How many people in the United States identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered (LGBT)? A recent Gallup poll that received a lot of media attention put the overall number at 3.4% of the population and reported that women were slightly more likely than men to identify as LGBT (3.6% vs. 3.3%). How much stock should we put in the results of this poll? In light of other published sex surveys, I would be cautious about drawing too many conclusions from it.
For one thing, other nationally representative surveys have yielded numbers that are about twice as high and have also reported the opposite pattern with respect to gender (i.e., men are more likely to identify as LGBT than women). For instance, in the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), the number of participants with a non-heterosexual identity was 7.9% among women and 8.0% among men. Likewise, the 2009 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB) put the numbers at 6.8% among women and 7.8% among men. How do we explain the discrepant numbers across surveys? It likely stems from variations in how the question was asked. Whereas the Gallup poll simply asked people if they identify as LGBT, in both the NSFG and NSSHB, the question was more specifically about one's sexual identity, not one's gender identity (i.e., unlike the new Gallup poll, the other surveys do not account for people who are transgendered in the percentages reported here). The other major departure from the Gallup poll is that the other two surveys allowed people to indicate sexual identities other than gay, lesbian, and bisexual (e.g., participants could say they were questioning their identity or that they identified with labels such as “queer”). As these findings make clear, the way you ask the question and the options provided can yield extremely different estimates, and the numbers are typically higher when more options are provided.
In addition, it is important to keep in mind that even though sexual minorities are more accepted today than ever before, not everyone who is LGBT is willing to publicly acknowledge it because a certain stigma still persists. Thus, any number you see is potentially an underestimate and should be taken with a hefty dose of caution.
As you can see, the question of population prevalence is far from settled and it is clear that we would benefit from more consistency across surveys. In addition, it is vital that future surveys adopt a very wide lens. I understand why Gallup chose to look at whether people identify with the LGBT label, given that this term is commonly used in everyday language. However, the problem is that "LGBT" is not very precise because it conflates sexual identities (gay, lesbian, and bisexual) with gender identities (transgendered), which are not the same thing. Your gender and your sexuality are two distinct aspects of the self and do not necessarily have anything to do with one another. In addition, LGBT is not broad enough because there are other sexual minority labels with which people may identify that are not included here, such as queer, pansexual, asexual, fluid, questioning, and so on. Therefore, surveys should inquire about sexual and gender identity separately and provide participants with a very wide range of response options if we truly want to assess and appreciate the diversity in identities that exists.
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