Culture, Gender

The size of the LGBT population and the magnitude of anti-gay sentiment

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(Wikimedia)
(Wikimedia)

In the months following the June 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down key parts of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, states have continued to take measures to legalize same-sex marriage, most recently Illinois and Hawaii. New Jersey also began to recognize them after Governor Chris Christie withdrew a challenge to such unions. While many continue to oppose gay marriage, recent polls indicate that attitudes are softening even among conservatives.

On the international stage, Pope Francis has made public comments on not judging homosexuality, setting a different tone for the Catholic Church. In Russia, however, President Vladimir Putin has signed a law banning “propaganda on nontraditional sexual relationships,” seen as part of a larger crackdown on advocates’ efforts to improve gay rights in the country. The law and its heavy-handed enforcement cast a pall over the 2014 Winter Olympics, in the Black Sea town of Sochi.

A June 2013 Pew survey of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender adults found that the vast majority (92%) felt that U.S. society had become more accepting over the past decade. At the same time, discrimination was common: Nearly 40% said they’d experienced rejection because of their sexual orientation or gender identity; 30% had received threats or been physically attacked; and 58% said they’ve been the target of slurs or jokes.

A 2013 paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, “The Size of the LGBT Population and the Magnitude of Anti-Gay Sentiment are Substantially Underestimated,” looks at the possibility that discrimination may be more pervasive than previously understood — and that the extent of the U.S. gay population remains under-counted. The researchers — Katherine B. Coffman and Lucas C. Coffman of Ohio State University and Keith M. Marzilli Ericson of Boston University — suggest that survey respondents are often hesitant to express negative attitudes toward the LGBT community if they believe they will sound intolerant. Previous research indicates that honest replies increase when survey participants are guaranteed anonymity and privacy, and the use of computers has been shown to be effective. But is this sufficient for eliciting completely truthful responses to deeply personal questions?

The researchers used an experiment design that allowed them to compare results from a traditional anonymous survey with one that uses an item count technique (ICT), also called an “unmatched count technique.” Rather than asking participants to answer sensitive questions directly, ICT surveys typically involve asking a control group to look at a list of neutral, non-sensitive items and report how many are true for them. A second group is given the same list, plus one sensitive, personal item, such as an indication of sexual orientation. The researcher is then able to estimate the population mean for the sensitive item by comparing it with the control group. (This technique has also been used to measure subjects such as risky driving by veterans and voter turnout.)

In the NBER study, which was conducted in November 2012, participants from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service were randomly given “direct report” or “veiled report” treatments. Each group was presented with both neutral statements and sexuality-related questions. The direct-report group was asked to reply to sensitive questions anonymously and privately on a computer, imitating the design of many current surveys. The veiled-report group was given the same neutral and sensitive statements, but merely had to report the number of statements — innocuous or sensitive — that applied to them. (Note that percentage points and percent are not synonymous; our article on statistics for journalists has more information.)

Key results from the study include:

  • The veiled-report treatment significantly raised the overall number of answers to sensitive questions: Reports of non-heterosexual identity rose by 65%, same-sex sexual experiences by 59% and directionally same-sex attraction by 9.4%.
  • The veiled report increased measured rates of anti-gay sentiment: Participants were 67% more likely to express disapproval of an openly gay manager at work, 71% more likely to say it should be legal to discriminate in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation, 22% less likely to support the legality of same-sex marriage, 46% less likely to support adoption by same-sex couples, and 32% less likely to state they believe homosexuality is a choice.
  • “Individuals in demographic categories that other research has identified as more openly anti-gay — Christians, African-Americans, and older populations — are more likely to lie about their sexual identity without a veil.” For example, Christians increased reports of non-heterosexuality by 13 percentage points and same-sex sexual experiences by 14 percentage points in the veiled report as opposed to the direct report.

The authors conclude that “standard methods of eliciting respondents’ sexual orientation and behavior underestimate the true fraction of individuals who do not identify as heterosexual and who have had a same-sex sexual encounter.” They argue that such findings — although not from a perfectly representative sample of the U.S. population — suggest “a societal stigma of being LGBT,” coupled with the fact that “individuals are reluctant to report that they have attitudes or policy opinions that are not accepting of LGBT individuals, consistent with a stigma of holding anti-gay sentiments.”

The Pew Research Center also analyzes the implications of this study and provides more detail on the “veiled report” survey techniques that were employed.

Keywords: gay and lesbian issues, equality, bisexuality, discrimination


By | November 13, 2013

Citation: Coffman, Katherine B.; Coffman, Lucas C.; Marzilli Ericson, Keith M. "The Size of the LGBT Population and the Magnitude of Anti-Gay Sentiment are Substantially Underestimated." National Bureau of Economic Research, October 2013, working paper 19508.

Analysis assignments

Read the issue-related Deseret News article titled "Employment Bill Signals Changes in Attitudes for, Against Gay Rights."

  1. What key insights from the news article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?

Read the full study titled "The Size of the LGBT Population and the Magnitude of Anti-Gay Sentiment are Substantially Underestimated."

  1. What are the study's key technical terms? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
  2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
  3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
  4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
  5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

  1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
  2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
  3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
  4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
  5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
  6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

Class discussion questions

  1. What is the study’s most important finding?
  2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
  3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
  4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
  5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
  6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?

5 comments

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Hank Plante Nov 19, 2013 18:17

Your use of the term “sexual preference” detracts from an otherwise good story. It is not just political correctness to use the preferred term, “sexual orientation.” It goes to the heart of whether being gay is a choice or a chance.

Leighton Walter Kille Nov 20, 2013 9:16

Thanks for the feedback. The term “orientation” was used in survey, and we’ve updated the post.

Hank Plante Nov 20, 2013 19:48

Thank you for updating.

Syllabus: Reporting race, gender and diversity in America Journalist's Resource: Research for Reporting, from Harvard Shorenstein Center Feb 7, 2014 15:21

[…] B. Coffman, “The Size of the LGBT Population and the Magnitude of Anti-gay Sentiment,” National Bureau of Economic Research, November […]

Digital media and society syllabus: Covering social media, technology and a networked world Journalist's Resource: Research for Reporting, from Harvard Shorenstein Center Feb 7, 2014 15:23

[…] B. Coffman, “The Size of the LGBT Population and the Magnitude of Anti-gay Sentiment,” National Bureau of Economic Research, November […]

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