Getting away from talking about the elections, I'm currently reading Ritch Savin-Williams's book, The New Gay Teenager. Savin-Williams caused a mini-stir a few weeks ago (so mini you probably didn't notice it) by saying, "there is no gay teen suicide epidemic." I'm working on a post for later this month on the statistics we have that support and don't support that.
Savin-Williams does have a few great chapters in the beginning of the book that are specifically about how hard it is to get data on LGBT people at all, much less teens who might not be ready or willing to identify as such. It's something I post about from time to time here on Bilerico. Whenever a study comes out that says, "X% of gay people do Y," I can't help but wonder where they found their gay people, and usually their source isn't that representative of the entire population.
The idea goes a bit further, with Savin-Williams asking just what we mean by "gay," "lesbian," or "bisexual" in the first place. It's not something we agree on and different definitions can produce wildly different study results. This passage, referring to sexual orientation, is particularly interesting:
Creators of these scales generally ignore whether adolescents attribute any importance to these dimensions. Had they considered this, they might have been surprised. A recent study with adolescent focus groups addressed the question "What is sexual orientation?" Regardless of the gender or sexual status, the respondents agreed that sexual orientation has two aspects:
Sexual attraction, which may be described as a sexual desire for being with a specific gender; or an intense internal, physiological desire for a particular gender or to a particular person or attribute (e.g., body part).
A desire to be in a primary romantic relationship, which may include being in love wiht someone, forming a long -term commitment and/or wanting to have such experiences.
Equally noteworthy is what the teenagers asserted is not particularly important:
Who you have sex with.
Self-labeling (e.g., straight, gay, bisexual).
Ironically, the very domains deemed irrelevant by those being studied are the very qualities researchers are most likely to use as markers of sexual orientation.
Most studies go by self-labeling, at least the ones that make the press. Even if they find a way to interview people who identify as gay that's not a convenience sample (that is, if they don't just go to a gay bar or ask gay people in therapy for other reasons, as most research on homosexuality was done back in the 50's), they're still limited. There are plenty of people who say they're straight who have sex with the same sex, people who identify as gay who have sex with both, people who are in the closet and have sex with no one but still have a sexual orientation, etc.
The point of this post isn't the inherent problem with research on LGB people, but just to ask you all what you think makes someone a certain sexual orientation. Is it their actions? Their identity? Their attractions? Usually, when I think about it, I'd say that it's someone's identity, but then someone like Larry Craig comes along, someone who's clearly attracted to members of his own sex and has been having sex with them for a long time, who says they "never have been gay."
But these are all words and words are defined by how people use them, not the ideas we want to promote with them (as much as we may try). In the end, these labels are just trying to bring some order to chaos, and such measures will always fail. That doesn't mean they aren't worth attempting.