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social sciences

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Assessing the demographic characteristics of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and population can be a daunting challenge, in part because sexual orientation and gender identification are not easily measured constructs, data are relatively rare, and the glbtq population can be reluctant to identify themselves as such in surveys. Defining gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals by reported sexual attraction, behavior, or identification can yield different groups of people with different characteristics.

Further, few data sources that can be generalized to the population include questions about sexual orientation, behavior, or attraction; and even fewer ask questions about gender identification.

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While most evidence suggests that the stigmatization of homosexual behavior in the United States and throughout the world is being reduced, it is still an important factor in the lives of glbtq people and for glbtq research. As a result, many glbtq individuals are reluctant to reveal information about their sexual orientation or gender identity to surveyors. Hence, undercounting and potential biases are persistent problems in data collection.

For all of these reasons, most demographic information about the glbtq population comes with a variety of caveats regarding the nature of the sample used to derive the information.

National U.S. Data Sources Used to Study the Gay and Lesbian Population

The decennial census represents perhaps the most widely used data source for describing both the geographic and demographic characteristics of the gay and lesbian population in the United States. The addition in the 1990 census of a category called "unmarried partner" to the household roster on the census allows for the identification of same-sex couples. Since census forms do not ask about sexual orientation, attraction, or behavior, the analyses from that data source are limited to same-sex couples.

Several other national surveys include ways of identifying single gay men and lesbians as well as bisexuals. These surveys tend to have relatively small sample sizes, especially when compared to census data. The General Social Survey (GSS) is a national survey of adults (ages 18 and above) conducted every two years and includes questions about same-sex sexual behavior. The National Health and Social Life Survey (NHSLS), fielded in 1992 only, included questions on sexual behavior, attraction, and identification, but was limited to the population ages 18-59.

The 2002/2003 round of the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) surveys men and women ages 18-44 and includes questions about sexual orientation. The National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health (Add Health), a study of adolescents, also includes questions about sexual orientation.

Estimating the Size of the Gay and Lesbian Population

Estimating the size of the gay and lesbian population can provoke much debate. The legendary 10 percent figure, derived from Alfred Kinsey's path-breaking Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) is likely not terribly accurate. The figure comes from a finding that ten percent of the males in the Kinsey data were more or less exclusively homosexual for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55. This is not the same as saying that 10 percent of adults identify as gay men or lesbians.

Voter exit polls in the United States found that between 4 and 5 percent of voters in the last five U.S. national elections identified as gay or lesbian. While voters may constitute a large sample of the U.S. population, they are still not representative of the population at large.

The NHSLS found that 1.4 percent of women and 2.8 percent of men thought of themselves as homosexual or bisexual, while more than 4 percent of women and more than 6 percent of men report a sexual attraction to people of the same sex. Another analysis that combines data from the NHSLS and several waves of the GSS finds that 3.6 percent of women and nearly 5 percent of men report having had sexual contact with a partner of the same sex since they were age 18. A national survey in Canada (2003) found that 1.9 percent of men and 1.6 percent of women reported being gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

Where Do Gay People Live?

Analyses of census data provided the first empirical evidence that gay men and lesbians live virtually everywhere in the United States. Census 2000 counts revealed that 99.3 percent of U.S. counties included at least one of the 594,391 same-sex couples counted.

Additional census findings include the following.

Among the 50 states, Vermont had the highest concentration of same-sex couples (nearly 1 percent of all households), followed by California, Washington, Massachusetts, and Oregon.

Among large metropolitan areas (population above 500,000), San Francisco, California had the highest concentration of same-sex couples (1.75 percent of all households), followed by Oakland, California, Seattle, Washington, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Austin, Texas.

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