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Interview with Gary Gates of The Williams Institute

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Interview with Gary Gates of The Williams Institute

Gary Gates of The Williams Institute


Gary Gates is a Senior Research Fellow at The Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy, a think tank dedicated to the field of sexual orientation law and public policy. The Institute plays an integral role in providing LGBT research findings to lawmakers and the media to help them make better LGBT policy decisions.

In this interview Gary Gates opens the book on how The Williams Institute is changing public policy, the gayest spot in the country and the truth about the 1-in-10 gay myth.

When did your interest in public policy, specifically gay and lesbian issues, begin?

I’ve always been a bit of a political junkie. I hurried home from elementary school to watch the Watergate hearings. But my real foray into gay and lesbian policy began in the early 1990s when I was Director of the AIDS Intervention Project, an AIDS service organization in the Altoona/Johnstown area of western Pennsylvania (Johnstown is my hometown). From there I moved to Pittsburgh where I worked on state-level HIV prevention policy. Both of those jobs strongly motivated my desire to pursue gay and lesbian topics in my doctoral dissertation work and subsequent research.

You co-authored The Gay & Lesbian Atlas, which gives a geographic and demographic view of the gay and lesbian population in the U.S. What's the most interesting finding in the book?

Census 2000 (the data used in the book) marked the first time that we had official government data to confirm that lesbian and gay people live virtually everywhere in the United States (99.3% of all counties). Of course, we knew that before the Census, but making it “official” was important as it became harder for politicians, businesses, and other policy makers to argue that GLBT issues were not relevant in their locality. As to the most interesting finding from the book, perhaps the most talked about finding was that more than one in five same-sex couples are raising more than a quarter million children. The things I find most interesting are what I call the “who knew?” findings. These include:
  • Mississippi is the state where same-sex couples are most likely to be raising children (more than 40 percent of same-sex couples are raising children there).
  • Houston is home to one of the “gayest” neighborhoods in the country (Montrose).
  • Your odds of finding an African-American same-sex couple are highest in Sumter, SC and your odds of finding a Latino/a couple are best in McAllen, TX
Most go with the convention that 1 in 10 people is gay. Is this a myth and if so, what is the number?

That’s the single question that I’m asked the most. The answer is unfortunately not simple. I’ll respond with a question. What do you mean when you use the word “gay”? If you mean people who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual in a survey, then the answer is that it’s likely not one in ten, but closer to one in twenty. A recent government survey found that 4 percent of adults aged 18-45 identified as “homosexual” or “bisexual”. A similar proportion of voters identify as GLB. If you define gay as having same-sex attractions or behaviors, you do get higher proportions that are a bit closer to the one in ten figure.

How effective has the Williams Institute been in influencing policy decisions?

Williams Institute work is cited frequently in the media and is used by legislators, litigators, and other policy makers as they debate issues important to the GLBT community. Williams Institute staff members have testified before state legislatures and have presented work at federal Congressional briefings. We are viewed as an authoritative source for accurate and objective information about the GLBT community. To give you two examples of some work that has had high impact, our Research Director Lee Badgett and our Executive Director Brad Sears authored a series of reports quantifying the budget impact of granting marriage rights to same-sex couples in several states. These reports have been used by legislators to prove that equal rights for same-sex couples are not costly. That eliminates at least one of the excuses that some “on the fence” legislators have been known to use to avoid backing gay rights legislation. As another example, my own estimate of the number of GLB people currently serving in the U.S. military (65,000), has been cited in Congress and in a wide variety of media outlets to demonstrate that even in the face of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, large number of GLB individuals serve their country in the military.

In addition to a BS in Computer Science and a PhD in Public Policy and Management, you have a Master of Divinity degree from St. Vincent Seminary. Some would think that's an interesting combination. What led you on a journey from science to faith to policy?

That’s a very long and complicated story and I’m not even sure that I completely understand all of the dynamics that led me along this rather circuitous route. The movement from computer science to the seminary was in large part a reflection of my desire to change course in my life. While it turned out that the priesthood was not the appropriate change for me, it did lead me into the direction of community service. While in seminary, I volunteered for the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force and after I left the seminary, I became Director of the AIDS Intervention Project. That work motivated my interest in public policy, specifically policy focused on the GLBT community.

Are you active in the church today?

No. Part of my journey through the seminary included the realization that many of my core beliefs conflict with those of institutionalized religion.

Learn more about The Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy.
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