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Americans are identifying as LGBTQ more than ever, poll finds

1 in 6 members of Gen Z identify as something other than heterosexual.
People wave a rainbow flag as they celebrate the presidential election in West Hollywood, Calif., on Nov. 7, 2020.
People wave a rainbow flag in West Hollywood, Calif., on Nov. 7.David McNew / AFP via Getty Images file

An estimated 5.6 percent of Americans identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer, according to a new Gallup report. That’s up from 4.5 percent in 2017, the last year polling on the issue was conducted by the organization.

Of those surveyed who identified as LGBTQ, 54.6 percent identified as bisexual, 24.5 percent as gay, 11.7 percent as lesbians, 11.3 percent as transgender and 3.3 percent said they used another term to describe their identity (i.e. queer or same-gender loving). The total exceeds 100 percent because respondents were able to choose more than one category.

The results were based on more than 15,000 interviews conducted with adults 18 and older throughout 2020.

Younger Americans are increasingly likely to consider themselves part of the LGBTQ community: Nearly 16 percent of Generation Z, those 18 to 23 in 2020, consider themselves something other than heterosexual. That compares to just 2 percent of Americans 56 and older.

While that pronounced difference could be caused by a true generational shift in sexual orientation and gender identity, Gallup editor Jeffrey Jones said it more likely reflects a greater willingness for younger Americans to be open about their identity.

“Younger people are growing up in an environment where being gay, lesbian or bisexual is not as taboo as it was in the past,” Jones told NBC News. “So they may just feel more comfortable telling an interviewer in a telephone survey how they describe themselves. In the past, people would maybe be more reluctant.”

Of the Generation Z adults who identify as LGBTQ, nearly two-thirds said they were bisexual, equal to about 11.5 percent of total Gen Z respondents. For millennial LGBTQs, those 24 to 39 in 2020, half said they were bisexual, or a little more than 5 percent of all millennial respondents.

The poll aligns with growing support for LGBTQ rights evident in recent Gallup surveys, including a June 2020 poll showing that 67 percent of Americans back gay marriage. In 2012, when Gallup started asking about sexual orientation, only 53 percent believed same-sex couples should be allow to wed.

The Gallup poll on sexual orientation and gender identity provides more detail than past polls, which only asked respondents to answer "yes" or "no" on whether they identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

However, the 1.1-percentage-point increase in those who identify as LGBTQ — a jump of nearly 25 percent since 2017 — is in line with trends from previous years. In the inaugural 2012 poll, just 3.5 percent of U.S. adults identified as LGBTQ, a number that has since increased 60 percent.

Surveying sexual orientation and gender identity is inherently imprecise, Jones admitted, given shifting definitions and varying levels of outness.

“People may think of it differently, in the same way they may have different ideas of what a liberal or a moderate or conservative is,” he said. “Basically, we try and use terms that are familiar to most people, that are fairly well understood. But we recognize that people may understand the terms differently.”

How a question is framed can also affect the results: If you ask subjects if they consider themselves transgender, Jones said, you get a different figure than if you ask what sex they were assigned at birth and what gender they identify as now.

“We acknowledge that there could be some noise in the data, but if we are using a larger sample size, it should reduce some of that noise,” he said.

Gary Gates, a demographer who helped Gallup develop its 2012 survey, said the results shouldn’t be taken as a full count of LGBTQ people in the U.S.

“What they’re trying to come up with is the people who self-identify,” said Gates, who did not contribute to the new survey. “It’s a measure of identity, not behavior or feelings or some other measurements we might use. They weren’t trying to count all the people in the closet.”

Even with that proviso, he added, “it’s still valuable to know who self-identifies.”

“In every case I’ve ever seen in 20 years of doing this, it’s better having a number than not — no matter how big or small.”

Gender, politics and marriage

In all, 3.1 percent of the U.S. population identifies as bisexual, compared to 1.4 percent who say they are gay, 0.7 percent lesbian, 0.6 percent transgender, and 0.2 percent other. Some LGBTQ respondents chose more than one category.

Currently, 86.7 percent of Americans say they are heterosexual or straight, and 7.6 percent did not answer the question about their sexual orientation. Gallup's 2012-2017 data had approximately 5 percent "no opinion" responses.

Women are 30 percent more likely than men to identify as LGBTQ (6.4 percent to 4.9 percent), and over 70 percent are more likely to say they are bisexual (4.3 percent to 2.5 percent).

Roughly 13 percent of political liberals, 4.4 percent of moderates and 2.3 percent of conservatives say they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer. Differences are somewhat less pronounced by party identification than by ideology, with 8.8 percent of Democrats, 6.5 percent of independents and 1.7 percent of Republicans identifying as LGBTQ.

In separate data on marriage released Wednesday, Gallup's polling found that 11.4 percent of LGBTQ adults were married to different-sex spouses, compared to 9.6 with same-sex spouses.

An additional 9.2 percent said they were living with a different-sex partner, and 7.1 percent were cohabiting with a same-sex partner. In all, 50.5 percent of LGBTQ adults identified as single and never married.

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