People Aren’t as Willing to Be Openly Gay, or Openly Anti-Gay, As We Think

A new study suggests that people are are unwilling to report their sexual orientation during national surveys. Similarly, the analysis found that people who hold anti-gay views may be unwilling to say how they really feel about gay people. Why is this, and why is it important?

The study, conducted by researchers from Ohio State and Boston Universities, aimed at seeing just how large a bias there is in national research polls where, it is believed, respondents will often give what they perceive as socially acceptable answers.

The study, involving 2,500 participants, had respondents take an online survey that asked a total of eight questions relating to sexual orientation, three involving respondents’ own sexuality and the remaining five relating to how they felt about topics like gay marriage, and whether they were comfortable with gay people in the workplace.

Researchers divided the group of respondents in half. They used a research method dubbed “veiled reporting” that, while still observing rigorous best practices, allowed half of respondents virtual anonymity by making it almost impossible to connect individual answers to respondents’ identities — a more detailed report on how this was achieved is available here.

The research teams then compared the veiled report answers to those of the other half of the sample who were used as a control group and whose answers were not anonymous.

What the researchers found was that the bias may indeed be significant.

Under the veiled method of reporting people, self identified as non-heterosexual 65% more, and reported same-sex sexual encounters 59% more.

Similarly, respondents were far more likely to report anti-gay sentiment under the veiled method. In a scenario of having a gay manager at work, there was a 67% increase in reported disapproval. Even more alarming, under the veiled model there was a staggering 71% increase in respondents saying they believed it was okay to discriminate against the LGB population.

Fascinatingly, fewer respondents under the veiled report method supported the idea that sexual orientation can be changed than in the control group. This suggests that the belief that people can change their sexuality may be more socially acceptable but that it might not actually be believed.

What is supremely interesting about this research is that it appears to reveal two key perceptions that might at first seem at odds with one another: that it is both undesirable to be openly gay and that it is also undesirable to be openly anti-gay. Why is this? It may be a product of the rapid change that we have seen over the past few decades where gay rights acceptance has grown at incredible rate, leaving both sides still unsure as to the shape of public opinion. Only further research will illuminate the true facts, however.

There are some important things to note about this study, though. Chiefly that the sample used, though of statistical significance, was not a random population sample and in fact had a bias that was left-leaning. As such, the researchers make clear that this study’s findings cannot be used to conclude one way or the other that there are more LGB people in the United States than has previously been estimated. However, the research does point out why national polls may not yield accurate views of public opinion. That alone raises significant questions for the LGBT community, particularly as it attempts to gain ground in more conservative states.

For instance, a number of polls are now showing that, even in conservative states, support for gay rights is growing. It’s doubtful that the trend is entirely erroneous, but it does beg the question as to just how much is true support and how much is people giving the answers they believe to be socially acceptable.

When campaign groups are trying to gauge support for, say, a ballot measure on legalizing marriage equality, those numbers are important because they might mean the difference between a costly wasted effort and a successful campaign. As such, if this veiled reporting method holds up and is adopted by other research groups we might be on course to see an incredibly valuable and more accurate gauge of public opinion that can help us better shape the fight for equality as we move forward.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson4 years ago

who we love and what we do with our genitals is our business.. gay, straight, trans, whatever. live and let live, love and let love

ScoTT Senate
ScoTT S4 years ago

I can completely understand why someone would not reveal their true intentions in a survey where they could be identified, and the article practically spells out why. In 29 states, I can be fired simply if I am gay. In Florida, I can be fired for any reason, which could amount to no reason at all. Also, if I'm homophobic and my boss is gay, and he/she found out about it, I know my job would be on the line, and I'd be watched closely for any possible transgression. Of course, I'm going to be cautious about my real self being exposed if the bottom line is that I need this job to feed my family. The trouble with that logic is that it is always better to do something you love and work with people who also care about something they love (not always an option). Also, the stress of working at a job solely for the money, or avoiding dealing with potential ostracizing by coworkers or managers is likely going to manifest in some form of illness down the road.

Dimitris Dallis
Past Member 4 years ago

Of course not. People live like in a stage of a theater...

Amy Fisher
Amy Fisher4 years ago


Nils Anders Lunde
PlsNoMessage se4 years ago


Danuta Watola
Danuta W4 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Allan Yorkowitz
.4 years ago

This article seemed to go on and on. As far as why people are not openly gay is fundamental. They are afraid of loosing friends, and especially family.
Thousands of gay teens live in shelters because they were rejected by their parents. Not all teens have the will to give up their lives, security as some.
A teenager in NYC has a huge support group; does the mid-west have the same support?

John S.
Past Member 4 years ago

I'm pretty damn certain that when a survey is found flawed, the ability to draw any conclusions is compromised (actually, the technical name for that would be guessing, or you could still come up with a hypothesis though basing a hypothesis on fiction may prevent an educated guess). What your really saying is no one cares. I tend not to rely off a poll unless I see how the questions are worded, as the poll may be misleading.

Karen H.
Karen H4 years ago

I take on-line surveys, and some have asked for my sexual orientation. I don’t answer because my sexuality is no one’s business and I have no idea how they’re using the information. If the GOP is looking to change voting districts so there is less support for same-sex marriage, those answers can be used to aid their redistricting.
I sometimes wonder how a person who is questioning his/her sexual identity would answer because the choices are generally: (a) homosexual, (b) lesbian, (c) heterosexual. Like asking, Do you like vanilla ice cream or chocolate? What, no pistachio?
Another thought – one partner might have no problem coming out, but the other might have family that’s incredibly prejudiced and it could cause problems.
Some surveys are now asking questions like, “Are you religious?” They evidently don’t know that “religious” and “spiritual” aren’t always synonymous, which can skew their results.

Mark Caponigro
Mark Caponigro4 years ago

Like Lauren B., I am "not surprised." Human beings are social animals, which means we need to get along with other people in order to survive; and that often involves hiding truths about ourselves which we fear may result in our being excommunicated/ostracized/shunned. Also, we are intelligent (?) social primates, which means we tend to join teams (gangs, hunting parties, war parties, political parties, armies ...), membership in which usually involves feeling self-righteous hostility towards those who do not belong. Hence gay people hide that they are gay, and homophobes hide that they are homophobes; but also, homophobes privately feel certain that their prejudice is right and good.

What is surprising is that pollsters, who have studied the problem of being lied to in opinion polls for a long time now, and are usually good at cutting through the lying, still have a hard time with the question of people's sexual orientation. The last big poll gave a very low number of people self-identifying as gay, something like 3%. I don't believe that figure, and suspect the true number is at least 5%; probably not much higher than that, but at least that high.