The 2016 General Social Survey was just recently publicly released. Lots of stories have already hit the news about Americans’ opinions about all manner of issues related to social inequality as the data were being collecting as the presidential race was getting organized. As of 2008, the GSS started including a demographic question on sexual identity. You can answer: “gay, lesbian, homosexual,” “bisexual,” “heterosexual or straight,” or “don’t know.” Different surveys include this question in different ways, making comparisons across instruments difficult. But, it is interesting to consider these trends alongside the recently released estimates from Gallup on the LGBT population (see HERE and HERE for summaries of Gallup’s population estimates).
The results that Gallup shared combined lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people into a single figure, making it difficult to assess how much of any changes we saw between the two years of data collection (2012-2013 and 2015-2016) were due to shifts in the L’s, G’s, B’s, and/or T’s. But, my suspicion was that bisexual identifying people accounted for a lot of this shift. The GSS does not have a question currently that enables people to identify as transgender on the survey. But, here, I’m examining shifts between those identifying as bisexual compared with those identifying as lesbian or gay by a number of different factors.
The data that Gallup shared showed that the LGBT population increased dramatically between 2012 and 2016, from 3.5% to 4.1% of the U.S. population (or an estimated 8.3 to 10.052 million people). That’s a big change for a short period of time. And the majority of that change could be accounted for by large increases among young people, women, the college-educated, people of color, and those who are not religious (you can see Gallup’s data graphed HERE if you’re interested).
Data from the General Social Survey, too, found an increase in the LGB population (again, transgender persons are not included here). The GSS is a much smaller survey than Gallup. So, it might not be surprising that they produced a smaller number. Here, however, I’ve charted shifts in those identifying as lesbian and gay alongside those identifying as bisexual. Bisexual identification increased at a much steeper rate.
Some of the GSS results suggest that many of the trends suggested by the Gallup results are primarily explained by those identifying as “bisexual.” For instance, Gallup showed a growing gender divide in LGBT identification between 2012 and 2016. LGBT identification among women grew at a faster rate than among men. But, looking at GSS data, that seems like it might be explained by bisexual identifying women. In fact, in 2016, equal proportions of men identified as “gay” as women identifying as “lesbian” on the GSS survey–2.4%.
Similarly, Gallup showed a growing age gap in LGBT identification with Millennials dramatically above other age cohorts. GSS data too show that age and LGB identification are related with young people more likely to self-identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. But, it is young bisexual people who account for the gap between the young and the old.
The findings from GSS on the proportion of the LGB population of different racial and ethnic groups does not conform to Gallup’s finding. White people are marginally less likely to identify as LGB than are Black people, the real finding from GSS is the small proportion of Other racial and ethnic groups identifying as lesbian or gay. And while Whites and Other racial and ethnic groups are more likely to identify as bisexual than as lesbian or gay, that relationship between bisexual vs. lesbian or gay identity appear much less relevant among Black Americans in the GSS sample.
Gallup also discovered that education became much less predictive of LGBT identification between 2012 and 2016. The college+ educated had the smallest proportion of LGBT identifying people in Gallup’s 2012-2013 sample, but education levels converged in their 2015-2016 sample. The GSS sample shows similar conversion by level of education, but, lesbian and gay identifying individuals with less than a high school education do not appear to follow the larger trend toward increasing numbers.
While Gallup reported income levels and found that LGBT persons are largely concentrated among those earning less than $36,000 annually. I charted LGB people in the GSS sample against their subjective class identification and discovered roughly similar findings (though, bisexuality among those identifying as upper-class took a nose dive in the 2016 sample).
The Gallup report also reported data on where LGBT people in the U.S. are living, both at the state and region level. And Gallup discovered, not particularly surprisingly, that smaller proportions of LGBT identifying people are found in regions known for being more politically conservative. GSS region data cover larger areas, but also discovered a similar trend with larger proportions of LGB persons in the west and northeast U.S. Though, the smaller proportions of LGB people in the south appears to be largely due to a lack of lesbian and gay identifying persons, as bisexual identifying people in the south are in much greater supply.
Finally, I charted LGB identified persons in the GSS sample by political party. The findings are not all that surprising. Democrats and independents are much more likely to identify as LGB than are Republicans. And bisexual identifying people outnumber lesbian and gay identifying individuals in each political identification. But, that trend appears exaggerated among Republicans.
Why should we care? Bisexuality is a less-discussed sexual identification. But, as a sexual identification, it remains more prevalent than gay and lesbian identifications combined in the U.S. Whether bisexual identifying people see themselves as part of a distinct sexual minority or grouping is an interesting question. Thus, we may not know what precisely the political utility of this growing population is in terms of organizing on behalf of the rights of sexual minorities. For instance, whether it makes sense to group bisexuals with lesbian women and gay men when we report on demographic shifts in the LGB population is something that deserves more discussion and justification.
We should care about bisexuality, though, because that is a sexual identity that is seriously on the move.