Asked if he had any gay friends, William F. Buckley Jr. once quipped that, “If there are only 2.5 percent gays in America, I know them all.” Buckley was kidding, but lots of Americans, it seems, have ended up with the same impression.
Americans dramatically overestimate the gay and lesbian population, a recent Gallup poll suggests. The average American apparently thinks that more than one in five Americans is gay or lesbian when, according to Gallup, only 3.8 percent of Americans self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
In fact, only 9 percent of Americans get it right, estimating that the gay population is less than 5 percent, while 33 percent of Americans think that gay people make up more than 25 percent of the population. Education doesn’t help much, either: The average guess among those with postgraduate schooling is still 15 percent.
It’s possible, as Gallup suggests, that this common misperception is due to the media’s emphasis on gay issues and the abundance of gay and lesbian characters in modern entertainment. There’s also gay Americans’ political and cultural prominence: At Buckley’s alma mater, Yale, the joke goes, “one in four, maybe more; one in two, maybe you.” That isn’t the only source of confusion, though: Buckley was remarking on the revision of an assessment from sexologist Dr. Alfred Kinsey that had estimated one in ten Americans was homosexual.
But there’s good reason to lay more of the blame on the fact that many Americans are simply innumerate. Indeed, the same thing happens with other minorities. Americans estimate that blacks make up one third of the population, even though they actually represent a relatively stable 13 percent. They also overestimate the proportion of Hispanics by almost double, estimating they make up 3 in 10 of the total population. (This phenomenon similarly shows up in, for instance, Americans’ estimates of what share of the federal budget is spent on particular purposes, such as welfare or foreign aid.)
This isn’t because Americans are especially innumerate, though. Some studies show that it’s natural to bias one’s estimates of unknown proportions toward 50–50. Small fractions, in other words, will inevitably be overestimated — sometimes with real social consequences.
— Isaac Cohen is an intern at National Review.