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Gallup poll asks if you’re LGBT

Timothy Kincaid

October 18th, 2012

In April 2011, Gary Gates, a demographer at UCLA’s Williams Institute who specializes in the gay community, announced:

An estimated 3.5% of adults in the United States identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual and an estimated 0.3% of adults are transgender.

While I thought his number was in the ballpark, I was decidedly unimpressed with his methods (averaging averages, adopting the lowest possible estimates, and not separating mens’ and womens’ sexuality). And I placed little reliance on his report.

However, over the summer, Gates worked with Gallup Polls to have the following question asked to over 120,000 people:

Do you, personally, identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

With a sample size so huge, they can assign 95% confidence that they have less than 1% error margin. In other words, this is really rather accurate.

The result?

Yes…………………………………. 3.4%
No…………………………………. 92.2%
don’t know/refused …….. 4.4%

There is some very interesting data that can be mined from the detail. For example, though no one has ever illustrated that there is any racial differentiation in orientation, those identifying as gay differ by race: Black 4.6%, Asian 4.3%, Hispanic 4.0%, White 3.2%. The error of margin overall is less than 1%, but the subpopulations have less statistical confidence and this difference may well be within margin. However, as ‘common wisdom’ (which is often neither) assumes that blacks are less likely than whites to identify as gay, this is a statistic worth noting.

And, of course, there’s age:

As is pretty consistent with such polls, LGBT identity drops with age. This is generally understood to reflect a greater willingness in younger respondents to so identify. And that does likely play a role.

But over time one would expect some creep in the numbers over time such that in newer polls the 30- 49 demographic was no longer a decrease from 18 – 29. Instead, I think we are seeing the same pattern now that we have seen for decades. So I’m not certain that ‘today’s new attitude of youthful acceptance’ fully explains that phenomenon, unless we assume that some go back into the closet in their 30′s.

Personally, I am beginning to suspect other factors that may play some part. Here are but a few possible other things to consider.

The most drastic shift is from the first to second demographic. This time also reflects a very common shift in relationship status from single and dating in your 20′s to married in your 30′s. It is possible that this reflects an internal perception of free and available to someone who is committed to a specific person of a specific sex (most often the opposite sex).

After 30, the demographic LGBT identification gradually decreases, but there really isn’t a comparable increase to “not-LGBT” identification. Rather, “don’t know / other” seems to take up the slack.

This could be entirely due to “the closet”, but I don’t think the closet lends itself to any identity other than “no! LGBT? no, no, I’m not that, no-sirreee, not me!” So I wonder whether this reflects something else.

It could contain elements of older same-sex attracted persons who see “lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender” to be an identity that reflects a way of life, a community, a worldview. Perhaps this is a person who thinks, “Joe and I? No, we don’t go out to bars and all our friends are straight and we just aren’t part of all that. So I’m just not sure how to answer that question.”

Another option is that as age increase, there may be a willingness to let go of some presumptions and limitations. Perhaps unexpectedly you found yourself attracted to some random stranger of the opposite sex and it threw your self-perception on its ear.

I don’t have data to support any of that speculation – and I doubt there is ready data to address it either way – but I introduce it as a few alternate possibilities to help explain the curve. I don’t know that these explanations have much validity, but I’d like us to think outside of the box a bit.

And the poll seems also to have presented some data that challenges another assumption that we have held to:

There are two dialogs that I’ve heard about the financial condition of gay individuals and families: either gays are flush with cash (when we call for more gay specific advertising) or living in poverty (when we call for increased services). I don’t think this supports either assertion, though it could serve either.

It seems that a larger percent of the less affluent identify as gay and the wealthier are less likely to do so. But this follows more or less the age breakout. Which one would expect. Generally those who are in their 20′s are likely to be making less than those in their 50′s. So I’m not sure there is much there.

However, that being said, it is true that a larger percent of the poor identify as gay than do the rich. On the other hand, 2.8% of those making over $90,000 identify as LGBT, a percentage higher than any of those who are over the age of 50.

So while that is interesting, it does not clearly support (or refute) either assertion. And all of the variables are probably within the margin of error of the subpopulations anyway.

Because we are such a small percentage of the population, and because questions about sexuality and sexual orientation can seem to either be intrusive or a threat, surveys simply cannot answer definitively the question as to our size and we are limited in the amount of trust we should place on any of this.

However, that being said, I think that we can say with confidence that at least 3.2 percent of the US population identifies as LGBT.

Comments

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Truthspew
October 18th, 2012 | LINK

That 4.4% who don’t know or refuse to answer are likely gay and don’t want to admit it.

So added to the 3.4% who identify as such we come to 7.7% which from my experience is much more likely.

Dante
October 18th, 2012 | LINK

That 7.8% do not identify as heterosexual is really the key revelation here.

F Young
October 18th, 2012 | LINK

Can someone find the exit poll I recall that said that 6 or so % of voters at the exit poll identified themselves as gay or lesbian?

Frankly, that’s the type of survey that counts!

These exit polls show 3 to 4%:
http://voices.washingtonpost.com/postpartisan/2010/11/gop_gay_old_party_more_gays_vo.html

Gene in L.A.
October 18th, 2012 | LINK

The 4.4% “don’t know/refused” cannot be counted as “not heterosexual.”

David in WA
October 19th, 2012 | LINK

You can look at other non-survey stats and conclude that the numbers are higher. In the past few presidential elections, self-identified gays have accounted for about 4 percent of the popular vote, according to CNN exit polls. Before the recession, 5 percent the U.S. travel industry was gay travel. (That doesn’t even include things like business travel that are not identified as “gay travel.”)

There are so many reasons why the estimates are all over the lot. First of all, the various studies wouldn’t have a chance of being accurate unless you gave everyone a truth serum before you asked the questions. You don’t always get honesty when the subject is “taboo” sex. A 1998 study found that out by using two methods — one being an interviw by a person and the other a computer-interfaced survey. There was a 400 percent increase in reported homosexual behavior when the subjects did not have a person present, asking the questions.

And the survey results depend on how you define the terms. The Williams Institute found that 4 percent self-identify, but 8.2 percent have engaged in sexual behavior with someone of their own gender. Does that mean they’re gay? To some people it does. Do you have to be at 6 on the Kinsey scale, or does anyone above a 3 qualify?

It seems to matter only to people who want to marginalize us. We have a much better handle on the percentage of Americans who are Jewish (only about 1.7 percent), but we protect their civil rights precisely because they represent a small minority. That logic doesn’t seem to translate to gays.

Mark F.
October 19th, 2012 | LINK

“Transgender” is not a sexual orientation. Why is that included in this poll?

Mark F.
October 19th, 2012 | LINK

In my personal experience, no heterosexual ever refuses to disclose that he is heterosexual.

Ryan
October 19th, 2012 | LINK

Mark F has a point, there. It always cracks me up when some celebrities are asked point blank is they’re gay, and they wax on about how sexuality is a mysterious ethereal concept and private, intimate, matter. This is something that heterosexuals never, ever say. I think it’s safe to say that none of those 4.4% are strictly heterosexual, though some may be legitimately unsure. For the real stats, look to the younger generation. That are clearly a lot less reticent to be out and proud.

MCB
October 19th, 2012 | LINK

Quite a lot of that “not sure” might be bisexual, actually. A lot of people tend to mistakenly assume that bisexual means exactly half-and-half, so you may have people who go, “Well, I’ve *occasionally* had some feelings for people of my own gender, but does that *really* make me bisexual?” Actually, including bisexuals, 3.2% seems ridiculously low.

And then, when you throw in transgender, there’s everyone who considers themselves gender queer, or third gender, etc. It definitely messes up the mix, though, because you be transgender and still straight.

TampaZeke
October 19th, 2012 | LINK

These poll numbers also fail to take into account that many gay people, even out and proud ones, won’t disclose their sexual orientation to a stranger and some will misstate their orientation to a stranger; particularly closeted or newly out people. I personally know out gay people today who would answer “straight” to this question if they were asked by a pollster stranger.

Priya Lynn
October 19th, 2012 | LINK

I agree with Mark F and Ryan. Its almost a certainty that all of the don’t know/refused to answer are not 100% heterosexual.

Désirée
October 19th, 2012 | LINK

My thought on the drop between the 18-29 group and the 30-something group isn’t necessarily that people go back into the closet, but that some percentage of people who may have identified as bisexual in college, settled into a straight relationship, got married and no longer identify (or at least won’t admit to a pollster) as bi.

and “transgender” was included because 1)T is part of the LGBT community. deal with it. and 2) this wasn’t a poll about sexual orientation, but about whether a person identifies as LGBT

Eric in Oakland
October 22nd, 2012 | LINK

I think that Désirée’s suggestion is spot on. I have found that Bisexuals who end up in straight relationships will often stop identifying as bisexual.

I also agree with the posters who consider all of the don’t know / refused to be non-heterosexual. What possible reason would there be for a totally straight person to respond that way?

Robert
October 22nd, 2012 | LINK

Their is another option in regards to the age and drop in identification, and that is that from the mid forties and upward, a large amount of the population died of AIDS. I know that many don’t always think of that, but it is a larger number of deaths in that age range, and as such would be lower by that fact alone. I don’t think it’s a decision to not answer because of some age concept about privacy or resistance to identify. Many of the leaders of our community and the equality fight are older people. I think the idea that they are resistant to identify as gay is ridiculous.

Timothy Kincaid
October 22nd, 2012 | LINK

Robert,

That is a good point and it could account for at least some of the drop as the demographics increase.

Also when you consider the toll that HIV/AIDS has taken on the earning potential of gay men, that could also have impact on the decreasing income demographic as well. Although HIV is mostly manageable now, it severely impacted and siderailed a number of careers, especially in the 80′s and 90′s but even more recently.

Emma
October 23rd, 2012 | LINK

Robert – AIDS can be a factor. But if older gay men are dead, why is not percentage of heterosexual people higher? There is no increase in “older hetero group”, actually the percentage is lower. There is much higher percentage of people who either refuse to answer the question or say they don’t know.

Nathaniel
October 23rd, 2012 | LINK

Emma, the increase in Straight identifiers in the middle demographics does seem to correspond to some degree with the drop in LGBT identifiers. You would also see that number increase if Bisexuals stopped identifying as Bisexual after settling into a long-term Straight relationship. All of these possibilities make sense with the numbers.

Tim, how much could contracting HIV hurt earning potential even more recently?

Timothy Kincaid
October 23rd, 2012 | LINK

Nathaniel,

The impact of HIV/AIDS on earning potential in the 90′s is much easier to conceptualize. But even more recently – even with highly effective cocktails – health is not assured.

There are a number of gay men who have been positive for a long time. And while their life expectancy may not be significantly lower at this time, decades of medications and bouts of illnesses takes it’s toll. They might be less willing to make promises of deadlines or even to plan for long-term strategies, not being certain that they won’t find themselves in a health downturn.

And even those who contract the virus more recently may be psychologically impacted by the change in status.

Robert
October 23rd, 2012 | LINK

Timothy,

I am one of those long term HIV positive individuals. I’ve had it since 1988, and sero-converted to AIDS in 2004. Your info about the decades of medications only touches lightly on the issues with long termers like myself. Recent studies have shown that long term positive individuals succumb to old age diseasses at a much earlier age and rate. That does indeed affect the pocket book, that and having to go on disability, which cut our household income by about two thirds, my husband and I fall in the secod category above, but pre-AIDS diagnosis and issues, we were in the top catagory. That’s also part of the reason I mentioned the disease and it’s affects.

You are also very spot on in the area of not being willing to make long term plans, and things of that nature. At the time of my finding I was positive, my Doctors gave me less than ten years to live. I quit school, travelled, did the things I had always dreamed I would, only to find that the Doctors, evidently, didn’t really know what they were talking about. And when I was diagnosed with full blown AIDS I got told to get things in order, and that was 9 years ago. So long term plans are not the kind of thing many of us feel comfortable with.

That’s also one reason I like Obama so much, his Obamacare plan saves many people like me from loosing health care when lossing their jobs (not everyone gets SSDI, it VERY hard to qualify and I had to use a legal service to get it). He may not have succeeded in every thing he said he’d do, but on the things he delivered, he DESERVES to be President for another four years.

Robert
October 23rd, 2012 | LINK

Emma-

I’m not sure what graph YOU are looking at, but I am looking at the one at the top of the article provided, it shows a decrease in the yes answer across the age groups, and shows an increase in the no answer across the age groups, except for the slight increase in the over 50 and another slight increase in those over 65. And assumming that those over 50 are answering I don’t know, when they really mean “yes” is a big assumption. I have many friends of both orientations over the age of 50, and many of them, both gay and straight, will either tell you to screw yourself or it’s none of your damn business to be asking me that question. There is a generational divide you know, people of certain ages have a different way of responding to any questions about sex, many don’t wish to talk about it, even the straight ones. But maybe I know a lot of prudes.

But I still don’t see where you find “No increase” in the older hetero groups, when in fact there is.

Emma
October 23rd, 2012 | LINK

Robert, thank you for answer. I said mainly about group 65+. There is decrease in LGBT, no increase in non-lgbt but increase in DK/ref. Again, if older gay men are dead, why is not percentage of heterosexual people higher? I am sorry, I dont like your first “disease theory” because Paul Cameron had similar explanation for same decreasing percentage of gay men in Canada Survey – early death. (P.C.: “The consistency of reduced lifespan for those engaging in homosexuality is significant.” “It appears that homosexuality is a young person’s activity – one that may
contribute to an early death.” More information here: http://wthrockmorton.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/07/cameron.pdf
(English is not my native language, please forgive me my mistakes or my misunderstanding)

Robert
October 24th, 2012 | LINK

Emma,

You don’t have to like my thoughts on the rate of death of older gay men. It happens to be true that we lost almost an entire generation of gay men during the AIDS crisis origin of the 80′s. My entire group of friends is dead, except for me, that’s 12 out of 13 people gone. Hundreds of thousands of gay men died during that time period, and they wer mostly of one age group.

My theory does NOT correspond to that of Cameron, in that I talk about ONE SPECIFIC TIME PERIOD OF DEATHS, I do not speak of ALL gay men, and the generations comming AFTER the advent of AIDS. The age groups I speak of are factually lessened by the deaths from AIDS during the eighties. Camerons ideas are for the ENTIRE gay male population, I don’t see the numbers changing for the younger groups as I see them having changed from the older groups. The comparrison to Cameron, in my view, is apples to oranges. I’m speaking of a specific time period in the USA where we lost an entire generation to a disease no one knew anything about, Cameron speaks to ALL gay men, not just that generation.

I also tried to touch on what I see as the issue for those increased I don’t knows, there was a certain propriety held by people of certain ages in the USA, where any questions about sex or sexuality are simply refused, some age groups simply find it un-acceptable to discuss that stuff with a pollster.

Nathaniel
October 24th, 2012 | LINK

Thanks, Robert, Timothy.

I think its pretty cool that this group of bloggers and readers got a quick grasp on the complexity of issues that may have shaped the responses to these polls. It’s one reason I read most of the comments that go along with these posts.

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