RESEARCHERS from Harvard University and the Center for Health Policy in Washington published a study last week reporting that close to 20 percent of American men and women have had homosexual experiences or felt homosexual attractions since adolescence. The last time we heard about a study attempting to measure homosexuality in America, researchers from the Guttmacher Institute were reporting that just 1 percent of the male population was gay, so you might wonder what's going on here.
The answer is definitions, or lack of them. Most dictionaries, psychologists and sexologists give their first definition of homosexuality as "sexual orientation or attraction" to persons of the same sex, and define it only secondarily as "sexual activity" with members of the same sex. However, every major study of gays in the past 40 years except Kinsey's (including Guttmacher's) has measured only sexual activity. Those who have homosexual desires but repress them, or for some reason cannot act on them, are not counted. Such a research bias makes it impossible to measure what many might consider the real scope of the homosexual population.
Gay and lesbian activists have complained about this for years, arguing that it results in a serious under-counting of people who are homosexual or bisexual. But why aren't anti-gay conservatives complaining even more? After all, people who have repressed their homosexuality and are willing, for the sake of conformity, to restrict themselves to sexual lives that do not comport with their most basic desires are exactly the kinds of gays that these homophobes want. Anti-gay conservatives should be eager to count this population, to prove it is large and diverse, and to demonstrate that its members are happy and well-adjusted to the "lifestyle choice" they have made.
The problem is that although some of these people may be happy and well-adjusted, many are not. Quite a number of gays and lesbians have spent significant periods of their lives in quiet self-suppression. Most of them testify that just because they were not acting gay doesn't mean they were not suffering, both from repressed sexual desire and, far more painfully, from the shame and fear that come from always having to hide your attractions and dreams from everyone: family, friends and those with whom you are in love.
In any event, the new study, published in the "Archives of Sexual Behavior," asked respondents whether they had engaged in sexual relations with someone of the same sex in the past five years. It also asked them to describe their sexual feelings toward members of the same sex since age 15, ranging from "absolutely never felt any sexual attraction" all the way to exclusively homosexual attraction. It found that 20.8 percent of men and 17.8 percent of women reported "some homosexual attraction or behavior since age 15," and that 8.7 percent of men and 11.1 percent of women reported "some homosexual attraction but no homosexual behavior."
Included somewhere in those last statistics are the folks we're talking about: people with gay or bisexual impulses strong enough to report on a questionnaire, but who have never acted on them. In a way, such people represent a key battleground in the struggle for lesbian and gay liberation. It is to enlarge their numbers that anti-gay right-wingers struggle. And it is to liberate them that gay activists wage their battle. It's odd that no one until now has attempted to count them -- and, stranger still, that no one has yet attempted to study them and see how they're doing.
Gabriel Rotello is a columnist for Newsday.