In college, my school’s LGBTQ+ organization was small and mostly white. So I decided to create an underground group more inclusive of queer and trans students of color using Facebook as a platform. My secret group grew fast and inspired me to charter an “official” club on campus — and that’s when I hit a snag.
I needed cold hard stats to make the case for the group’s validity.
Turns out, I wasn’t the only one on the hunt for accurate counts of the LGBTQ+ community. Demographers with PhDs make careers in pursuit of them.
“[Q]uantifying the number of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people in the United States is a task that has been and continues to be fraught with expectations, politics, and uncertainties,” said David Deschamps and Bennett Singer, who literally wrote the book on LGBTQ Stats.
Many factors, from stigma to methods of inquiry, affect the numbers and how we can interpret them. I wanted to find the story behind the stats we see.
STIGMA IS A TRIP
There are consequences to openly identifying as queer. Reports show a higher level of violence and employment discrimination directed at transgender and gender-nonconforming people. Some are concerned about maintaining and forming relationships with family and friends when deciding whether to be out.
“Most of us have experiences of stigma and discrimination, so we have concerns about the wrong people getting a hold of information about us, which we may view as sensitive,” said Dr. Gary Gates, a demographer focusing on the LGBTQ+ community.
Anonymous surveys help with the stigma problem. Many people feel freer when they can’t be identified by their data. But the downside is, anonymity doesn’t allow for follow-up, unless subjects give researchers special permission to contact them with further questions or for future surveys down the road.
My friend Yasmine Meadows was co-president of the LGBTQ+ organization I launched on campus. She identifies as bi and has been approached a lot to participate in studies on gender and sexual identity.
In deciding what, if at all, to disclose to researchers, Meadows said she cares a lot about the why. Once, she felt her data was used in a negative way that reinforced stigma — trying to prove that the reason people are queer is because of sexual assault or abuse.
“I wouldn’t be comfortable until I knew the real reason they wanted me to do the study. But if I knew it was positive I wouldn’t necessarily mind because I feel like learning more about the community that I identify with is better for me,” Meadows said.
There are also specific cases where stigma may affect results. For example, people have no shortage of reasons for why they won’t date bisexual men. Biphobic and demeaning comments are made by straight women, gay men, and even bi women. I can’t help but think that charts showing bi men making up the lowest percentage of the community are impacted by negative attitudes toward bi men despite the community's growth.
Gates told me that beyond the stigma factor, some data is omitted because people just don’t know what to say. I had not considered this factor — that people may be figuring themselves out in a manner that is not as clear-cut as researchers would like.
Terminology also matters.
Even questions like “Are you homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual?” may throw off survey takers, Gates told me — for example, survey takers for whom English is a second language, who might not know the definitions of each of those terms.
Also, “Heterosexuals don’t have to think about their sexual orientation or define their sexual orientation very often,” Gates said. “The word they use to describe themselves is ‘normal.’”
What about accounting for people who aren’t out? Critics say the potential under-reporting of closeted individuals can make data like Gates’s inaccurate.
“My argument to that is, I wasn’t attempting to measure closeted people. I wasn’t attempting to count this broad, and quite frankly, often vague definition of what defines people as LGBT,” he said. “I’m measuring people who use the terms [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender].”
It was initially perplexing and a little bit annoying to me, when I read that people are two to three times more likely to report attraction to individuals of the same-sex or have had same-sex sexual experiences than they are to self-identify as LGB. It’s not a statistic that I can separate from the stigma LGB people face.
But Deschamps and Singer maintain that framing questions based on experiences and scales, not labels, is the way to go.
“I think we’re living in a time where people don’t want to be put in boxes,” said Deschamps. “I think a scale is one of the best ways to look at it, because there are people who will have sex with men and it’s no big deal, and there are people who will have sex with men in situational experiences like in prison or on a ship or something like that, but wouldn’t in normal life, and personally I would consider them queer.”
We can’t talk about growth in the queer community without factoring in the progress that has been made in decreasing stigma and negative consequences associated with being LGBTQ+. Even in the face of the lingering homophobic and transphobic attitudes in the U.S., the documented LGBT population has been increasing for years.
In 2015, research from YouGov found that 31% of young Americans don’t identify as exclusively heterosexual. But a different study from 2018 found that only 4.5% of the U.S. population identifies as LGBT.
“If you just look at a map in the U.S. that says the percentage of the population who identifies as LGB (lesbian, gay, bisexual), what you will see is a map of social acceptance,” Gates said.
He pushed back against the notion that the large geographic differences in the queer population are driven simply by LGBT people migrating to the coasts. As a queer person who moved from Georgia to California, I was all ears. Gates theorized that in places with higher acceptance, more people are willing to openly identify as LGBT, while places with more anti-LGBT sentiment will see a repression of the LGBT identity, and not just in the numbers.
“It’s really being driven by the willingness of people to acknowledge themselves, and when they’re in climates that are more accepting you get higher percentages. It’s very obvious in the data,” he said.
ROOM FOR GROWTH?
No one knows when we’ll hit peak divulgence — but those concerned about under-counting say it’s a serious issue because if we look like a smaller group than we are, we won’t get the services and opportunities we need. Even on my campus, it was hard to get funding for a queer people of color organization because the college didn’t have numerical evidence that we existed.
Gates isn’t worried about that. “I could not find a single instance where my low number harmed public policy,” he said. “I could find a bazillion instances where having a number, it didn’t matter what the number was, made a positive impact. And it was simply because it made visible a group that people literally denied existed.”
No matter how big or small we think the community is, stats matter a lot for the future of the LGBTQ+ people.
“Part of it is within the community, feeling a sense of solidarity and strength,” Singer said. “But I think there’s a very tangible public policy piece to it, where numbers can lead to public policy change and transform the lives of people on a day to day level.”