Gay issues are likely to remain central to social and political debate in this country for many years to come, whether in the form of gay rights referenda, gay service in the military, school curricula, or the adoption of children by homosexual couples. It should not be too long before one specific issue, the recognition of gay marriage by federal law, ignites a legal and constitutional crisis. Such controversies usually involve a familiar range of principles and rhetorical styles, above all the confrontation of moralistic and libertarian approaches, and a fundamental difference over the rights of the “consenting adult” versus the traditional social consensus. However, to a startling extent, both supporters and opponents of gay rights tend to accept as factual certain ideas about the nature and prevalence of homosexual behavior, notions which in reality range from the dubious to the downright bogus. Based on incorrect assumptions and misleading research, a whole mythology has attained general credence in academe and the media, with profound consequences for the ongoing social debate. This is no case of conspiracy theory, as the exponents of this fiction are overwhelmingly guilty of optimistic self-deception rather than any more calculated motives; yet the results are more effective than could have been imagined by the most Machiavellian schemer. The rarely challenged assertion that homosexuals represent “one in ten” of the population has proved a rhetorical weapon of immense force.

Different societies accept different forms of argument as providing confirmation for a given statement. While the ultimate warrant was once the scriptural text, the knockout blow in a controversy today is normally delivered in the form of a social science statistic, proving that some inconceivably vast proportion of the population is subject to ills like child abuse, domestic violence, or ethnic intimidation, each of which must therefore be treated as an “epidemic” in need of countermeasures. These figures are most likely to develop a cultural life of their own if they come in some easily memorable form, preferably incorporating a pleasingly round number like “fifty thousand” or “three million.” Perhaps the best-known of these killer statistics is the estimate for the number of homosexuals in the general population, which, as every schoolboy knows, is “ten percent.” This statistic is crucial for gay rights activists, for it shows that homosexual legal and political rights are a critical matter for a large portion of the population, and that a large number of individuals are suppressing their sexual nature for fear of the consequences. In the 1980’s, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force claimed to represent “23 million gay and lesbian persons,” while some activists (and the mass media) often complained that the ten percent estimate was conservative. These, then, are the huge numbers of individuals supposedly subject to social and legal discrimination, who suffer when churches refuse to ordain gay clergy or perform same-sex marriages, or when the Armed Services exclude homosexuals. The suggestion of a huge “dark figure” of secret homosexuals is also convenient, as someone who opposes gay rights can be dismissed as being a closeted and self-hating homosexual.

There are countless problems with the “ten percent” theory, but two objections are decisive: one, that the research from which this figure is drawn is so flawed as to be worthless; and, two, that even the statistics that were produced should not be considered as evidence of a behavioral condition called “homosexual.”

“One in ten” originated with the celebrated Kinsey study of the 1940’s, which argued that about ten percent of men were chiefly or exclusively homosexual for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55 (his claims for lesbianism rates among women were far lower). The original methodology, however, caused grave concern, not least over the ethical difficulties of reporting children’s sexual responses in conditions which have been criticized for violating most accepted standards for the treatment of child research subjects. Indeed, the research has been denounced as formalized molestation in the disturbing but well-documented book Kinsey, Sex and Fraud by Judith Reisman and Edward Eichel (1990). The study was also likely to produce a sizable overrepresentation of subjects who reported same-sex contacts both on a sporadic basis and as part of a continuing way of life. Kinsey and associates relied chiefly on volunteer subjects disproportionately drawn from metropolitan areas, and active homosexuals were overrepresented in the sample, as were college-educated individuals. In addition, a substantial number of subjects had institutional backgrounds, generally in jails or prisons. Later scholars were divided over whether the data might usefully be reinterpreted, or if the whole project is beyond salvage.

Already by the early 1970’s, studies using methodologies superior to Kinsey’s found the number of active homosexuals to be far less than popularly imagined. The size of the gay population became an urgent issue during these years because of the need to determine the population at special risk from AIDS, and in 1988, the estimated number of gay males in New York City alone was revised downward by some 80 percent. Several influential studies in the early I990’s revised the estimated homosexuality rate for men down even further, to between one and three percent. In 1993, the Alan Guttmacher Institute reported that between 1.8 and 2.8 percent of men surveyed reported at least one sexual contact with another man in the previous decade, while only about one percent had been exclusively homosexual in the previous year. This was in accord with the findings of a national survey recently undertaken in France. In 1994, a University of Chicago study found that 2.8 percent of men and 1.4 percent of women surveyed identified themselves as homosexual or bisexual. Though homosexual behavior varied by race and region, a figure approaching ten percent was recorded only for men living in the largest cities.

Putting these surveys together creates a convincing and surprising picture. Contrary to Kinsey’s “one in ten,” a figure of one in 30 would offer a more accurate assessment of the male population that can be described as homosexual or bisexual; and one in 60 would best represent the exclusively homosexual. The corresponding figures for women reporting sexual contacts with other women are somewhat lower. The cumulative evidence is now so overwhelming that any activist claiming that homosexuals represent “one man in ten” (still less one woman in ten) should ipso facto be discredited as an objective or credible authority.

But even this improved social scientific evidence does not in itself measure the number of “homosexuals.” Clearly, there is a set of behaviors that are generally termed homosexual, involving sexual interest in a person or persons of the same gender, or a pattern of same-sex contacts. However, it is a long way from accepting this fact to believing that there is such a human category as “homosexuality,” so that being gay is equivalent, say, to being tall, short, strong, bald, or musically inclined. Ironically, gay polemicists here often depart from the basic left-liberal principle that our behaviors and attitudes are culturally constructed, and that there is nothing innate about the characteristics we take to be normal for men and women, or people of different races and nationalities. Being homosexual, however, is presented as innate and even hereditary in nature; gays are born, not made. In contemporary jargon, gay activists thus lapse into “essentialism,” an egregious heresy.

In reality, a long anthropological tradition shows that the extent and toleration of same-sex contacts is wholly dependent on social conditions, and the occurrence of the behavior at some stage of life ranges from near 100 percent in one society to negligible levels in neighboring communities. In our own society, same-gender sexuality is often associated with other behaviors, and the adoption of the deviant label “homosexual,” but it is not in others. For this reason alone, we should be deeply suspicious of recent research purporting to show a predisposition to homosexuality, still less a genetic element in its transmission.

We do not have to travel to other continents to find examples of homosexual behavior as a culturally determined and created aspect of life, as American prisons offer a classic example of a society almost designed to foster sexual intimacy with others of the same gender. Though often consensual, this sexual activity also involves the victimization of many thousands of young men each year. I low many antirape campaigners ever acknowledge that the “typical” rape victim in this country is male rather than female, and that such contacts represent a substantial majority of actual (rather than recorded) assaults? As the incarcerated population rises precipitously, so does this horrendous form of intimate violence. Incidentally, these prison contacts also cause havoc for the recent surveys of sexual identity, which rarely ask whether reported same-sex contacts occurred within the forced and unnatural setting of a prison or comparable institutional setting.

We now have definitive results from the vast behavioral experiment unwittingly undertaken by our justice system, in which millions of young men are placed for years in environments designed to foster unhealthy and exploitative sexuality. Nobody suggests that the men sentenced to prisons are disproportionately likely to be homosexual in the outside world, and quite the contrary is almost certainly true. In prison, however, environment and patterns of opportunity determine that a “normal” group of men temporarily adopt homosexual patterns of sexual expression, without necessarily “becoming gay” or identifying themselves as homosexual. It would be grotesque to suggest that only this abominable setting has permitted them to “come out” or find their true sexual identity. Clearly, the frequency of homosexual behavior can vary enormously depending on the degree to which it is seen as normal and acceptable, and in appropriate settings, it can reach levels which are either far higher or lower than what we currently find. This has many implications, which tend to support conservative stances in debates about, for example, ministries and therapeutic programs aimed to “cure” homosexuals. The latter idea seems a bizarre use of resources, with therapies usually causing more harm than the “disease” treated, but would be curers are probably right in believing that they are dealing with learned behaviors rather than innate predisposition.

In schools, also, we have long had heated debates about programs designed to give students a positive view of homosexuality, which incorporate from the earliest grades texts treating homosexual relationships as just as worthy and healthy as heterosexual, and perhaps more so. These schemes are founded on the assumption that many pupils (one in ten, maybe?) themselves possess homosexual natures, that they are homosexual, and that they need this form of encouragement or approval. Critics object that teaching about homosexuality all too easily becomes the teaching of homosexuality, and again they are correct to the extent that creating a positive environment probably will encourage same-sex experimentation or behavior among individuals who would not otherwise be so inclined.

In recent years, the impact of the “one in ten” mythology has been especially clear in the construction of a vast social problem, the general acceptance of which has made it easier to promote “gay rights” positions in education and other spheres. The epidemic in question is “gay teen suicide,” meaning the statistics for suicide by young homosexuals. Suicide by teenagers and young adults has for some years been regarded as a grave social pathology, to which any parent of teenagers could imagine his or her child succumbing; but in the late 1980’s, gay groups began to draw attention to the overrepresentation of young gay men and lesbians as victims of these tragic acts. As homosexuals were claimed to constitute at least a third of teen suicides, the panicked response to this issue should have been redirected to the threat to gay teens. To quote the gay newspaper The Advocate, “Gay and lesbian teenagers are killing themselves in staggering numbers. They are hanging themselves in high school classrooms, jumping from bridges, shooting themselves on church altars, cutting themselves with razor blades, and downing lethal numbers of pills. A conservatively estimated 1,500 young gay and lesbian lives are terminated every year because these troubled youths have nowhere to turn . . . because they cannot continue to live in a world that hates gays.” It is a “hidden holocaust,” a theme familiar from the AIDS controversy.

Gay activists now use the teen suicide issue as one of their most effective rhetorical weapons, chiefly because of its appeal to audiences who might not normally be sympathetic. It is so attractive to the media because the theme easily lends itself to moving illustration in stories of young people who had killed themselves, the presumption being that homosexuality had been a determining factor in their decisions. The political consequences are far-reaching: if young gay lives are to be saved, then the schools and churches must reconsider their attitudes and priorities, eliminating antigay prejudices; “gay-positive” materials must be introduced into school curricula, and gay students “mainstreamed.” In Massachusetts, especially, the urgency of the apparent crisis has led Republican Governor Weld to establish a special commission on gay and lesbian youth, in order to recommend sweeping reforms throughout the state’s educational system: after all, are not lives at stake? Gay teen suicide promises to be the trump card in local school board battles over the treatment of homosexuality in education.

The construction of the “epidemic” is a damning indictment of the use of social science in political debate, and the uncritical way in which tendentious statistics are accepted as fact. Briefly, gay teen suicide is an outright myth. Of course, some homosexual teenagers kill themselves, possibly in some cases as a result of insult, prejudice, or bullying, but there are no vaguely credible statistics about the scale of the issue.

The manufacture of the “1,500 victims” is an example of chutzpah. In the late 1980’s, the federal Department of Health and Human Services mounted an inquiry into the problem of teen suicide, defined as suicide by individuals aged 15 though 24. It commissioned dozens of papers, which were presented at various conferences around the country in 1986-87, and two of these studies involved sexual identity. One was a restrained and scholarly piece, which noted the scholarly consensus that homosexuals were two or three times more likely to kill themselves than heterosexuals, a well-substantiated finding. The other paper, however, was a polemical piece by San Francisco social worker Paul Gibson, and this is the sole source for current estimates of the numbers of gay teen suicides. This should be stressed: the figure derives not from an academic or a scholarly researcher, and the study was never subjected to any form of peer review. The author in question presented his views, which were then included without comment in the final report, and this was then cited in wildly misleading terms of “the federal government has conclusively shown that gay teen suicide is a vast epidemic.” As David Shaffer has remarked, the problem with “official statistics” is that they are often not official, and sometimes they are not even statistics.

So how did we get to the picturesque image of 1,500 people “hanging themselves in high school classrooms, jumping from bridges, shooting themselves on church altars” and so on? Though Gibson never explicitly states the basis for his argument, the logic appears to go as follows. First, some 5,000 young people commit suicide each year (true). Assuming that one-tenth of the population is homosexual, we would expect about 500 of these cases to involve gay teenagers and young adults, i/homosexuals had a “normal” rate of suicidal behavior. However, homosexuals are approximately three times as likely as heterosexuals to commit suicide, so that the actual number of homosexual suicides in a given year would be closer to 1,500. Therefore, the proportion of teen and young adult suicide cases involving homosexuals is about 30 percent of the whole, or approximately one third.

The argument therefore depends on the estimate for the gay proportion of the population, and that is drawn entirely from Kinsey—neat and unadulterated by any of the subsequent refinements or revisions of that disastrous project, although many such interpretations were available even then. Gibson’s conclusion has been quoted as authoritative by other writers, all of whom know (or should know) the fundamental flaws of the Kinsey data. Moreover, Gibson’s “one in ten” refers to those young people with “a primary gay male, lesbian or bisexual orientation.”

What makes this outrageous is that not even Kinsey claimed a lesbianism rate of ten percent of women, even among the very odd sample with which he was working. Nor has any study ever shown or even argued that bisexuals have a higher tendency toward suicide than heterosexuals, as claims of higher suicide rates have only been presented for the exclusively and self-identified homosexual. Apples are most certainly being compared with oranges. What is particularly strange about all this is that for most of this century, one of the standard weapons in the anti-homosexual arsenal was the charge that gays were indeed likely to commit suicide because their condition was inherently unhealthy, and connected to various forms of mental illness. Countering this allegation, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its diagnostic list of diseases and pathologies in 1973. A decade later, gay activists themselves began presenting gay vulnerability to suicide in the foreground of their own rhetoric, as proof of the pernicious effects of rampant and pervasive homophobia throughout American society. Today, this latter approach has become the norm, and the rhetoric has won universal acceptance in the media, for whom “homophobia” leads directly to the destruction of young lives.

The question of whether homosexuals (however defined) constitute one or ten percent of the population does not itself have great significance for the issue of gay rights or gay activism. One might follow John Stuart Mill in believing that a society has no business regulating the sexual doings of its citizens, provided that no harm is caused to outside parties, while there is ample precedent for providing legal protections for people or groups who prove vulnerable to assault or discrimination. These arguments do not change substantially whether the United States has two million “gays” or 25 million. On the other hand, it is hard to tolerate the arguments that have been made about gay rights and wrongs, when these are founded upon evidence or statistics that are not only wrong, but which the advocates in question should know are wrong. The whole mythology of “one in ten” of the population being homosexual might well be discussed in terms of abuse and perversion, but using neither term in a sexual sense: the abuse is that of rhetoric, and it is science which is perverted in the process.