The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, a gay and lesbian think tank, released a study in April 2011 estimating based on its research that just 1.7 percent of Americans between 18 and 44 identify as gay or lesbian, while another 1.8 percent -- predominantly women -- identify as bisexual. Far from underestimating the ranks of gay people because of homophobia, these figures included a substantial number of people who remained deeply closeted, such as a quarter of the bisexuals. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey of women between 22 and 44 that questioned more than 13,500 respondents between 2006 and 2008 found very similar numbers: Only 1 percent of the women identified themselves as gay, while 4 percent identified as bisexual.
Higher numbers can be obtained when asking about lifetime sexual experiences, rather than identity. The Williams Institute found that, overall, an estimated 8.2 percent of the population had engaged in some form same-sex sexual activity. Put another way, 4.7 percent of the population had wandered across the line without coming to think of themselves as either gay or bisexual. Other studies suggest those individuals are, like the bisexuals, mainly women: The same CDC study that found only 1 percent of women identify as lesbian, for example, found that 13 percent of women reported a history of some form of sexual contact with other women.
"Estimates of those who report any lifetime same-sex sexual behavior and any same-sex sexual attraction are substantially higher than estimates of those who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual," the Williams Institute's Gary J. Gates concluded.
These numbers are significant because identity -- and not behavior -- is the central determinant of whether or not someone will seek a same-sex marriage. A straight woman who makes out a couple of times with a female friend in college is not going to seek a same-sex marriage, nor is a guy who fooled around once with a male friend while drunk in high school. Neither individual is demographically relevant to the question of how often same-sex marriages will occur. And it's not clear at all what fraction of bisexuals will seek out same-sex marriages.
How many people who have had same-sex experiences identify as former homosexuals? That would be interesting to know.