The U.S. Census reported last month that New York City has at least 25,906 gay households, a threefold increase since 1990. This would translate into about 52,000 gay New Yorkers, or just under one percent of the population that is 18 years of age or older.
This could of course be accurate - if you did not count any of the gay people in Chelsea, Park Slope or Greenwich Village.
How could the United States Census be so off the mark?
It would not be the first time that gay people were underestimated - or, to put it more accurately, were inaccurately accounted for. There was no real effort even to estimate the population of gay people in the country until pioneering research Alfred Kinsey declared in the 1940's that gay men comprised ten percent of all adult males. But Kinsey's data were not very valid, since they were based on interviews with a sample that was not scientifically random. Those who were interviewed had volunteered.
During the senior George Bush's administration, a major study of sexuality was to be launched, so that a reliable estimate could be made of various sexual practices to help understand the potential spread of AIDS. The Bush administration killed the study, but a consortium of private foundations funded a smaller version carried out by researchers at the University of Chicago. Combined with other data sources it still provides the best estimate of the size of the gay population, even though it was completed in 1994. (It resulted in the book The Social Organization of Sexuality by Edward Laumann, John Gagnon, Robert T. Michael and Stuart Michaels.)
For the United States as a whole the numbers were 2.6 percent for men and 1.1 percent for women. For small cities and towns and rural areas the percent was smaller. But about 9.2 percent of men and 2.6 percent of women (aged 18 to 59) living in the central cities of the 12 largest metropolitan areas reported that they identify as homosexual. (And a larger percentage reported engaging in sexual activity with members of the same gender, but did not identify themselves as gay).
Applying these numbers to New York City, one would expect that at least six percent of New York City adults are gay, or about 360,000. This number is quite consistent with exit poll results, which ask sexual orientation. In truth, since so many gay people are drawn to New York City, the number is likely to be at least 500,000 - or about ten times greater than what the Census reported.
In 1990, the Census added a new category "unmarried partner" to get at the large numbers of people, mostly heterosexual couples, who were living together in a relationship but were not married. Since the gender of the partners could be recorded, for the first time there was a way to make a count of what were likely to be gay couples. The 2000 Census refined the question a little about the "relationship to the head of the household." Of course, not all gay people are living with partners, and not all people who live together are in a romantic relationship, and not everybody could understand the nuances of the question. But at least now gay New Yorkers officially - albeit rather indirectly -- exist.
Andrew A. Beveridge has taught sociology at Queens College since 1981, done demographic analyses for the New York Times since 1993, and provides expert testimony on a range of cases, including housing discrimination. The opinions expressed are his alone.