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.
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.
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Prologue: Why I Went To “Love Won Out”
Part 1: What’s Love Got To Do With It?
Part 2: Parents Struggle With “No Exceptions”
Part 3: A Whole New Dialect
Part 4: It Depends On How The Meaning of the Word "Change" Changes
Part 5: A Candid Explanation For "Change"
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