Increasing numbers of population-based surveys in the United States and across the world include questions that allow for an estimate of the size of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) population. This research brief discusses challenges associated with collecting better information about the LGBT community and reviews eleven recent US and international surveys that ask sexual orientation or gender identity questions. The brief concludes with estimates of the size of the LGBT population in the United States.
- An estimated 3.5% of adults in the United States identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual and an estimated 0.3% of adults are transgender.
- This implies that there are approximately 9 million LGBT Americans, a figure roughly equivalent to the population of New Jersey.
- Among adults who identify as LGB, bisexuals comprise a slight majority (1.8% compared to 1.7% who identify as lesbian or gay).
- Women are substantially more likely than men to identify as bisexual. Bisexuals comprise more than half of the lesbian and bisexual population among women in eight of the nine surveys considered in the brief. Conversely, gay men comprise substantially more than half of gay and bisexual men in seven of the nine surveys.
- Estimates of those who report any lifetime same-sex sexual behavior and any same-sex sexual attraction are substantially higher than estimates of those who identify as LGB. An estimated 19 million Americans (8.2%) report that they have engaged in same-sex sexual behavior and nearly 25.6 million Americans (11%) acknowledge at least some same-sex sexual attraction.
- Understanding the size of the LGBT population is a critical first step to informing a host of public policy and research topics. The surveys highlighted in this report demonstrate the viability of sexual orientation and gender identity questions on large national population-based surveys. Adding these questions to more national, state, and local data sources is critical to developing research that enables a better understanding of the understudied LGBT community.
Increasing numbers of population-based surveys in the United States and across the world include questions designed to measure sexual orientation and gender identity. Understanding the size of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) population is a critical first step to informing a host of public policy and research topics. Examples include assessing health and economic disparities in the LGBT community, understanding the prevalence of anti-LGBT discrimination, and considering the economic impact of marriage equality or the provision of domestic partnership benefits to same-sex couples. This research brief discusses challenges associated with collecting better information about the LGBT community and reviews findings from eleven recent US and international surveys that ask sexual orientation or gender identity questions. The brief concludes with estimates of the size of the LGBT population in the United States.
Challenges in measuring the LGBT community
Estimates of the size of the LGBT community vary for a variety of reasons. These include differences in the definitions of who is included in the LGBT population, differences in survey methods, and a lack of consistent questions asked in a particular survey over time.
In measuring sexual orientation, lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals may be identified strictly based on their self-identity or it may be possible to consider same-sex sexual behavior or sexual attraction. Some surveys (not considered in this brief) also assess household relationships and provide a mechanism of identifying those who are in same-sex relationships. Identity, behavior, attraction, and relationships all capture related dimensions of sexual orientation but none of these measures completely addresses the concept.
Defining the transgender population can also be challenging. Definitions of who may be considered part of the transgender community include aspects of both gender identities and varying forms of gender expression or non-conformity. Similar to sexual orientation, one way to measure the transgender community is to simply consider self-identity. Measures of identity could include consideration of terms like transgender, queer, or genderqueer. The latter two identities are used by some to capture aspects of both sexual orientation and gender identity.
Similar to using sexual behaviors and attraction to capture elements of sexual orientation, questions may also be devised that consider gender expression and non-conformity regardless of the terms individuals may use to describe themselves. An example of these types of questions would be consideration of the relationship between the sex that individuals are assigned at birth and the degree to which that assignment conforms with how they express their gender. Like the counterpart of measuring sexual orientation through identity, behavior, and attraction measures, these varying approaches capture related dimensions of who might be classified as transgender but may not individually address all aspects of assessing gender identity and expression.
Another factor that can create variation among estimates of the LGBT community is survey methodology. Survey methods can affect the willingness of respondents to report stigmatizing identities and behaviors. Feelings of confidentiality and anonymity increase the likelihood that respondents will be more accurate in reporting sensitive information. Survey methods that include face-to-face interviews may underestimate the size of the LGBT community while those that include methods that allow respondents to complete questions on a computer or via the internet may increase the likelihood of LGBT respondents identifying themselves. Varied sample sizes of surveys can also increase variation. Population-based surveys with a larger sample can produce more precise estimates (see SMART, 2010 for more information about survey methodology).
A final challenge in making population-based estimates of the LGBT community is the lack of questions asked over time on a single large survey. One way of assessing the reliability of estimates is to repeat questions over time using a consistent method and sampling strategy. Adding questions to more large-scale surveys that are repeated over time would substantially improve our ability to make better estimates of the size of the LGBT population.
How many adults are lesbian, gay, or bisexual?
Findings shown in Figure 1 consider estimates of the percentage of adults who self-identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual across nine surveys conducted within the past seven years. Five of those surveys were fielded in the United States and the others are from Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Norway. All are population-based surveys of adults, though some have age restrictions as noted.
The lowest overall percentage comes from the Norwegian Living Conditions Survey at 1.2%, with the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, conducted in the United States, producing the highest estimate at 5.6%. In general, the non-US surveys, which vary from 1.2% to 2.1%, estimate lower percentages of LGB-identified individuals than the US surveys, which range from 1.7% to 5.6%.
While the surveys show a fairly wide variation in the overall percentage of adults who identify as LGB, the proportion who identify as lesbian/gay versus bisexual is somewhat more consistent (see Figure 2). In six of the surveys, lesbian- and gay-identified individuals outnumbered bisexuals. In most cases, these surveys were roughly 60% lesbian/gay versus 40% bisexual. The UK Integrated Household Survey found the proportion to be two-thirds lesbian/gay versus one-third bisexual.