The Number of Americans Identifying as LGBT is Growing

March 1, 2021 by Justin Lehmiller

I’ve been studying and writing about sexual orientation and sexual identity for the better part of the last two decades, and one of the most interesting things I’ve seen in that time is a dramatic rise in the number of Americans who identify as LGBT.

When I started working in this area as a graduate student in the early 2000s, the most frequently cited estimates came from the National Health and Social Life Survey (NHSLS). This was the very first nationally representative sex study ever conducted in the United States. The results, originally reported in 1994, revealed that 2.8% of men and 1.4% of women identified as gay or bisexual [1]. It wasn’t common practice at that time to ask about other minority sexual (e.g., queer) and gender identities (e.g., trans), so these numbers aren’t necessarily reflective of the full scope of people who identified as LGBT in the 90s, but they pointed to a fairly low percentage.

This was fairly surprising to a lot of people at the time. After all, in the 1940s and 50s, Alfred Kinsey reported that about 10% of the men he surveyed were predominately or exclusively gay. However, Kinsey’s work wasn’t based on a representative sample of the population, so there were always some questions about how reliable that figure was.

Since the NHSLS, however, several national public opinion polls have emerged that point to higher and steadily increasing figures compared to the 1990s. For example, Gallup has conducted several large surveys of random samples of the U.S. population over the last decade asking people whether they self-identify as LGBT and this is what they’ve found during the years they asked this question:

· In 2012, 3.5% identified as LGBT

· In 2013, 3.6% identified as LGBT

· In 2014, 3.7% identified as LGBT

· In 2015, 3.9% identified as LGBT

· In 2016, 4.1% identified as LGBT

· In 2017, 4.5% identified as LGBT

· In 2020, 5.6% identified as LGBT

As you can see, since 2012, there’s been about a 60% increase in the number of Americans identifying as LGBT, which is a very significant change.

In the 2020 data, Gallup has finally started providing a breakdown of the specific numbers, which reveal that 2.1% of Americans identify as gay or lesbian, 3.1% identify as bisexual, 0.6% identify as transgender, and 0.2% identify with other labels (e.g., queer). Thus, bisexuals make up the single largest contingent of the LGBT community, representing more than half (55%) of all LGBT-identified adults.

However, where the numbers get even more striking is when you look at generational differences in identification. Among Generation Z (persons born between 1997-2002), 15.9% identify as LGBT. For Millennials (those born between 1981-1996), the number is 9.1%. For the oldest Americans (those born before 1946), the corresponding number is just 1.3%. Those born between 1946 and 1980 register between 2-4%.

The pattern for specific identifies looks very similar across generations: all identities are more common among Gen Z compared to older adults. Also, bisexuals make up the lion’s share of LGBT-identified adults among Gen Z and Millennials. Specifically, for those in Gen Z, 72% of LGBT adults say they’re bisexual, compared to 56% for Millennials. Interestingly, however, for all of the older generations (including Gen X, Boomers, and beyond), gay and lesbian adults outnumber bisexuals.

So the overall rise in LGBT identification really seems to be more about a substantial rise in bisexual identification specifically among younger adults, as opposed to a general rise across the board.

Consistent with this idea, results from the General Social Survey comparing data from 2008-2018 found that the number of gay and lesbian adults remained stable over time, while the number of bisexuals tripled—with the rise being driven primarily by younger (not older) adults.

It will be interesting to see what happens going forward. With 1 in 6 young adults today identifying as LGBT, we can probably expect that the overall number of LGBT-identified Americans will rise (after all, today’s young adults will eventually become the older adults of the future).

Also, while we cannot say with certainty what is driving the change in bisexual identification, it’s unlikely to be due to actual shifts in patterns of attraction; rather, the most plausible explanation is that people today (and especially young adults) feel more comfortable acknowledging minority identities and non-heterosexual attractions because they are much less stigmatized than they were in the past. Related to this, there has been a significant decrease in religiosity in the US in recent years. Given that same-sex attraction and behavior is considered sinful in many religions, the trend toward lower religious identification may open the door to acknowledging and identifying with these attractions.

Lastly, I should mention that while the rise in bisexual identification has been greeted with some skepticism on social media, it’s not surprising to me—and I think there’s still a fair amount of room for further growth. For example, as I report in my book Tell Me What You Want, for which I surveyed more than 4,000 Americans about their sexual fantasies, I found that 1 in 4 men and more than half of women reported having had a fantasy about someone of the same sex/gender before. Other studies have yielded similar findings. So if more people start acknowledging these attractions and incorporating them into their sexual identities, we may see the numbers rise even further.

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[1] Laumann, E. O., Gagnon, J., Michael, R., & Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality: Sexual practices in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Image Source: Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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