Saturday, February 16, 2013

By the numbers

I’m fascinated by statistics, especially demographic data. They provide a look at a population that the stories in history or contemporary journalism can’t provide by themselves. Sometimes, though, such data is problematic.

Whenever people start talking about the percentage of people in the USA who are LGBT, it is often to serve a political agenda, and seldom based on reliable information. That's because there are problems with the data.

The first problem is getting respondents to answer pollsters’ questions about their sexual orientation honestly. There are plenty of places where it’s dangerous to be publicly identified as LGBT, and that simple reality gives LGBT people a strong incentive to lie to strangers on the phone. This can also be true for census responses, where such data is collected. Worse, it’s almost impossible to correct for people lying about their sexual orientation.

So, polls determining the number of LGBT people always undercount our actual numbers. If you add in people who self-identify as heterosexual but who have same-sex sexual experiences, the numbers get even bigger.

The Gallup organisation has released the results of a nationwide poll that asked, “Do you, personally, identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender?” They found:
The percentage of U.S. adults who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) ranges from 1.7% in North Dakota to 5.1% in Hawaii and 10% in the District of Columbia, according to Gallup surveys conducted from June-December 2012. Residents in the District of Columbia were most likely to identify as LGBT (10%). Among states, the highest percentage was in Hawaii (5.1%) and the lowest in North Dakota (1.7%), but all states are within two percentage points of the nationwide average of 3.5%.
That 3.5% figure is interesting because nearly two years ago the Williams Institute released a report that reported the same percentage. The radical right anti-gay industry immediately and dishonestly seized on a sub-set of the data to try and imply that LGBT people made up no more than 1.7% of the US population. In other words, they lied to advance their political agenda (nothing unusual about their behaviour, of course—lying is their main tactic). The anti-gay industry will, no doubt, find something about this poll to lie about, too, but here in the reality-based world, it’s significant that the overall estimated percentage of LGBT people is fairly consistent.

Also interesting is that the District of Columbia has the largest percentage of LGBT people. Last month, United Van Lines released their 36th annual migration study, indicating the US states most people were moving to and from. Again, the District of Columbia topped the list of places people were moving to. Coincidence? Well, yes, actually, but as Gallup noted, “States with high LGBT percentages tend to be more liberal and have more supportive LGBT legal climates,” and DC certainly has that, so in that sense, it’s not a surprise that people would want to move there, LGBT or not.

These numbers are interesting, even if they do under-report our actual numbers. However, they’re irrelevant when it comes to our civil and human rights. As I wrote in that post two years ago that I linked to above:
We are entitled to be treated as full and equal citizens BECAUSE WE ARE, not because of how many of us there are. We are entitled to human rights because we are human beings, not because of what we do or don’t do sexually with whom. This is about equal rights and equal protection under law, not about duelling statisticians.
That’s still true, of course, and even the bigots in the anti-gay industry know that.

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