Peter Pringle's America: Numbers count for US gays

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The Independent Online
A WEEK after the civil rights march of gays and lesbians in Washington, there is still a dispute about the size of the crowd. The police say it was 300,000, the homosexuals claim a million. Neither side will budge.

If only the Washington police and the homosexuals could be like Sgt Andre Herzberg, of the New York Police Department, who says of crowd counts: 'Geez, the cops claim one thing, and the causes claim another, and I would say somewhere in there lies the truth. Who the hell knows?' New York police gave up counting crowds a long time ago for that very reason.

In Washington, it's different. People march along the Mall from the Lincoln Memorial to the Congress to make a political point. Their numbers matter. That's why the Washington police have become America's most sophisticated crowd-counters. They know the square footage of the Mall and with helicopter photos they calculate the total at one person per three square feet. Then they check the number of people who rode the metro to the Mall, and the extra number who stayed the night at hotels. In 1963 they said there were 250,000 at the Martin Luther King freedom rally and 600,000 at the 1969 anti-Vietnam protest. Last year the National Organization for Women drew half a million marchers.

The gays and lesbians made a rough count from photographs. They say pictures show they had at least twice as many as the women's march. And then they sort of rounded the number up to a million.

It's understandable. Those Americans still trying to prove that homosexuality is 'a deviant lifestyle' not worthy of separate civic care and attention will try to use the lower police figure for their own political ends, no doubt.

The stereotypical American suburbanite, clean, white, God- fearing and ranch-house dwelling, may sleep more comfortably and feel better about treating homosexuals as something less than human if it appears there are not enough of them to fight back. But the homosexual community is more sensitive about the numbers than it might ordinarily be because recent sex-orientation surveys have suggested they represent a much lower proportion of the population than was generally supposed.

In the Forties, the Indiana University sex researcher Alfred Kinsey estimated that 10 per cent of American men fell into a broad category of being either exclusively homosexual, or having had a homosexual experience. He suggested that 4 per cent of men were purely homosexual, a figure that translates into five million. Even higher figures have been claimed, one suggesting that 22 per cent of American men and 17 per cent of women have had homosexual experiences.

On the eve of the Washington march, a new survey suggested a dramatic drop in the earlier estimates. The Alan Guttmacher Institute reported only 2 per cent of males had engaged in homosexual intercourse and that 1 per cent, or 1.4 million American men, considered themselves exclusively homosexual. The results of the survey were similar to recent reports from Britain, France and Denmark. Homosexual activists have taken this assault on the conventional wisdom as a dilution of their political power, and they find it difficult to be as reasonable about crowd counts as Sgt Herzberg.

Everyone agrees that homosexuality is one of the least researched areas of human activity. For one thing, surveys tend to address specific groups not necessarily representative of the whole. Kinsey interviewed men on college campuses. Other surveys have restricted age groups: men aged 19 to 69 (France) and 20 to 39 (United States). The surveys essentially address what people do in bed, and sexuality, of course, affects more than just sexual behaviour. For example, how homosexuals perform under fire is troubling generals in the Pentagon faced with allowing open homosexuals into the armed forces.

Here again, American homosexuals are involved in a numbers game. Pentagon homophobes claim that suicide is more common among homosexuals, a trait that could affect the 'good order' of the regiment - although Canada and Australia have lifted bans on gay soldiers without any morale problems.

The idea that homosexuals present a suicide risk stems from a 1989 US government task force finding that gay adolescents account for as many as 30 per cent of youth suicides each year. In fact, these figures are projected estimates, not the result of a scientific paper approved by a peer group review, as David Shaffer, of Columbia University, has pointed out. In other words, they are bogus numbers. The projection was based on several studies that reported suicidal feelings in gays, and was linked to Kinsey's conclusion that gays make up 10 per cent of the population.

On the defensive, and seeking broader representation - the two declared homosexuals in the US Congress make up 0.4 per cent of total membership - gay rights activists are making extravagant demands on a society that is only just beginning to tolerate the idea that some among them are exclusively homosexual and in need of mandated civil rights. At the Washington march, the manifesto demanded 'inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender studies in multicultural curricula' in schools.

Even in relatively progressive New York City, the school boards will not tolerate a curriculum introducing six-year-olds to a definition of the family that includes two male or two female parents. Earlier this year, New Yorkers kicked out the head of their public school system, Joe Fernandez, when he tried to do just that.