The percentage of the U.S. population that is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, by all credible contemporary counting, is situated somewhere between three and four percent.
This statistic still seems to startle some of us.
The announcement by the federal government last month, concerning its latest and most thorough estimation ever, offered not much new or surprising in assessing our national prevalence. Many in the gay community, however, reacted as if the findings were cataclysmic.
Despite the widely reported distress, dismay, denial and denunciation from gay activists, accepting dimension is not diminishment. Nor should the validity of our quest for equal treatment and opportunity rely on how many of us exist.
While the top-line statistic highlighting the number of gays and lesbians generated media headlines, both the actual segmented and combined figures comport with prior consensus estimates and other well-regarded numerical counts. The latest findings indicate that 96.6 percent of American adults identify as straight, 1.6 percent as gay or lesbian, and 0.7 percent as bisexual. In addition, 1.1 percent identified as “something else,” responded by saying “I don’t know the answer” or refused to provide an answer. This latter category likely also includes the very small portion of the population that is transgender. Adding them all together, with a caveat or two in adjustment, puts it within the commonly accepted range.
These newest figures result from the largest and most in-depth survey of sexual orientation in American history, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control throughout last year for the purpose of assessing “Sexual Orientation and Health Among U.S. Adults” as part of the 2013 National Health Interview Survey. The National Health Statistics Report, released July 15, reported the results of 34,557 in-person one-on-one interviews. LGBT community leaders had long encouraged this count to include sexual orientation identification.
Of course, to those living in Washington, the national number can seem low. In an extensive mid-2013 Gallup survey of all 50 states and the District, D.C. ranked first with 10 percent of the population identifying as either lesbian, gay or bisexual, or transgender of either gay or non-gay orientation. The Gallup report, the largest single study of the distribution of LGBT Americans on record, indicated that the national combined portion was 3.5 percent.
While both urban areas and states where social environments encourage acceptance included higher numbers of gay and lesbian residents, Gallup found that the variation in LGBT identification among states was relatively small. It likely indicates the known migration by those who are gay, lesbian and transgender to areas more accepting socially and protective politically.
There are, of course, unique challenges in determining sexual orientation statistics, including a hesitation by some to self-identify. The vagaries of classification definition can also pose variance in results. Including adults who have experienced a same-sex attraction or engaged in sexual relations with someone of the same gender likewise skews the results.
Is the LGBT community undercounted as a result of these challenges? Probably. But it is highly unlikely any undercount is statistically significant, especially in a more modern era benefiting from high levels of acceptance and a general willingness to self-identify in controlled and confidential settings.
In fact, a recent five-year study funded by the Ford Foundation examining a broad range of issues related to survey quantification of the number of LGBT Americans led scholars to the conclusion that such concerns were unfounded. The reality is that Americans are more reluctant to answer inquiries regarding income than sexual orientation.
One interesting aspect of popular opinion, however, is that large numbers believe that the prevalence of LGBT Americans is much higher than it actually is. A recent Gallup poll indicated that a majority set the number at nearly 25 percent.
We’ve long demanded that we be counted, including by government and independent survey. We can’t now complain that there are fewer of us than some may have thought – or we may have hoped.