The Sexual Continuum

Discussing all things related to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) health

25% of Americans are gay or lesbian (or so people think)

How many Americans are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender?

It's not actually the case that 25% of Americans identify as gay or lesbian, but according to a recent Gallup poll that's the belief of the average American adult.  More specifically, over half of Americans (52%) estimate that at least one in five Americans are gay or lesbian, including 35% who estimate that more than one in four are. Thirty percent put the figure at less than 15%.  According to the poll, Americans with lower income, less education, those who are younger (age 18-29), and women gave higher estimates of the proportion.  Democrats, liberals, and those who say they are socially liberal were also more likely to give higher estimates than those at the other end of the spectrum, although these differences were small.

This poll likely leads a lot of people to ask, how many people are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender?  Fortunately, my colleague Dr. Gary Gates recently issued a report summarizing what we know about the demographics of sexual orientation.  Dr. Gates is a Distinguished Scholar at the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.  While it is challenging to arrive at an exact number, increasing numbers of national surveys have been including questions about sexual orientation. 

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Key findings from Dr. Gates' research brief include:

  • An estimated 3.5% of adults in the United States identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) and an estimated 0.3% of adults are transgender. This implies that there are approximately 9 million LGBT Americans, a figure roughly equivalent to the population of New Jersey.
  • Among adults who identify as LGB, bisexuals comprise a slight majority (1.8% compared to 1.7% who identify as lesbian or gay). Women are substantially more likely than men to identify as bisexual.
  • Estimates of those who report any lifetime same-sex sexual behavior and any same-sex sexual attraction are substantially higher than estimates of those who identify as LGB. An estimated 19 million Americans (8.2%) report that they have engaged in same-sex sexual behavior and nearly 25.6 million Americans (11%) acknowledge at least some same-sex sexual attraction.

Depending on who you think belongs under the LGBT umbrella the size of this group ranges from 11% (based on some same-sex attraction) to 3.5% (based on identifying as LGB).  So why do so many American's think 25% of the population is gay or lesbian?  According to the Gallup pollster, this reflects the fact that Americans have a lot of exposure to gays and lesbians, be it in their personal lives or through entertainment or other means.  Gallup previously found that a majority of Americans personally know someone who is gay or lesbian.  Gallup also previously found those who personally know someone gay or lesbian to be more accepting on related issues. According to Gallop pollsters, "combined with Americans' record support for legal gay relations and same-sex marriage, it is clear that America's gay population -- no matter the size -- is becoming a larger part of America's mainstream consciousness."  This increasing support is all the more reason to participate in June as Gay Pride Month (based on a presidential proclamation).  Whether you are part of the population that identifies as LGBT or not, it is a great time to celebrate the special diversity of the American population.

Dr. Mustanski is the Director of the IMPACT LGBT Health and Development Program . You can follow the Sexual Continuum blog by becoming a fan on Facebook.

Image credit:  Queere Konfusion, Regenbogenhände  Wikimedia Commons

Brian Mustanski, Ph.D., is Associate Professor at Northwestern University and the founding Director of the IMPACT LGBT Health and Development Program.

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