Pride in Numbers

I always have taken solace in Alfred Kinsey’s finding that we make up 10 percent of the population. I like being part of a double-digit community. Somehow, 10 percent makes us seem much more substantial than 5 or 8.

So, when I read Findings from the Hunter College Poll of Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals: New Discoveries about Identity, Political Attitudes and Civic Engagement, I was, to say the least, a little shocked to see that it reduces us to 2.9 percent.

I thought to myself, “This can’t be right.”

So, I called up Ken Sherrill, one of the study’s authors, and a Professor of Political Science at The City University of New York’s Hunter College, and asked, “What happened to 10 percent?”

Sherrill replied,“10 percent, to whatever degree that was accurate, was based on behavior, not identity. It’s one thing to have same-sex experiences, but another to think of yourself as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.”

Oh, right, some folks like messing around with people of the same sex, but then don’t come crashing out of the closet. I keep forgetting about them, because coming out for me forged my political and social identity as a lesbian so indelibly that I can’t even fathom separating sex and sexual identity. Clearly, I’m in the minority of our minority.

According to the study, of the 2.9 percent who identify as L, G, or B, a 50/50 split exists between women and men.

But two-thirds of those who say they identify as a gay man or lesbian are men. We’re not talking honorary lesbian status for supportive gay men, but rather about all the people, both men and women, who said they were lesbian or gay.

Conversely—and for me, this is quite disappointing—two-thirds of those that consider themselves bisexual are women. I hate to see lesbians lose any market share whatsoever.

Thankfully, very few of the 2.9 percent want to change their sexual orientation, but, according to the study, “a great many LGBs do not feel a strong sense of shared fate with other lesbians, gays, and bisexuals.” For instance, only 29 percent think their membership in the GLB community is “an important reflection of who I am.”

“What we should all recognize,” Sherrill told me, “is that everyone has multiple identities, because identifying in terms of sexual orientation doesn’t get transmitted in the home. It’s an identity that comes later in life. We still have our professional lives. We have all kinds of sources of identity. In terms of rational calculus, it [sexual-orientation identification] may not be the most important thing in people’s worlds.”

Honestly, I find that really sad. I always have thought of myself as part of a vibrant community. It was great to be on the media truck for the 1987 March on Washington, and to look down the street to see a sea of gays and lesbians marching for our rights. It was wonderful to be part of the million who converged on our nation’s capital in 2000.

To think that a good portion of our community doesn’t feel like we’re all in this together is a sad commentary on the effectiveness of our organizations, from local community centers to the national groups.

It’s no wonder we still are struggling for some bread crumbs of legal rights. Despite our best efforts, we still aren’t coming together as a strong, united voice. That’s a wake-up call for all of us. We need to build more bridges within the diverse subsets of our community, so that we one day can speak with one voice, and demand the rights and responsibilities we deserve.

The study was not all doom and gloom, however. It found that we’re younger than the average American, and more highly educated. It also found that we’re more likely to consider ourselves Democrats and liberals, and that we’re more interested in political and public affairs than the rest of America.

“Our data indicate that our respondents are much more liberal right across the board on a whole range of issues that have absolutely nothing to do with being lesbian or gay,” Sherrill explained. “We’re talking about issues like opposing the war, protecting the environment, even if it costs jobs; and favoring government spending to protect minorities.”

OK, so we don’t feel connected, but we do like politics. That’s a good thing. Now, if we only could connect the dots, and get our community politically involved fighting for our own rights!

Libby Post, the founding chair of the Empire State Pride Agenda, is a political commentator on public radio, on the Web, and in print media. She can be reached care of this publication, or at [email protected]

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