homosexuals, people who tend to be more tolerant also tend to estimate their numbers as higher.

Overall, I believe the numbers are explained by the issues in the media today: gay marriage, businesses not serving gay couples. It’s also trendy to feature gay characters on television. Then, cities like my own (Minneapolis) will host a huge festival celebrating being gay, which shows to the thousands in attendance large groups of gay people.


But why all the exposure? I just think that sexual behavior is such a hot-button issue, that even if just one in a million people were gay, the attention might be as strong toward them and the overestimation of percentage of the population just as steep.

It’s an interesting look at how our perceptions are shaped by exposure and volume.

Now guess how many gay Jewish vegetarians there are.


What say you?