Gallup has been collecting data on LGBT identities since 2012. Each year a new wave comes out, I like to visualize it, because I think the figures tell a story more challenging to tell with words alone. Actually “measuring” someone’s sexuality is more challenging than you might think. And one of reasons different surveys produce different estimates of the gender and sexual minority population in any society is that they ask about sexuality differently. I’ve written before on just how challenging sexuality is to measure (and why). A great deal of survey research on the topic has sought to engage these challenges by analytically separating three separate dimensions of sexuality (sexual behaviors, sexual desires, and sexual identities). It’s popularly assumed that the various dimensions all line up in some neat and tidy way. But the fact of the matter is, for many people, they don’t. Indeed, recent work by Laurel Westbrook and Aliya Saperstein show that measuring sex and gender on surveys is not necessarily any easier. All of this has combined to make it challenging to make estimates about the size of any gender or sexual minority population. I was happy to see that Gallup’s report actually addressed this in 2018.
“Self-identification as LGBT is only one of a number of ways of measuring sexual and gender orientation. The general grouping of these four orientations (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) into one question involves significant simplification, and other measurement techniques which ask about each of these categories individually yield different estimates. Additionally, self-identification of sexual orientation can be distinct from other measures which tap into sexual behavior or attraction.” (here)
Gallup’s new report, by Frank Newport was just recently released, and update their estimates of the size of the LGBT population in the U.S. through 2017. This recent publication charts change in LGBT identification in the U.S. over 6 years (2012-2017). And, they rely on what previous research has shown to be a variable that produces the most conservative numbers of LGBT–gender and sexual identity.
The shifts themselves may appear to be small. But, within a population of over 300,000,000 people, these shifts involve huge numbers of actual people. As I have in previous years, in this post, I’ve graphed a collection of findings from Gallup’s report. I use these to talk with students, but I also think graphs offer a powerful illustration of the shifts.
NOTE: It’s worth noting that I truncate the y axes on the figures. Sometimes this is done to exaggerate discoveries. In this case, I truncate the axes because I think it helps more clearly illustrate the shifts I’ll address below.
Over the short period of 6 years Gallup has collected data, the LGBT population has grown substantially. The size of the population has increased from 8.3 to over 11 million people who identify as LGBT in the U.S. The proportion of LGBT Americans jumped a full percentage point between 2012 and 2017–from 3.5% to 4.5% of the U.S. population.
Mignon Moore and I recently published on some of the shifts in the LGB population using data from the General Social Survey. We found a great deal of growth among younger Americans, women, and Black women in particular. Gallup’s new data support these shifts as well with a much larger representative sample of Americans (340,000 interviews in the 2017 sample).
In fact, when we look at shifts in the U.S. LGBT population by age, almost all of the growth in the population has been among the young. (Generations are slippery sorts of categories as suggesting someone born in 1979 vs. 1980 has a completely different experience and identity, unique from one another is sort of arbitrary. Yet, these data support research like Barbara Risman‘s new book, Where The Millennials Will Take Us: A New Generation Wrestles with the Gender Structure, showing that young people are more open with respect to gender and sexuality.)
But these shifts also are gendered, racialized, and classed. One of the most consistent shifts has been the growing gap between the numbers of women and men who identify as LGBT in the U.S. Since Gallup started collecting data in 2012, this gap has simply continued to grow. More women identify as LGBT than men, and just how much more continues to change each year.
Those identifying as LGBT in the U.S. today are also becoming more racially diverse. While less than 4% of non-Hispanic white Americans identified as LGBT in 2017, more than 4.5% of Black Americans and Asians did, and more than 6% of Hispanic Americans as well as the racial categories Gallup collapses as “Others” (the “other” category was not included in the 2018 update).
The other changes reported note shifts relative to income and education among LGBT-identifying Americans. With respect to education, Gallup’s data do not show meaningful differences among those with more or less education. Those differences that existed in 2012 seem to have largely eroded with growth in the LGBT population occurring among people with very different educational backgrounds.
Despite this, LGBT population growth does continue to be stratified by class, according to Gallup’s report. Rates of LGBT identification among the class-advantaged have been stagnant over the 6 years of data collection, while rates among middle-income and lower-income LGBT identifying folks in the U.S. are growing.
This is sad and likely to do with a combination of factors that perpetuate gender and sexual inequality. Part of it may be to do with the higher rates of homelessness among gender and sexual minorities as Brandon Andrew Robinson‘s research on LGBTQ homeless youth carefully documents. Some of it must also have to do with sexual discrimination on the job market as work like Emma Mishel‘s audit study showing the resumes with a small signification of possible lesbian identity were significantly less likely to be called for an interview. And likely it is all of this and more.
This is really an incredible amount of change in a very short period of time. The LGBT population is, quite literally, on the move. Tracking the needs of this population is and must be a goal that is continually revisited as the very composition of the population continues to shift.