Love & Sex

Thanks to a Botched Study There Are Not As Many Gay People As We Previously Thought

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A landmark sexuality study from the '90s was victim to a teenage prank.

How many gay people are there in the United States? Estimates have always been shaky. In 1995, preliminary results from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health rocked the media and human sexuality circuit when they found that 5 to 7 percent of young Americans self-reported as homosexual or bisexual. Previous studies had indicated only 1 percent of high schoolers were gay or bisexual. The landmark study was cited across academia, spawning over 1900 peer-reviewed publications, and became one of the largest longitudinal surveys on the psychological and physical well being of 7-12th graders. The Add Health study's homosexuality jump was significant enough to call into question rapidly evolving social norms of the mid-'90s —maybe My So-Called Life's Ricky Vasquez was normalizing the right-sided earring—but for human sexuality researchers, it should have been an alarm bell. 

In follow-up interviewers in 2008 with the same individuals who had said they were gay or bisexual as teens, the teens, who were now ages 24-32, weren't as gay as they once claimed they were. A shocking 70 percent of the self-reported nonheterosexual teens had gone straight somewhere between their PSATs and their first student loan. 

The recently released study, "The Dubious Assessment of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Adolescents of Add Health," has pointed out the glaring discrepancies between Wave 1 and Wave 4 of the survey. Why did 70 percent of gay or bi teens suddenly become straight as adults? This kind of gay-to-straight pattern is virtually the inverse of the typical come-out in college trend most gay people experience when they leave their family homes. Researchers are now concluding that the data was skewed by teens trying to play a prank on science. An overwhelming majority of the teens who suddenly jumped on the straight train were men, indicating not a recloseting, but perhaps a juvenile bro joke. For a study that generated nearly 2K citations, the high school joke had one helluva life span and legacy.

The latest study notes it's not just our perception of how many gay teens there are in the country that Add Health got wrong. The serious consequence of this gay prank is a misreading of authentic gay adolescence in sexuality research. As the study notes, "these 'dubious' gay, lesbian, and bisexual adolescents may have led researchers to erroneously conclude from the data that sexual-minority youth are more problematic than heterosexual youth in terms of physical, mental, and social health." If there were higher reports of nonheterosexual teens, then gay youth would have seemed more suicidal, depressed, or mentally ill than the demographic actually is. The study underlies one of the biggest drawbacks of self-reported sexuality studies: the lack of honesty of young or reserved subjects. Because as we all know, people don't just ungay themselves.

Image via Veer.