Study Finds Liberal States Could Affect LGBT Responses

Photo: D. Mike

Photo: D. Mike

The percentage of U.S. adults who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) ranges from 1.7 percent in North Dakota to 5.1 percent in Hawaii and 10 percent in the District of Columbia, according to Gallup surveys conducted from June-December 2012.

Residents in the District of Columbia were most likely to identify as LGBT (10 percent). Among states, the highest percentage was in Hawaii (5.1 percent) and the lowest in North Dakota (1.7 percent), but all states are within two percentage points of the nationwide average of 3.5 percent.

These results are based on responses to the question, “Do you, personally, identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender?” included in 206,186 Gallup Daily tracking interviews conducted between June 1 and December 30, 2012. This is the largest single study of the distribution of the LGBT population in the U.S. on record, and the first time a study has had large enough sample sizes to provide estimates of the LGBT population by state.

As was outlined in the first report of these data in October, measuring sexual orientation and gender identity can be challenging because these concepts involve complex social and cultural patterns. There are a number of ways to measure lesbian, gay, and bisexual orientation, and transgender status. Gallup chose a broad measure of personal identification as LGBT because this grouping of four statuses is commonly used in current American discourse, and as a result has important cultural and political significance. One limitation of this approach is that it is not possible to separately consider differences among lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, or transgender individuals. A second limitation is that this approach measures broad self-identity, and does not measure sexual or other behavior, either past or present.

The number of interviews conducted in each state between June and December is large enough to allow for reasonable estimates of each state’s LGBT population. Only eight states had less than 1,000 completed interviews, including the lowest sample size of 613 in Alaska. Gallup also asked the LGBT question of 493 District of Columbia residents. The number of completed interviews conducted in each state is presented in the accompanying table.

The margin of error for each state’s estimate varies, depending on the state’s sample size. Except for the District of Columbia, all are below ±2 percentage points. A caution comes in interpreting rankings of states with relatively small populations. Although, as noted, the margins of error in general are quite small with all of these estimates, differences in the rankings of the states with the smallest numbers of interviews are more prone to being byproducts of sampling error.

While the variation in LGBT identification across states is relatively small, findings do suggest some evidence that the variation is not entirely random. Social climates that promote acceptance of or stigma toward LGBT individuals could affect how many adults disclose an LGBT identity. LGBT people who live in places where they feel accepted may be more likely than those who live in places where they feel stigmatized to reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity to a survey interviewer.

In general, states where residents express more liberal views are more accepting of LGBT individuals, while socially conservative areas are less accepting. Of the 10 states and D.C. where at least 4 percent of respondents identified as LGBT, seven are among the most liberal states in the country. Conversely, 6 of 10 states with the lowest percentage of LGBT-identified adults are among the top 10 conservative states in the country.

The states with proportionally larger LGBT populations generally have supportive LGBT legal climates. With the exception of South Dakota, all of the states that have LGBT populations of at least 4 percent have laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and allow same-sex couples to marry, enter into a civil union, or register as domestic partners. Of the 10 states with the lowest percentage of LGBT adults, only Iowa has such laws.

Higher proportions of LGBT individuals in a state could also suggest that LGBT individuals move there in higher proportions than the general population does. While highly concentrated (and mostly male) LGBT neighborhoods exist in many cities and are certainly in part a result of this type of migration, little is known about the broader migration patterns of the LGBT community. Given prior Gallup findings showing that the LGBT population is disproportionately young, female, and nonwhite — all of which are groups with economic disadvantages that could limit their abilities to move — it seems unlikely that migration is the primary reason for variation in LGBT identification across states.

Bottom Line

From a broad perspective, the variation in the percentage of adults across U.S. states who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender is relatively small. At the same time, the variation does provide interesting information about LGBT identification and its possible relationship to the ideological and legal climate in different states. All states are within a couple of percentage points of the overall LGBT national average of 3.5 percent. The LGBT adult population estimate is above 5 percent only in the District of Columbia and Hawaii, and below 2 percent only in North Dakota.

States with high LGBT percentages tend to be more liberal and have more supportive LGBT legal climates, while those at the lower end of the LGBT spectrum are generally the most conservative. This suggests that one explanation for the variation across states is the relationship between the willingness to disclose LGBT identity and the environment of one’s state of residence. It is also possible that LGBT adults make conscious choices to reside in certain states rather than others, but this possibility is difficult to assess and seems less likely.

Gary J. Gates is the Williams Distinguished Scholar at the Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law. A national expert in LGBT demographics, he holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy from the Heinz College of Public Policy and Management, Carnegie Mellon University.

Gallup’s “State of the States” series reveals state-by-state differences on political, economic, and wellbeing measures Gallup tracks each day. New stories based on full-year 2012 data will be released throughout the month of February.

Source: Gallup