What share of Americans identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual?

Public policy matters concerning LGBT rights are certainly among the most divisive cultural issues of the past decade. To contextualize the debate, it’s important to get up to date on the share of American adults who consider themselves gay, lesbian, and bisexual. Indeed, many Americans are remarkably uninformed about the true share of LGBT persons in the U.S. One May 2011 Gallup poll found that, on average, Americans think that one-in-four of their fellow citizens is gay or lesbian. (The question did not ask about bisexuals.) Moreover, 35 percent of American adults thought the true number was even higher. Only four percent of Americans in that poll thought that “less than five percent” of the country was gay or lesbian27, but that four percent is on target with most recent scholarly estimates, including this one from the Relationships in America survey.

Table 6.1
ONE MAY 2011 GALLUP POLL FOUND THAT, ON AVERAGE, AMERICANS THINK THAT ONE-IN-FOUR OF THEIR FELLOW CITIZENS IS GAY OR LESBIAN.

Gary Gates, a senior researcher at the Williams Institute, estimates that 3.5 percent of adults identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, while just over eight percent have had some same-sex sexual experience at some time in their lives.28 And transgender Americans, for all the attention paid them of late, are thought to comprise at most 0.3 percent—or three out of every 1,000—American adults.29 Gates’ figures are slightly lower than that of the Relationships in America survey, which estimates that 3.9 percent of women and 5.6 percent of men identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, accounting for a little over 11 million adults nationwide.30 A July 2014 report released by the Center for Disease Control puts the number even lower than Gates’ estimate, at 1.6 percent who identify as gay or lesbian, 0.7 percent who say they are bisexual, and 1.1 percent who say “something else,” “I don’t know,” or who refused to answer the question.31

3.9 PERCENT OF WOMEN AND 5.6 PERCENT OF MEN IDENTIFY AS GAY, LESBIAN, OR BISEXUAL, ACCOUNTING FOR A LITTLE OVER 11 MILLION ADULTS NATIONWIDE.

Whereas men’s self-reported sexual identity varies little across the different ages of respondents, women’s patterns are notably more age-graded, in keeping with assessments of women’s sexual orientations as more malleable than men’s.32 Given women’s greater malleability and fixed fertility schedule, we should not be surprised to see an age-graded shift in sexual orientation around the time of women’s peak fertility years. The distinctive curve to their reporting of bisexual or homosexual attraction is evidence of exactly that. The survey’s pattern is consonant with that found in other data as well: women reporting that they are “only attracted to men” is at its lowest (in the latest iteration of the National Survey of Family Growth) at age 21 and highest at age 43 (the survey is only offered to persons below age 45).33 Given the evidence of women’s plastic sexuality, one psychologist, whose own research and pedagogy in the area has received considerable flak from intellectuals on both the Left and the Right, wonders aloud about just what women’s sexual orientation consists of.34

Figure 6.1Percentage of the population gay, lesbian or bisexual by age

British social theorist Anthony Giddens was on target in his landmark 1992 book entitled The Transformation of Intimacy, where he asserted that the sexual revolution was not simply “a gender-neutral advance in sexual permissiveness,” but instead “a revolution in female sexual autonomy,” one which fostered the flourishing of non-heterosexual expressions, identities, and orientations.35 The “new” plasticity afforded by the advent of contraception has made sexuality autonomous from reproduction. And this plasticity is visible in the figure above.

So how do we explain such an age-graded disparity in sexual identity among men and women? Do some women—like New York City mayor Bill De Blasio’s wife Chirlane McCray—go through a lesbian or bisexual “phase” which they “outgrow” later in life? Perhaps—and research hints in that direction.36 Among those women in the Relationships in America survey who report having had at least one female sexual partner in their lifetime, only 1 in 3 currently self-identify as lesbian or bisexual. But something has changed: younger women are far more likely than older women to report having had a female sexual partner, despite having far less time (in years) in which to do so, suggesting that the higher number of lesbian and bisexual women among the young may not be a longstanding phenomenon in female sexuality across the life course, but rather a temporary experiment in same-sex relationships, experiences, and/or self-identities. Since the RIAsurvey was only fielded once, it is unable to assess changes in self-identities within persons or track trends. Further research that follows the same people over time would illuminate this phenomenon.

BUT SOMETHING HAS CHANGED: YOUNGER WOMEN ARE FAR MORE LIKELY THAN OLDER WOMEN TO REPORT HAVING HAD A FEMALE SEXUAL PARTNER, DESPITE HAVING FAR LESS TIME (IN YEARS) IN WHICH TO DO SO, SUGGESTING THAT THE HIGHER NUMBER OF LESBIAN AND BISEXUAL WOMEN AMONG THE YOUNG MAY NOT BE A LONGSTANDING PHENOMENON IN FEMALE SEXUALITY ACROSS THE LIFE COURSE, BUT RATHER A TEMPORARY EXPERIMENT IN SAME-SEX RELATIONSHIPS, EXPERIENCES, AND/OR SELF-IDENTITIES.

By contrast, the men’s line is largely flat. Overall, men’s sexual identity self-reports are believed to be much less prone to shifts over time. The Relationships in America data also confirm that few men self-identify as bisexual. Among them, bisexuality is more often a behavioral observation.

Finally, most of us are familiar with—and commonly speak in terms of—the sexuality continuum from straight to gay, a spectrum that appears to have originated in a sexual behavioral preference scale employed by early sexologist Alfred Kinsey. Yet few scholars pay attention to “asexuality” as an orientation. Asexuality is the state of not being sexually interested in men or women. Some consider it a sexual orientation, while others think it’s the lack thereof. The RIAsurvey offered respondents the option of saying they were “not sexually attracted to either males or females.” How many respondents selected that category when asked? In keeping with previous national estimates, just over one percent.

Given how easy it is to conflate sexual attraction and behavior with orientation, as well as to overlook how each of these operates differently for men than for women, it’s not difficult to see how many Americans come to inaccurate conclusions about the prevalence of different sexual orientations.


27 Morales, Lymari. “U.S. Adults Estimate that 25 Percent of Americans are Gay or Lesbian.” Gallup Politics. May 27, 2011. Retrieved August 26, 2014.

28 Gates, Gary. “How many people are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender?.” The Williams Institute. April, 2011

29 Ibid.

30 We also find that 11 percent of women and 9 percent of men have at some point engaged in same-sex sexual behavior, roughly twice the number who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. These estimates also do not include the 3.5 percent of men and 9 percent of women who say they are mostly heterosexual but at least sometimes attracted to people of the same sex. Keep in mind that our estimates are only for those ages 18-60, so they may differ slightly from estimates by Dr. Gates and the CDC for this reason.

31 Ward, Brian et al. “Sexual Orientation and Health in U.S. Adults: National Health Interview Survey, 2013.National Health Statistics Reports 77. National Center for Health Statistics. July 15, 2014.

32 Diamond, Lisa. Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women's Love and Desire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

33 A similar u-shaped curve is visible for women’s same-sex behavior in the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior. See Herbenick, Debby et al. “Sexual Behavior in the United States: Results from a National Probability Sample of Men and Women Ages 14-94.Journal of Sexual Medicine 7, no. 5 (2010): 255-265.

34 Bailey, J. Michael. “What is sexual orientation and do women have one?Contemporary Perspectives on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Identities 54 (2009):43-63.

35 Giddens, Anthony. The Transformation of Intimacy (p. 28). Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1992.

36 Diamond, Lisa. Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women's Love and Desire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

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