Past research might not accurately capture the size of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population or the public’s actual opinions of the population, according to a recent study done by Ohio State researchers.
The husband and wife research team, Katie Baldiga Coffman and Lucas Coffman, co-authored a study that found the non-heterosexual population is larger than current estimates suggest, while anti-gay sentiment is much more prominent than previously measured.
Katie Baldiga Coffman, an assistant professor of economics, said in an email the findings are significant for things like public health, policy prioritization and measuring social norms.
The researchers used the “veiled elicitation method,” which asks subjects to respond to questions in an indirect manner, to account for social desirability bias, or “the tendency of survey respondents to give researchers the answers they think are expected,” according to a press release.
More than 2,500 U.S. volunteers were randomly assigned to answer questions about their sexuality. Those taking the veiled survey were found to be 65 percent more likely to have a non-heterosexual identity and 59 percent more likely to report having had a same-sex sexual experience than those who did not take the veiled survey, according to the release.
In addition, the veiled method also found more people to be 67 percent more likely to disapprove of an openly gay manager at work and 71 percent more likely to say it is acceptable to discriminate against non-heterosexual people than the standard survey takers, according to the release.
Lucas Coffman, an assistant professor of economics, said in an email when a behavior is stigmatized, or might be perceived negatively by others, there is a tendency for people to not admit to it.
“We ask people directly about their sexuality and about their opinions related to sexuality and see whether and how they lie (by comparing to our ‘veiled report treatment’). We find that people are reluctant to report that they identify as not heterosexual, and that they are reluctant to report that they’ve had a sexual experience with someone of the same sex,” Lucas Coffman said.
Lucas Coffman said those results revealed many people perceived it as more socially acceptable to be heterosexual than homosexual.
“We find that when asked directly, people in our sample are less likely to admit opinions or policy stances that are not LGBT-friendly, they lie about whether they would be happy to have an LGB(T) manager at work and whether it should be legal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation,” Lucas Coffman said. “This suggests a social norm of tolerance or support for LGBT-friendly policies.”
Katie Baldiga Coffman said the data provides some evidence that older individuals are more likely to lie about their own sexuality when directly asked compared to individuals who are under age 30, but she added there is not enough data to draw firm conclusions at this stage.
Angie Wellman, an intercultural specialist for the OSU Student Life Multicultural Center, said OSU is generally a place with the expectation of mutual respect.
“Our administration strongly encourages students to work on (skill) sets that will help them to be competitive job seekers in a global market,” Wellman said in an email. “One of those skills is to create open and affirming environments.”
Wellman said the findings imply that being inclusive and supportive of LGBT people is a facade.
“I can’t speak for the whole Student Life Multicultural Center. What I can say is personal. The idea that some people don’t want those things for me, for many of my friends, for families across the country, is hurtful and disheartening,” Wellman said. “It is my hope that as more folks choose to educate themselves, and one another, about different ways of moving through the world, that we will more consistently and authentically have appreciation and respect of the similarities and differences among people.”
The researchers cautioned their survey was not nationally representative, so the results should not be used to extrapolate how many Americans are gay, lesbian or bisexual.
Lucas Coffman said they hope the results of the study can spark a conversation about how data is collected on sensitive issues.
“Any time there are social norms or stigmas surrounding an area, it might be hard to get honest, accurate responses from individuals,” Lucas Coffman said. “Of course, our paper does not say that there is no role for surveys which ask questions directly. We simply highlight a concern that researchers should think carefully about when interpreting their survey data.”