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Getting Your Numbers Straight, So to Speak

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Recent headlines about "how many gay people there are" sadly demonstrated once again that no good deed goes unpunished. The latest statistics from The Williams Institute at UCLA Law School should have been extremely validating for the bisexual community's significance within the greater movement for equality across the sexuality and gender identity spectrum. The analysis was not only informative but also inclusive. But once again, the bisexual population was erased from much of the coverage, another lost opportunity for genuine discussion about sexual orientation

A big part of the real news was lost in much or the coverage -- that the findings estimate that 3.5 percent of adults (8 million) in the U.S. identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, with bisexuals representing a slight majority within the group as a whole: 1.8 percent as opposed to 1.7 percent who identify as lesbian or gay. (And another 700,000 are transgender, let's not omit.) In 8 out of 9 surveys, bisexual women outnumbered lesbians to a significant degree. Conversely, gay men had much higher numbers than bisexual men in the majority of the studies.

These statistics fly in the face of what many people would have you believe -- that bisexuals are an insignificant subgroup of the LGBT community that doesn't merit having their different perspective recognized. Clearly, if the LGBT community wants to maximize its political muscle then it needs to give greater weight to these findings and look for ways to activate these often hidden members of our community and provide ways to better serve bisexuals. The Bisexual Resource Center, which I am currently President of, is a 26-year-old organization that provides support for bisexuals and resources about bisexuality. We know we have millions more people we could be reaching -- this report simply confirmed it.

Even as the research findings were disseminated this week, I saw several instances where the press chose to intentionally omit or downplay the elements of the data concerning bisexuals. The Associated Press led with the statistic that there are approximately 4 million gays and lesbians in the U.S. What, the other 4 million bisexuals were just too insignificant to mention? It seems that even when researchers use inclusive methodology to capture more comprehensive LGBT information, the media too often chooses to ignore and erase evidence of a significant bisexual presence.

When these statistics are juxtaposed against the recent report of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, "Bisexual Invisibility: Impacts and Recommendations," the seriousness of neglecting bisexual lives and perspectives is evident. The commission's study showed that:

  • Bisexual people experience greater health disparities than the broader population, including a greater likelihood of suffering from depression and mood anxiety disorders.
  • Bisexuals have higher rates of hypertension, poor or fair physical health, smoking, and risky drinking than heterosexuals or lesbians/gays.
  • Most HIV and STI prevention programs don't adequately address the health needs of bisexual, much less those who have sex with both men and women but do not identify as bisexual.

Part of my reaction to this is that if anyone is experiencing these inequities it shouldn't matter the numbers. But given the Institute's findings, it is important to connect the erasure and denial of bisexuality to these staggering repercussions for our community's health and well-being.

The Williams Institute emphasizes that numbers do matter from a public policy and research perspective. Having stronger evidence that there are 9 million LGBT people is a unifying motivator for our movement. But only if we are all counted.

Ellyn Ruthstrom is the President of the Bisexual Resource Center, based in Boston, MA.