The Gallup polling organization recently released its 2017 numbers on self-identified lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) adults living in the United States.
Since 2012 (when Gallup first began asking about LGBT identity), that number has increased by a full percentage point, from 3.5% to 4.5% — that’s more than 11 million people!
That increase was driven almost entirely by “millennials”: those born between 1980 and 1999. Females, people of color, and lower-income Americans are also more likely than males, whites, and the wealthier to identify as LGBT.
While LGBT-rights activists are likely to welcome the top-line number, Gallup’s report probably under-estimates the actual number of LGBT people living in the United States.
Are millennials just queer-er?
Perhaps the single most surprising data point in Gallup’s report was the higher (and increasing) number of “millennials” who identify as LGBT.
Millennials — those born between 1980 and 1999 — identify as LGBT at twice the rate of their grandparents, and increased that identification by 2.5% since 2012.
These numbers echo other reports that young people are more likely to report being “mostly-heterosexual” (or “hetero-flexible”) if given the opportunity to identify as such on surveys.
Reasons for their higher LGBT identification could include:
- more exposure to LGBT people in popular culture;
- increased visibility of LGBT celebrities, politicians, and other public figures; and
- high profile battles over LGBT civil rights that have increased overall awareness of social, cultural, legal, and economic inequalities for LGBT people.
Older Americans might be less likely to identify as LGBT for several reasons:
- intense stigma attached to LGBT people;
- past criminalization and medical pathologization of homosexuality and gender-variance;
- difficulty accessing social spaces (like bars and ‘gayborhoods’) where they might express and develop an authentic LGBT identity; and,
- paucity of LGBT pop culture representations — all during their youth, when we gender and sexuality identity starts to crystallize.
Although the larger climate for LGBT Americans may have improved over their lifetimes, older Americans with same-sex attraction or cross-gender identification may be reluctant to claim an LGBT identity because doing so might not be reconcilable with a personal history of living publicly as heterosexual or cisgender.
Coming out as an LGBT elder may risk estrangement from one’s spouse, children, friends, and the wider community. That can have consequences for finances, access to healthcare, place of residence, and wider support systems.
Millennials may not be more queer than other age groups. They may just be living at a time when publicly identifying as LGBT is more possible and has fewer negative consequences.
Is there an LGBT gender gap?
Interestingly, Gallup’s poll found more U.S. females than males identify as LGBT (5.1% vs. 3.9%) — and that gender gap has been present in Gallup polling since 2012.
This would seem to contradict other, reliable surveys which find there are fewer lesbians than gay men.
But, Gallup doesn’t break out separate numbers for transfolk, lesbians, or bisexuals — so we don’t know how many of those surveyed (who said they were “female”)* identify as lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.
Could there be enough bisexual and transgender “females” to explain the higher number of LGBT-identifying females in Gallup’s poll?
Other surveys have found more women than men identify as bisexual. More bisexual women could translate into more “females” (overall) identifying as LGBT in Gallup’s poll.
But U.S. government estimates (using Social Security data) suggest there are more transgender men than transgender women. Even so, the estimated U.S. adult transgender population is only one-third the size of the bisexual population (.6% vs. 1.8%), so the number of transgender men probably isn’t larger than the number of bisexual women.
That suggests the LGBT gender gap is explained by the combined number of lesbians and bisexual women (and probably some small bump from those transgender women and men who identify as “female.”)
Finally, by confusing terms for biological sex (female, male) with terms for gender identity (transgender, woman, man, etc.), Gallup’s pollsters probably missed (or mis-categorized) some people who should be included in its overall LGBT numbers.
Not all LGBT people identify as “female” or “male,” not to mention “woman” or “man,” even if they fit the conventional definition of those terms.
Gallup’s terminological imprecision makes it hard to compare their numbers to other polls — a perennial problem in LGBT demographics.
*In the discussion above, when I put the words “female” or “females” in double quotes, it’s to indicate that this is Gallup’s term not mine (or to distinguish a word within a sentence for the sake of clarity). It is NOT an attempt to cast doubt on anyone’s sex or gender self-identification.
Are there really more LGBTs of color?
Less widely reported, but consistent with similar surveys, is the higher percentage of people of color who identify as LGBT.
Where 4% of Whites surveyed identity as LGBT, 4.9% of Asian-Americans, 5% of African-Americans, and 6.1% of Hispanics did so. And there were increases for all these racial/ethnic groups since 2012 (with biggest increases among Hispanics and Asians).
However, it is important to understand that these higher percentages do not mean there are “more” LGBT people of color than LGBT Whites.
Although people of color tend to identify as LGBT in higher percentages than Whites, their larger communities are a demographic minority in the United States.
An example: African-Americans comprise about 13% of the U.S. population and 5% of that 13% identify as LGBT. In other words, LGBT people of color are a minority of a minority, helping explain the numerical dominance of White LGBTs in social and cultural spaces, media representations, and political organizing and agendas.
In some ways, higher LGBT-of-color identification is surprising. In many communities of color words like “gay” and “homosexual” are seen as the products of White culture and not always viewed positively by gender-variant or same-sex attracted people. And publicly identifying as LGBT can lead to exile from family and community — social institutions that offer a rare form of support for people of color.
Also, some communities of color have culturally-specific terms for what others might view as LGBT identity or experiences.
For example, the term “mahu” (among Native Hawai’ians) and “Two-Spirit” (for some Native American tribes) for people that might otherwise be called homosexual and/or transgender.
For all these reasons, some same-sex attracted and gender-variant people of color may never self-identify as LGBT.
As with the sex/gender terminology problem (discussed above), that probably means some gender-variant and same-sex attracted people of color were not captured in Gallup’s survey.
Is the working class more likely to be LGBT?
Gallup found those making under $36,000/year were substantially more likely to identify as LGBT than those earning more, despite educational attainment.
Although seemingly contradictory, these numbers are likely explained by income disparities between LGBT and cis-heterosexual workers.
Despite claims of the “power of the pink dollar” peddled by gay-owned marketing firms and business groups since the 1990s, not all LGBT people are childless, employed in professional careers with high amounts of disposable income that allows indulgence in travel, fine dining, and arts/culture.
Film and television depictions of well-to-do lesbians and gay men perpetuate the “myth of gay affluence.” But it’s just that— a myth.
In fact, many studies (here and here) have found gay men suffer from an income penalty (compared to ‘straight’ men) while lesbians benefit from a wage bonus over ‘straight’ women (but all women earn less than all men, so that’s small comfort).
Moreover, LGBT people disproportionately depend on government assistance programs: welfare, unemployment insurance, and food stamps.
LGBT income inequality, poverty, and dependence on public assistance is all compounded for women, parents, children, the elderly, and people of color.
The “myth of gay affluence” is just that — a myth.
All of this is due to the ‘background noise’ of discriminatory laws and policies, employer/workplace discrimination, and career self-segregation.
Some LGBT workers choose lower-paid, but more tolerant, jobs/career fields, like education, healthcare, and non-profit work, that allow them to bring their authentic selves into the workplace.
This helps explain the stable LGBT identification numbers (around 4.5%) for all education levels despite different rates of identification between income groups: many well-educated LGBT people are taking jobs for reasons other than high pay.
That means they’re over-educated and/or under-paid for the work they perform, representing a kind of charitable contribution to the U.S. economy.
Thus, Gallup’s poll confirms what numerous other studies have shown: LGBT people who live open, authentic lives often pay a cost, sometimes literally. And the costs paid benefit those who don’t labor — again, literally — while ‘being LGBT’.
Is Gallup right?
Although Gallup’s data is based on an unusually large sample size (340,000 cell and landline phone interviews), it’s not without its problems — some of which the polling organization acknowledges.
As noted above, Gallup confuses sex and gender terminology, which likely results in an under-count of transgender people. It also asks about identification (not behavior or attraction), which likely under-counts bisexuals, lesbians, and gays (depending on how those terms are defined).
Also, Gallup only interviews adults (18 years and older) even though there are roughly 74 million children living in the United States.
Although there is no reason to believe children identify (or will come to identify) as LGBT in higher numbers than current adults, if they identify in similar numbers, the estimated size of the U.S. LGBT population would increase from 11 million to 14 million people — that’s larger than the population of Pennsylvania or Illinois, the 5th and 6th most populous states.
Finally, there’s the question of privacy: not everyone has trust or confidence in how polling data will be handled or answers their phone in an environment that allows them to be candid with a pollster.
Low faith in data security, against a backdrop of socio-cultural, economic, legal, and political inequality, may cause some LGBTs to refuse to answer questions or answer them dishonestly, resulting in an under-count of LGBT people living in the U.S.
A 2013 study found the general public estimates that nearly a quarter of the U.S. population is lesbian or gay!
This misperception is likely due to the increased presence of LGBT people in popular culture and public life. But also a quarter century of high-profile legal and political battles over the criminalization of same-sex sexual behavior, marriage equality, military participation, bathroom access, and equal treatment in public accommodation.
There’s no question greater visibility advances the cause of LGBT civil rights. However, accurate data on the size of the U.S. LGBT population is essential for the creation of laws and policies, allocation of resources, and delivery of government programs and services.
These affect numerous areas of public and private life: healthcare, education, criminal justice, employment, social service delivery, etc.
That’s why polling data on LGBT Americans is so urgently needed. And why the Trump administration’s concerted effort to erase or cease collecting government data on LGBT Americans represents such a threat to LGBT quality and civil rights, an issue I’ve written about here:
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Michael J. Murphy, PhD, is Associate Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently, he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2019). He tweets @emjaymurphee.