Today's Guest Pollster article comes from David W. Moore, a senior fellow with the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. He is a former vice president and senior editor with the Gallup Poll, where he worked for 13 years, and is the founder and former director of the UNH Survey Center. He manages the blogsite, Skeptical Pollster.com.
The new Hunter College poll of lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) Americans provides important insights into the lives of this difficult-to-reach population. The poll is an excellent example of what polls can do best - reveal how people view their own experiences, thus providing history with important information on how people lived and thought at any given point of time. The forthcoming presentation1 by the authors should provide additional information about the study.
One of the intriguing findings of the study is the percentage of people who identify as LGBs. The prevalence rate, 2.9 percent, is in line with other studies over the past couple of decades, which suggest that somewhere under five percent of Americans report they are homosexual. A decade ago, NORC's Tom Smith reported that "a series of recent national studies indicate that only about 2-3 percent of sexually active men and 1-2 percent of sexually active women are currently homosexual."2 The Hunter College poll differs somewhat from these numbers, suggesting that the percentage of men and women identifying as LGBs is about equal - though half the women, and only a third of the men say they are bisexual.
It's important to recognize that these figures are lower-bounded estimates, and that the actual percentage of Americans who are LGBs is probably higher than what the polls can measure. While public acceptance of LGBs is higher now than it was, say, a couple of decades ago, there is still considerable public disapprobation of homosexual behavior. Such an environment cannot help but deter many LGBs from admitting their true sexual orientation.
In this context, it is noteworthy that the percentage of people willing to admit they are LGBs correlates with the political environment in which they live. The Hunter College poll shows that among people living in "strong Democratic states" (where John Kerry beat George W. Bush by five percentage points or more), the number of LGBs is about 3.6 percent; in swing states, it's about 3.2 percent; and in strong Republican states (where Bush won by five percentage points or more), it's about 2.0 percent.3 These differences appear to be statistically significant, though the authors could provide statistical tests to verify the observation.
If it is true that the percentages vary by political environment, there are at least two explanations. One is that LGBs move to states that are generally more accepting of homosexuals. The other is that LGBs are simply more willing to admit their sexual orientation when they live in a more favorable environment. One test would be to compare the figures by age by political environment - with the hypothesis that older LGBs might be more likely to move to friendly environments, while younger LGBs would not yet have had the time to do so. Thus, the correlation between political environment and willingness to admit that one is an LGB would be higher among older than younger people. If the rates are similar, it rules out the notion that the correlation is due to LGBs moving to a more friendly environment, and suggests instead that it is the environment itself that influences whether LGBs are willing to admit their sexual preferences.
Whatever the results, the poll itself deserves careful consideration of all of its findings. The methodology appears to be rigorous, while the findings provide innovative insights into the personal experiences and political orientation of LGBs.
1 Wednesday, June 18, 2008 at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, 208, West 13th Street, New York City.
2 Tom W. Smith, "American Sexual Behavior: Trends, Socio-Demographic Differences, and Risk Behavior," GSS Topical Report No. 25, National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago, updated December, 1998, p. 7.
3 These percentages are my recalculation of figures provided in the report in Table 2. The authors should be able to provide more precise calculations.