Numbers Don't Determine Rights

April 18, 1993

President Clinton's meeting with gay and lesbian leaders in the White House Friday followed by a day an event that may have as much political impact on homosexuals in America: Publication of a poll done for the Alan Guttmacher Institute concluding only about 2 percent of American men have had homosexual experiences and only 1 percent consider themselves exclusively homosexual.

Most experts in the field of human sexuality have known the homosexual population was about this low. For example, a massive 1988 Census Bureau survey for the Centers for Disease Control found that only between 2 and 3 percent of American men had had even one homosexual experience in the past decade. (A smaller percentage of women is homosexual, according to most surveys.) French, British, Canadian and other national studies have also concluded that only about 2 precent of the populace is homosexual. But the public and political debate on gay rights has been proceeding on the assumption that about one in 10 Americans is gay.

That thinking is likely to change. The polling data is going to be front-page news now whenever homosexual rights are being debated in public, as they will be increasingly. The controversy over gays in the military guarantees that.

We do not know precisely how a changed public perception of the size of the gay population will affect laws and policy, but we suspect it will. On gays in the military, for example, there will be those who say the small percentage means inclusion can't disrupt the services, and there will be those who say that so small a number means too few individuals will benefit to make it worthwhile to risk changing long-standing policy. There will also be politicians who felt inclined to support gay rights when they thought one-tenth of the electorate was gay -- but no longer feel the need to now.

The proper point of view by the military, by politicians and other individuals and institutions should be that civil rights are individual. There is no such thing as a minority group that is too small to have its individual members' civil rights respected and protected.

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