Over the past few years, we have been hearing new estimates of the number of adults in the United States who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. It seems the number came down from the 10 percent figure from the work of Alfred Kinsey, to 8 percent with the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, to 3.8 percent in a report from the Williams Institute (UCLA). The latest estimate from a Gallup/Williams Institute poll last month suggests that 3.4 percent of Americans identify as LGBT.
Only 3.4 Percent?!
The size of a minority group — in this case, LGBT people — is important for numerous political and social reasons. So, it is understandable that some were initially panicked when the commonly-cited figure of “one-in-ten” seemed to drop to a low of 3-4 percent.
Why was there such a drop in estimates of the size of the LGBT population in the US? The primary reason for what appears to be a drop is how we have counted LGBT people. When Dr. Kinsey conducted his major studies in the 1940s-1950s on the sexual behaviors of women and men in America, he asked them about sexual encounters with individuals of their same gender. In fact, when measured this way, even 2008 estimates come close to 10 percent of adults who have engaged in same-gender sexuality. But, the majority of those adults identify as heterosexual — that is because, while they are related, sexual behavior, sexual orientation, and sexual identity are distinct aspects of our lives.
You may be thinking, “3.4 percent? That’s pretty small no matter how you measure it!” Generously rounding to 4 percent, that is the equivalent of one LGBT person in every twenty-five people. At approximately ten million people of the 315 million people in the US, that places the size of the LGBT population between the state populations of Michigan (9.8 million) and Ohio (11.7 million).
Who Are LGBT People?
There has been a great deal of attention over the past decade on the relationships and families of LGBT people. But, since researchers are just now beginning to collect national data on sexual identity, we know still do not know a great deal about who LGBT people are. With recent research, including last month’s Gallup/Williams Institute poll, we can begin painting a picture of the sociodemographic and political profile of LGBT Americans:
- Race: There is notable racial and ethnic diversity among LGBT people, with 3.2 percent of white Americans identifying as LGBT, while over 4 percent of Black, Latina/o, and Asian American adults self-identify as LGBT. As the report suggests, “Overall, a third of LGBT-identifiers are nonwhite (33 percent), compared with 27 percent of non-LGBT individuals.”
- Gender: There is a slightly larger percentage of women (3.6 percent) who identify as LGBT, compared to men (3.3 percent).
- Age: LGBT identification appears to be skewed toward younger populations, with slightly more than six percent of 18-29 year olds identifying as LGBT, compared 30-49-year-olds (3.2 percent), 50-64 year-olds (2.6 percent), and adults 65 and older (1.9 percent).
- Socioeconomic Status: Contrary to the stereotype of wealthy LGBT people (gay men, in particular), the greatest percentage of LGBT adults has completed only some college (but no degree), followed by having a high school diploma or less education. Also, LGBT people are skewed toward lower levels of income ($60,000 or less, but especially under $24,000).
- Relationship Status: About 20 percent of LGBT people report that they are married, and 18 percent are either in a domestic partnership or living with a partner, while 48 percent are currently single. This compares to 54 percent of heterosexuals who are married, and 23 percent who are single.
- Parental Status: Equal percentages of heterosexual and LGBT women have children under the age of 18 (32 percent for each). But, 16 percent of LGBT men have young children in the home compared to 31 percent of heterosexual men. Interestingly, Latina/o, Black, and Asian American LGBT adults are more likely than white LGBT individuals to be parents.
- Region: LGBT people make-up similar percentages of each region of the country, though the numbers are slightly higher for the East (3.7 percent) and West (3.6 percent) coasts, compared to the South (3.2 percent) and Midwest (3.4 percent). Indeed, LGBT people and same-gender couples live in just about every part of the country.
- Political Views: LGBT Americans are generally more liberal, and more likely to identify as (or at least with) the Democratic political party, than heterosexuals. Also, the majority favor President Barack Obama over presidential contender Mitt Romney, while heterosexuals appear more evenly split between the candidates.
Beyond Sexual Identity
The biggest caveat for these results is that LGBT adults were examined as a singular group, so we do not know how these characteristics vary among lesbian women, bisexual women and men, and gay men. And, more importantly, the unique profile and experiences of transgender people cannot be distinguished, either.
Also, while LGBT people differ somewhat from the general, predominantly-heterosexual (and cisgender) population, they are not a homogeneous group. There is a great deal of diversity within LGBT communities, namely in terms of race and ethnicity, gender identity and expression, social class, relationship and family structure, and so forth. As such, it is important to think about the many identities and statuses individuals LGBT hold — not just sexual and gender identity. For example, in pushing for greater visibility, support, and equality for LGBT families, it is crucial to acknowledge that LGBT people of color and LGBT women are more likely to have kids, and face the additional burdens of racial and gender inequality. LGBT families are just as much an LGBT issue as they are about race, ethnicity, gender, class, immigration, etc.
As I concluded in my last post on the size of the LGBT population, we still need more research to capture the profile and experiences of LGBT people in the US and worldwide. Indeed, sexual and gender identities are a core part of who we are as people — not just in the bedroom, or in our private lives, but also for our experiences in and view of the world!