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How Many Americans are Gay?

That depends on who's asking, who's being asked, how they're being asked and perhaps most important how you define gay.

Some people who have same-sex relations, for example, still identify themselves as heterosexual. Others who desire same-sex relations but remain celibate consider themselves gay. Some have same-sex desires but stick to opposite-sex relations because they consider same-sex activity sinful; some of these people identify as gay, some as straight.

With all that confusion, and the difficulty of getting people to talk about private, sometimes illegal sexual behavior, it's perhaps not surprising that various researchers have reached widely varying conclusions about how many people are gay.

The most famous studies are those reported by Alfred Kinsey in 1948 and 1953. Kinsey's surveys which included some men in prisons found that 10 percent of men were more or less exclusively homosexual and 8 percent were exclusively homosexual for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55. For women, Kinsey reported a range of 2 to 6 percent for more or less exclusively homosexual experience or response.

Kinsey's data have been restudied in the ensuing half century, and the 10 percent figure hasn't been universally accepted since the late 1970s. Yet Kinsey's findings are still quoted extensively; often, by those who seek to demonstrate that the homosexual population is actually much smaller. Some studies have indicated just that; others have found much higher numbers.

Not surprisingly, the lowest figures tend to emerge in studies where the participants are questioned face to face.

In 1991, the Reagan administration commissioned a survey of 3,321 men by the Batelle Human Affairs Research Center in Seattle. In this survey, which used face-to-face interviews, 2 percent of men reported same-sex activity and 1 percent said they were "exclusively homosexual."

Conversely, anonymity tends to bring higher numbers.

For example: A 1998 study of men in Calgary, Canada using a computerized response format and three measures of homosexuality found that 15.3 percent reported they were homosexual to some degree.

Most studies have fallen between those extremes.

In 1993, the Harris Poll published a critique of the Batelle study. Their own data found that more than 4 percent of men 16 to 50 years old and more than 3 percent of women in the same age group had had a same-sex sexual partner in the previous five years.

In 1995, a research team that reviewed surveys of homosexual activity from 1948 to 1994 warned that because it can be risky for people to admit to homosexual behavior, the most common estimates between 2 and 5 percent of the population probably "represents a minimum figure."

Those researchers suggested that the true figure is somewhere between 4 and 17 percent.