The data presented here offer a wealth of information about the general characteristics of self-identified gay, lesbian, and bisexual adults in the USA while highlighting important commonalities and differences among sexual orientation subgroups. Without recapitulating all of the results, we comment here on some key findings.
To begin, the composition of the sample is noteworthy. With design weights applied to account for aspects of the sampling procedures that might have affected respondents’ likelihood of inclusion in the KN panel, fully half of the participants identified as bisexual, indicating that bisexuals constitute a substantial portion of the self-identified sexual-minority population. In addition, gay men outnumbered lesbians at a ratio of approximately 2.4:1. This finding is consistent with data from other national probability samples (Black et al. 2000
; Laumann et al. 1994
) and suggests that self-identified gay men may outnumber self-identified lesbians in the US adult population. Among self-identified bisexuals, by contrast, the weighted proportions of women and men did not differ significantly. Within genders, the weighted sample included more gay than bisexual men and more bisexual women than lesbians, but the difference was reliable only among the women respondents. Of course, any inferences from these patterns about the composition of the sexual-minority population must be considered tentative until more data are obtained from other probability samples.
Sexual orientation and gender subgroups within the sample differed on key demographic variables, with bisexuals tending to be younger than homosexuals, and bisexual men the least likely to be non-Hispanic White or to have a college degree. Comparisons to the US adult population using contemporaneous Census data suggest that lesbians and bisexuals (but not gay men) may be younger, on average, than the US adult population; that bisexual men (but not lesbians, gay men, or bisexual women) may be less likely to be non-Hispanic White; and that lesbians and gay men (but not bisexuals) may be more highly educated. These patterns are consistent with previous findings from nonprobability samples indicating that lesbians and gay men tend to be highly educated (e.g., Herek et al. 1999
; Rostosky et al. 2009
; Rothblum and Factor 2001
). They are also consistent with past observations that bisexual behavior is more common among African American and Latino men than among non-Hispanic White males (e.g., Millett et al. 2005
; O’Leary et al. 2007
; Rust 2000
Bisexual men and women were not only younger than the US adult population, they were also significantly younger than lesbians and gay men. This age difference might reflect generational differences in patterns of identity labeling: Perhaps younger people are more likely than their older counterparts to view their own sexuality in fluid terms and thus to identify as bisexual rather than exclusively homosexual or heterosexual. Alternatively, it could reflect developmental differences insofar as some younger respondents who currently self-identify as bisexual might later identify as gay or heterosexual (indeed, roughly one fifth of bisexual men and one tenth of bisexual women said they label themselves Gay or Lesbian at least some of the time). These accounts are not mutually exclusive. Younger adults may be more open to a bisexual identity today than was the case a generation ago, and bisexuality may constitute a transitional identity for some individuals who will ultimately define their sexuality in terms of exclusive attraction to men or women. Indeed, the findings of the present study suggest that bisexuals may constitute a more heterogeneous population than gay men and lesbians, one that includes not only individuals who publicly identify as bisexual but also those who privately acknowledge same-sex attractions while currently maintaining a heterosexual relationship, and still others who are in the process of defining their sexuality. It is possible that comparisons of self-identified bisexual men and women according to their self-reported attraction patterns (i.e., mainly attracted to men, mainly attracted to women, equally attracted to both sexes) would yield useful insights in this regard. However, the present sample was not large enough to permit such analyses.
Compared with bisexual men and women, gay men and lesbians were more strongly committed to a minority sexual identity, identified more strongly with a sexual-minority community, were more likely to consider their community membership to be a reflection of themselves, and were generally more open about their sexual orientation. Overall, gay men and lesbians tended to attach greater importance than bisexuals to community involvement and were more likely to engage in such behaviors as attending rallies and demonstrations or donating money to community organizations. Here again, the present data suggest that the population of individuals who label themselves bisexual may be a more diverse group than those who self-identify as lesbian or gay and may include many women and men for whom being bisexual is not a primary basis for a personal identity or community involvement. These patterns may also reflect, in part, bisexuals’ sometimes marginal status in established gay and lesbian communities, along with the relative lack of visible bisexual communities, owing to bisexuality’s recent emergence as a public identity linked to a social movement (Herdt 2001
; Udis-Kessler 1995
Related to this point, substantial minorities of the bisexual respondents said they never (4.6% of bisexual women, 8.1% of bisexual men) or rarely (34.9% and 20.7%, respectively) used Bisexual as a self-descriptor. By contrast, men who indicated they were homosexual overwhelmingly reported using the term Gay to describe themselves at least some of the time. Similarly, about three fourths of homosexual women used Lesbian as a self-label, and roughly the same proportion employed Gay as a self-descriptor. The latter finding is somewhat surprising because Gay has often been assumed to be primarily a male-oriented identity label (e.g., Kulick 2000
Other patterns of self-labeling also warrant comment. The term Queer was used by only a small minority of respondents, as was the case for Dyke among female respondents. Considerably more respondents (more than one third of gay men and lesbians) used Homosexual as a self-descriptor at least some of the time. Notably, gay male and lesbian respondents were much more likely to say they never used Queer as a self-descriptor (58.9% of gay men, 65% of lesbians) than to say they never used Homosexual (32% and 34.1%, respectively). Bisexuals, by contrast, were about equally likely to say they never used either term. Among bisexual men, 71.7% never used Homosexual and 77.9% never used Queer; for bisexual women, the proportions were 88.8% and 87.3%, respectively. Thus, although Queer has sometimes been suggested as an inclusive label for sexual minorities (e.g., Jacobs 1998
), it appears that a majority of US gay, lesbian, and bisexual adults never used it to describe themselves at the time the survey was conducted.
Some recent court cases addressing rights for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people have considered questions related to the origins of sexual orientation and its mutability (e.g., In re Marriage Cases 2008
; Varnum v. Brien 2009
). Moreover, some opponents of equal rights for sexual minorities have asserted that homosexuality represents a willful choice of a sinful way of life (Herman 1997
In this context, it is noteworthy that most respondents in the present study—including bisexual men and women—reported that they experienced little or no choice about their sexual orientation. The question of exactly what is meant by “choice” in this realm warrants further discussion and research (see, for example, Whisman 1996
), but if one’s sexual orientation were experienced as a choice, it seems reasonable to expect that large numbers of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people would report this perception in response to a survey question.
We believe that the responses to this question may also provide a useful insight for interpreting the often observed correlation between heterosexuals’ levels of sexual prejudice and their beliefs about whether homosexuality is a choice (e.g., Haider-Markel and Joslyn 2008
; Hegarty 2002
). If, as the present data indicate, gay, lesbian, and bisexual people experience little or no choice about their sexual orientation, they probably communicate this fact to their heterosexual friends and relatives. Given the consistently high correlations observed between heterosexuals’ attitudes toward sexual minorities and the extent of their personal relationships with nonheterosexual individuals (Herek and Capitanio 1996
; Lewis 2008
; Pettigrew and Tropp 2006
), the correlation that is reliably observed between origin beliefs and attitudes may result at least in part from both variables’ association with personal contact.
Related to this point, the data reveal notable differences in disclosure and outness between gay men and lesbians, on the one hand, and bisexuals, on the other. The parents and siblings of gay men and lesbians are substantially more likely to know about the latter’s sexual orientation than is the case for the families of bisexual men and women. A similar pattern was also observed in most categories of friends, other family, and coworkers: Compared with lesbians and gay men, significantly fewer bisexuals—especially men—reported they were out of the closet to even one member of these groups. Coming out as bisexual may differ in important respects from coming out as a gay or lesbian person (McLean 2007
). Nevertheless, insofar as heterosexuals’ levels of sexual prejudice are reduced by having personal relationships with nonheterosexuals (Herek and Capitanio 1996
; Lewis 2008
; Pettigrew and Tropp 2006
), these patterns could have important implications for societal attitudes toward bisexual men and women.
The data indicate that self-identified gay, lesbian, and bisexual adults tend to be less religious and more politically liberal than the US population. Although most respondents reported that religion or spirituality provides some guidance in their daily lives, the sample overall reported a fairly low level of religious commitment. Slightly more than one fourth stated that they receive “quite a bit” or “a great deal” of guidance from religion in their daily lives, and this proportion increased to approximately 38% when the question was expanded to include spirituality as well as formal religion. By comparison, in the 2004 American National Election Survey (ANES), 35% of US adults reported that religion provides a great deal of guidance in their day-to-day lives, and another 24% said it provides quite a bit of guidance.13
Whereas about one fourth of the present sample reported at least monthly attendance at religious services, a 2008 Pew survey found that 39% of Americans reported at least weekly attendance at religious worship services (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life 2008
The data corroborate previous findings that sexual minorities constitute a politically progressive constituency (e.g., Edelman 1993
; Hertzog 1996
; Schaffner and Senic 2006
). A majority of respondents described themselves as liberal, and the sample was overwhelmingly Democratic in party affiliation and voting patterns. By comparison, 25% of the 2004 ANES respondents said they were liberal, and 32% identified as Democrats, whereas a plurality (about 41%) described themselves as conservative and 29% identified as Republicans.
Consistent with findings from previous research with convenience samples (Peplau and Fingerhut 2007
), sexual-minority women were substantially more likely than sexual-minority men to report that they were currently in a committed relationship. Whereas virtually all coupled gay men and lesbians had a same-sex partner, the vast majority of coupled bisexuals were in a heterosexual relationship. This disproportionate number of different-sex couples among bisexual adults probably has multiple explanations. In part, it may simply reflect the fact that most adults are heterosexual, and thus, bisexuals have many more opportunities to form a different-sex intimate relationship than a same-sex relationship. In addition, same-sex relationships are stigmatized and lack widespread legal recognition in the USA, whereas different-sex relationships enjoy social approval and many tangible benefits (Herek 2006
). These factors may facilitate different-sex relationships among those bisexuals who are attracted to the other sex at least as much as to their own sex (roughly three fourths of the bisexual respondents in the present sample).
Among respondents who were not currently in a committed relationship, relatively few said they would not
want to marry someday. A plurality, however, indicated uncertainty about the desirability of marrying. Among the homosexual respondents currently in a relationship, lesbians were substantially more likely than gay men to say they would be “very likely” or “fairly likely” to marry their current partner if they could legally do so (76% vs 41%). This pattern is consistent with the available data concerning patterns of marriage and registrations of civil unions and domestic partnerships, which reveal that female couples are considerably more likely than male couples to formally register their relationship when the law allows them to do so (Korber and Calvan 2008
; Rothblum et al. 2008
). It is also consistent with the present finding that lesbians are significantly more likely than gay men to live in a household with at least one other adult. Lesbians’ greater tendency to seek legal recognition of their relationships may be explained in part by the fact that they are about four times more likely than gay men to have one or more children or to report that they have children younger than 18 years residing in their home. Seeking legal protections and benefits for children may be an important motivator for marrying (Herek 2006
The data obtained in any survey are subject to possible error due to sampling, telephone noncoverage, and problems with question wording. In addition to these sources of error, we note several important limitations of the present study that should be kept in mind when interpreting the results. Our operationalization of sexual orientation in terms of identity means that the findings reported here should not be generalized to the population of US adults who experience same-sex attractions or have engaged in same-sex sexual behavior but do not identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. The sample was restricted to English-speaking adults in households with a telephone; thus, it is potentially problematic to generalize from these results to non-English speakers, nonadults, and individuals without a telephone.
In addition, it is likely that some lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults in the full KN panel did not report their true sexual orientation in response to the original screening question and thus had no opportunity of being included in the present sample. Insofar as self-administered Internet questionnaires appear to elicit greater disclosure of sensitive and potentially stigmatizing information than telephone and face-to-face interviews (e.g., Kreuter et al. 2008
), such underreporting may be less common in the KN panel than in surveys using other modes of data collection. Without minimizing the possibility of problems created by such nonreporting in the present study, we note that many respondents who had not disclosed their sexual orientation to their family or friends nevertheless reported it in the questionnaire.
Another potential limitation results from the fact that the data are derived from self-reports. As in any survey study, some respondents may have provided inaccurate responses to questions, either intentionally (e.g., because of social desirability concerns) or because of problems with comprehension or recall (Tourangeau et al. 2000
). Yet another potential concern is whether the survey responses obtained from experienced Internet panel members might differ from those of naïve or “fresh” respondents. To date, the minimal research that has addressed this issue suggests that the response patterns of the two groups probably do not differ substantially (Toepoel et al. 2009
). Finally, as with all surveys, the data represent a snapshot of the population at the time the study was fielded. Additional research with comparable probability samples will be needed to develop a more definitive portrait of sexual-minority adults in the USA. Such research will be useful not only in assessing the extent to which the findings of the present study can be reliably replicated but also might permit more detailed analyses of key subgroups within the sexual-minority population. It would be illuminating, for example, to compare lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults in different race and ethnic groups on many of the variables discussed previously. In the present sample, these subgroups are too small for reliable analyses.
Throughout the present article, we have noted the importance of having accurate data about gay, lesbian, and bisexual people for legal and policy debates. Such information will also be highly useful for informing behavioral and social science research on sexual orientation and sexual minorities in a variety of ways. In particular, the present findings highlight the importance for researchers of distinguishing among lesbian, gay, bisexual female, and bisexual male individuals, rather than combining them into an undifferentiated “LGB” group. For example, the data indicate that sexual orientation groups differ in their levels of identity commitment, community involvement, and outness. Future research might profitably examine whether the meanings attached to these and related variables—and, indeed, the very concept of community membership—might differ among sexual orientation subgroups.
Moreover, because these variables may play important roles in moderating the effects of sexual stigma on psychological well-being (Herek and Garnets 2007
; Meyer 2003
), studies of sexual-minority mental health should include separate analyses of bisexuals and homosexuals, as well as of men and women. A similar analytic strategy should be followed in studies of intimate relationships among sexual minorities because, as shown here, sexual orientation and gender groups differ significantly in their relationship patterns. More broadly, the present study demonstrates the need for researchers to conceive of gay men, lesbians, bisexual men, and bisexual women not only as a cultural minority united by the common experience of sexual stigma but also as distinct groups whose members have different experiences, beliefs, and needs.
As society confronts a widening array of policy issues that uniquely affect sexual minorities, accurate scientific information about the lesbian, gay, and bisexual population will continue to be needed by government officials, the courts, and legislative bodies. Social and behavioral researchers working in this area have long recognized the value of data collected through probability sampling methods and have used a variety of creative strategies during the past two decades to obtain such data. In reporting what is perhaps the most extensive description to date of a national probability sample of self-identified lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults in the USA, the present article extends these efforts. We hope it will be useful not only for informing policy but also for generating hypotheses that can be tested in future studies with ever more sophisticated samples.