By Lisa Keen
There’s a kind of urban myth that most LGBT people live in large urban areas on the west coast and the northeast region of the country and that they’re mostly gay, male, young, and white. But a new study out this month (Feb. 15) begs to amend this perception slightly.
Data from the most extensive study ever of LGBT people in the general population says the highest percentage of self-identified LGBT people lives in Washington, D.C., followed by the relatively small population states of Hawaii, Vermont, Oregon, Maine, and Rhode Island. And while the distribution of self-identified LGBT people still falls roughly along the west coast and the northeast region, there are incongruities like low self-identification in marriage equality state Iowa and high self-identification in bordering South Dakota, a sparsely populated Republican-dominated agricultural state.
The analysis was based on data collected by the Gallup Poll group through phone interviews with 206,186 adults throughout the U.S. The pollster asked participants a number of questions, including, “Do you personally identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender?” The data was then analyzed and re-weighted to reflect known demographic factors by Gallup Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport and Williams Institute Distinguished Scholar Gary Gates.
Out of the entire sample, all interviewed between June 1 and December 30 of 2012, 3.5 percent said yes.
Michigan weighed in at 3.8 percent out of 5,913 surveyed – falling between New York and Illinois.
The highest percentage of “yes” responses was found in Washington, D.C., where 10 percent of 493 adults self-identified as LGBT.
The second highest percentage – 5.1 percent — came in Hawaii, where 643 adults were surveyed. Others among the top ten states with the highest percentages included Vermont (4.9 percent of 664 surveyed), Oregon (4.9 percent of 3,655 surveyed, Maine (4.8 percent of 1,286), Rhode Island (4.5 percent of 735), Massachusetts (4.4. percent of 4,253), South Dakota (4.4 percent of 722), Nevada (4.2 percent of 1,493), California (4 percent of 18,636), and Washington State (4 percent of 5,990).
The ten states with the lowest percentage of LGBT people willing to identify themselves as such to Gallup were North Dakota (1.7 percent of 615 people surveyed), Montana (2.6 percent of 1,329), Mississippi (2.6 percent of 1,961), Tennessee (2.6 percent of 4,889), Utah (2.7 percent of 2,726), Idaho (2.7 percent of 1,582), Nebraska (2.7 percent of 1,592), Pennsylvania (2.7 percent of 9,716), Alabama (2.8 percent of 3,603), and Iowa (2.8 percent of 2,692).
“This is the largest single study of the distribution of the LGBT population in the U.S. on record, and the first time a study has had large enough sample sizes to provide estimates of the LGBT population by state,” notes a Gallup report released with the data.
To be more precise, this is the largest single study of the distribution of LGBT people willing to self-identify as such in a random phone survey, but even with that more narrow assessment, the data is still very important.
“A lot of people don’t truly understand how little data we have,” said Gates, who has been studying LGBT demographic data for many years. And because in all but nine states the survey involved more than 1,000 people, the analysis could “credibly” estimate the percentage of LGBT people willing to identify as such in all 50 states, said Gates. “Those data doesn’t exist anywhere else.”
And Gallup was careful to qualify and explain its methods:
“There are a number of ways to measure lesbian, gay, and bisexual orientation and transgender status,” noted the Gallup press release. “Gallup chose a broad measure of personal identification as LGBT because this grouping of four statuses is commonly used in current American discourse, and as a result has important cultural and political significance. One limitation of this approach is that it is not possible to separately consider differences among [LGBT] individuals. A second limitation is that this approach measures broad self-identity, and does not measure sexual or other behavior, either past or present.”
The 3.5 percent estimate from the latest massive Gallup Poll data corresponds exactly with an LGB estimate Gates provided in April 2011, when he released his analysis of five different population studies. (Counting transgender people, he estimated 3.8 percent.) The five U.S. surveys included the mammoth General Social Survey of 2008 and the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior of 2009.
In both analyses, Gates was estimating the percentage of adults in the United States who self-identify as LGBT. But Associated Press’s report on Gates’ 2011 analysis focused on the finding that 1.7 percent identified as “homosexual.”
“That’s a much lower figure than the 3 percent to 5 percent that has been the conventional wisdom in the last two decades,” noted the AP report, carried widely by the mainstream media. Only near the bottom of the article did AP mention that Gates’ study found another 1.8 percent identified as bisexual.
The estimates of people willing to identify as LGBT are naturally smaller than estimates of people who have ever felt a sexual attraction to a person of the same sex or who have ever had sex with a person of the same sex. In his famed studies of the 1940s-1960s, researcher Alfred Kinsey estimated 10 percent of males “are more or less exclusively homosexual for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55.” A Williams Institute analysis of subsequent studies found eight percent of adults reported having had sex with a same-sex partner at some point in their lives and 11 percent had been attracted to a person of the same sex.
Gates has been careful to point out, however, that Kinsey did not rely on large, population-based data, but rather interviews with several thousand participants in a study of human sexual behavior.
The 3.5 percent estimate nationally from the latest Gallup data and from Gates’ 2011 analysis closely approximate data collected by a major media coalition during the national elections in 2010 and 2012. The National Election Pool found that about 3 percent to 4 percent of people answering exit poll surveys when leaving the voting booth identified themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
An earlier release of the Gallup data, covering data collected between June 1 and September 30, 2012, included about 121,000 respondents, noted Gates. The analysis released this month was collected from June 1 to December 30.
Two “big takeaways” Gates offers from the Gallup data is that the variation from state to state “doesn’t play into the stereotype that the LGBT community is entirely concentrated in New England and the West Coast” and, with one exception, “all the top ten states are some of the most gay friendly states in the country.”
The exception is South Dakota, where 4.4 percent of 722 adults surveyed identified as LGBT. Gates suggested South Dakota might have shown a higher percentage because it was among the nine states where the polling sample was under 1,000. In fact, four of the top ten states plus D.C. had polling samples under 1,000.
Counting only states where at least 1,000 people could be sampled, the highest LGBT self-identification rates were in Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, California, Washington, Kentucky, Arizona, New York, Michigan, and Illinois.
Illinois and Michigan had 3.8 percent identifying as LGBT.
“Does this mean that gay people are moving to those states or that those states are more accepting and so people are more willing to identify?” asked Gates. “I’m skeptical that it’s the migration to friendly,” said Gates. “The evidence suggests more the latter. If a state has a more accepting social climate, the higher the level of identification.”
But there’s another stereotype being undone and another variable in play, said Gates. A disproportionate number of the self-identifying LGBT people are not young, gay, white and male, but young, bisexual, non-white and female.
“The young is not surprising. Younger people are more likely to self-identify,” said Gates.
As for female, Gates said he has been seeing multiple surveys of women identifying largely as bisexual. And non-white people who self-identify tend to be younger and female.
Click to see chart of all states surveyed http://www.gallup.com/poll/160517/lgbt-percentage-highest-lowest-north-dakota.aspx.