Survey: 3.4 Percent of Americans Identify as LGBT

The Slatest
Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Oct. 19 2012 1:27 PM

How Many Americans Self-Identify as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or Transgender?

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A new Gallup poll estimates that 3.4 percent of Americans are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.

Photo by Prakesh Mathema/AFP/Getty Images.

There's a lot of variation when it comes to estimates of how many Americans self-identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, but a survey out this week from Gallup thinks it has the best answer yet: 3.4 percent.

The survey is based off of interviews with 121,000 people, which according to the pollsters makes it the biggest of its kind. The 3.4-percent firgure will seem low to many: As the Atlantic explained earlier this year, Americans tend to greatly overestimate the percentage of gay Americans, and it's not entirely clear-cut as to why:

On the one hand, people who overestimate the percent of gay Americans by a factor of 12 seem likely to also wildly overestimate the cultural impact of same-sex marriage. On the other hand, the extraordinary confusion over the percentage of gay people may reflect a triumph of the gay and lesbian movement's decades-long fight against invisibility and the closet.
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The percentage misperception could also have something to do with the source of the 1-in-10 number that's been a popular citation for years. As the Atlantic notes, that number comes from Alfred Kinsey's 1948 report, "Sexuality in the Human Male," which was based on experience and notions of tendency, rather than the Gallup survey's use of identity as the central factor used to quantify the LGBT population. This shift also reflects a change in the language used to discuss such issues over time.

But the overall percentage isn't really the interesting part of the study, which also looks at the demographic breakdown of that percentage. Some of the most interesting tidbits:

  • First, non-white Americans are more likely to identify as LGBT than white Americans are: 4.6 percent of African-Americans identify as LGBT, as do 4.0 percent of Hispanics and 4.3 percent of Asians. By comparison, 3.2 percent of white Americans identified as LGBT.
  • Second, there was a pretty big generational gap. 6.4 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 identified themselves as LGBT, and the percentage sharply declined from there. Self-identified LGBT Americans include 3.2 percent of Americans aged 30-49, 2.6 percent of those between 50 and 64, and just 1.9 percent of those over 65.
  • Third, LGBT identification was highest among those with lower levels of income and education, with percentages slightly higher among those with a high school diploma or some college but no degree than among those with a college or postgraduate degree. And just over 5 percent of Americans who make less than $24,000 a year are LGBT, with numbers a couple ticks lower for higher income groups.

Finally, its worth noting that the Gallup poll, like other surveys attempting to document and quantify groups subject to some sort of social stigma, faced some challenges in getting accurate answers. As they explain:

"Measuring sexual orientation and gender identity can be challenging since these concepts involve complex social and cultural patterns. As a group still subject to social stigma, many of those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender may not be forthcoming about this identity when asked about it in a survey. Therefore, it's likely that some Americans in what is commonly referred to as "the closet" would not be included in the estimates derived from the Gallup interviews. Thus, the 3.4% estimate can best be represented as adult Americans who publicly identify themselves as part of the LGBT community when asked in a survey context."

Check out the full survey results over at Gallup.

Abby Ohlheiser is a Slate contributor.

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