An American study has found that the size of the gay and lesbian population has most probably been substantially underestimated.
Conducted by researchers from Ohio State University and Boston University, the paper concluded that when people are surveyed about their sexual orientation or sexual behaviour they tend to give answers that may not be accurate and that are instead “socially acceptable”.
The scientists ran an experiment on 2,516 participants who were randomly divided into two groups.
Both groups were asked about their sexual orientation and their feelings on the issue. However, while one group was asked questions using standard “best practice” methods, the other group was asked using a more anonymous “veiled elicitation method”.
The researchers found that the veiled method, in which people were more sure of not being identified, “increased self-reports of non-heterosexual identity by 65% and same-sex sexual experiences by 59%”.
The results, they say, show that the current best practice method of surveying people about their sexuality leads to a “substantial” bias in their answers.
While this suggests that many more people may be LGBT or have had same-sex experiences than what scientists may have previously believed, the study also revealed a more disturbing reality.
The scientists discovered that the veiled method also increased the rates of anti-gay sentiment or homophobia in those surveyed.
“Respondents were… 71% more likely to say it is okay to discriminate against lesbian, gay, or bisexual individuals.”
The scientists concluded that “non-heterosexuality and anti-gay sentiment are substantially underestimated in existing surveys, and the privacy afforded by current best practices is not always sufficient to eliminate bias.”
They added that “our results identify two social norms: it is perceived as socially undesirable both to be open about being gay, and to be unaccepting of gay individuals”.
The issue of the number of LGBT people in the wider population has always been one of great controversy and debate.
Estimates have varied from 10% of the population to less than 5%, depending on the study.
Earlier this month gay groups slammed a UK government report that stated that there are less than a million lesbian, gay and bisexual adults in the UK.
Critics argued that the study had not used the American best practices method and was most likely extremely inaccurate.
Ian Johnson, CEO of the LGBT marketing consulting company Out Now, warned that these kinds of inaccurate reports could be “used by those who may not ‘like’ gay, lesbian or bisexual people to undermine their rights” and “to reduce funding for government and NGO initiatives focused on LGB people…”
The study was published in the October edition of the National Bureau of Economic Research.