Can Living in the City Make you Gay?

Cross-posted at Inequality by (Interior) Design

Screen shot 2013-03-05 at 3.20.36 PMGallup recently published results from a new question garnering a nationally representative sample of more than 120,000 Americans: “Do you, personally, identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender?”  The results come out of interviews conducted in 2012 and confirm recent estimates by demographer Gary Gates on the size of the LGBT population in the U.S.  Combining data from a range of surveys, Gates suggested that approximately 3.5% of the adult population in the U.S. identifies as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and an additional 0.3% identifies as transgendered.  Screen shot 2013-03-05 at 3.20.59 PMThe Gallup poll also found that around 3.5% of the U.S. adult population says “yes” when asked whether they “identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.”

These findings are interesting and important for a number of reasons.  One issue that they bring up is simply the issue of actually measuring sexuality.*  It’s harder than you might assume.  For instance, Gallup asks how people identify themselves.  Questions about sexual identification produce some of the lowest percentage of LGBT responses on surveys.  Asking questions about  sexual desires and behaviors produces higher percentages.  Questions about same-sex attraction have found that as much as 11% of the U.S. population can be classified as LGB.  untitledSimilarly, questions concerning same-sex behaviors have produced numbers as high as 8.8% of the U.S. population.  This doesn’t mean that the Gallup findings are unimportant; it means that we need to recognize that sexuality is more dynamic that we might initially assume.

Subsequently, Gallup released a report documenting the relative prevalence of LGBT individuals throughout the U.S.  Simply put, LGBT individuals are not uniformly distributed throughout the country.  Some places have relatively high numbers, while other have lower numbers.  Gallup chose to break this down by state.  The state with the highest proportion is not actually a state at all; it’s a federal district—the District of Columbia (10%).  The state with the lowest proportion of “yes’s” to the question was North Dakota (1.7%).

It’s an interesting commentary on the geography of sexuality.  I’ve decided that the report is less meaningful than it might initially appear.  A break-down by population density within states would be much more interesting.  This is one of the reasons that Washington D.C. (at 10%) appears to be a bit of an outlier in the report.  T0226470202he next closest state is Hawaii, with 5.1%.  D.C. is a city, and cities have more LGBT individuals.  So, it would be more meaningful to compare D.C. with Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta than with Nebraska, Wyoming, and Arkansas.  This is why Edward Laumann, John Gagnon, Robert Michael, and Stuart Michaels (1994) included questions about the “level of urbanization of current and adolescent place of residence” in their survey of sexual practices, identities, and desires (here).

One of the more interesting features of the distribution of same-gender sexuality by type of place is that it helps explain some of the disbelief expressed by members of the gay community in response to recent estimates of the prevalence of homosexuality…  [O]ur data indicate that about 9 percent of eighteen- to forty-nine-year-old men living in the largest cities in the United States currently identify as either homosexual or bisexual; a higher proportion (14 percent) have had male sex partners in the last five years; and an even higher proportion report some level of sexual attraction to other men (about 16 percent). (here: 307)

They’re only talking about men here (and are also not discussing transgendered individuals), but their interest in population density is significant.  The same issue occurs when we visualize states as either “red” or “blue” in elections.  This simple fact disguises the diversity of red and blue spaces within each state.  Red-blue-purple_view_of_countiesPhysicist Mark Newman presents a variety of ways of visualizing election results that illustrate the choices that go into deciding both what is meaningful in the data and how to present it to highlight the meaning.  Thus, just as an example, Newman illustrates the ways that state-level visualizations of election results actually hide a lot of meaningful data that might cause us to think very differently about how people in the U.S. are voting.  Imagine a similar map for proportions of LGBT individuals throughout the U.S.  It makes the state-level analysis seem a lot less meaningful.

Laumann and colleagues came up with two explanations to account for the larger proportion of same-gender sexual practices, interest and identifications among people in larger cities.  The first, they call the migration model.  This is simply that “People interested in sex with people of their own gender move to more congenial social environments” (here: 308).  In a sort of anti-diaspora, the migration model suggests that LGBT individuals may have to migrate to places unknown to find “home.”  This is consistent with a good deal of scholarship, and bears out work like Kath Weston’s “Get Thee to a City.”

The other explanation Laumann, et al. offer they call the elicitation/opportunity model.  Rather than moving to social spaces with larger proportions of LGBT individuals (migration model), this model suggests that there might be something about growing up in these environments that might affect their sexualities.  So, rather than asking whether LGBT people are moving to cities, they’re asking the extent to which cities might play a role in causing people to identify as LGBT.  They measured it by asking about the level of urbanization for both current residence and residence while growing up (something respondents likely had less control over).  untitledThis is consistent in some ways with John D’Emilio’s historicization of the emergence of gay identity in the U.S. as structurally enabled by industrialization.  As men were pulled into increasingly homosocial environments, homosexual behavior was simply more possible.  This is also what might account for the “situational homosexuality” that we see in prisons or when men have gone to war.

Laumann, et al. found that the elicitation/opportunity model had more explanatory power for men than for women.  They suggested that this might imply that “homosexuality among men and women in the United States may be socially organized quite differently” (309).  Perhaps we could learn more about this if we present and analyze Gallup’s new data a bit differently.  The presentation of the data at the level of state is interesting, but I’d be much more interested in seeing the data presented by population density within states.  How about you?

[See also: Comments to the post on Inequality by (Interior) Design were really interesting and deserve more attention.  See the comments to that post here.]


*I’m going to primarily discuss the findings with respect to sexuality.  Gallup grouped transgender responses in with the LGB responses which is unfortunate.  Gallup’s findings also don’t enable us to distinguish between those identifying as lesbian and gay and those identifying as bisexual.

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11 Responses to Can Living in the City Make you Gay?

  1. I’m sorry, but I’ve looked at reports of this study a few weeks back, and it is a bit screwy. Didn’t it intimate that people of color are more likely to self identify as sexual minorities? Really? There’s a few decades of pro-gay writing and research that would not necessarily fully contradict that statement, but make it less believable.

    My gut feeling is that this falls into the same category of the ‘Study’ done back in the 90’s , which was quoted all over the place, but was inherently flawed (it used, as its sample, individuals who subscribed to the glossy OUT magazine…a very specific subsection of the community). There may be some validity in some things, but the more I hear about the sample and collection, the more nervous I get

    • Hi, mysticalsocprof. I suspect that you might be on to something. I have been pointing this out for a little while now, trying to share this information in the hopes that we can create more solidarity; it is just not factual that sexual minorities of color (or non-Western sexual minorities) build open communities in the same manner, even in the larger cities, because there are confounding social variables (e.g. race and ethnicity, social class, etc.), that shape a different social experience of non-heterosexuality, making it more difficult for such individuals to be “out” and therefore claim these kinds of cultural spaces. Tristan does amazing work, however, thanks, Tristan! 🙂

      • Oh, and on a diff topic, I was about to completely throw out (mentally) the elicitation model, because the concept of ‘does the city make you gay’ just seemed silly/crazy to me. However, when I changed my definition of ‘gay’ to ‘out’, then I get it. For individuals who are sexual minorities who are born in urban areas, with more clear (and visible) role models and reference groups where ‘gay’ isn’t linked with ‘negativity’, I think we see individuals feeling more comfortable with the coming out process.

        I think about how so many people say ‘people are coming out earlier’, and I think that is true: for urbanites. I think many rural Americans who are sexual minorities are still waiting until comfort times (like college) to become more self-aware.

  2. TBridges says:

    Hi mysticalsocprof, Thanks for your thoughts on this piece. I agree that the data on people of color being more likely to be members of gender and sexual minorities. It’s a pretty powerful illustration of the racism inherent in the racialized discourse that surrounds “the down low” as Boykin consider it. As far as the elicitation/opportunity hypothesis goes, it is NOT framing sexuality as a choice. The problem is that the debate is often one in which choice is pitted against biology. And in this battle, biology is clearly the favorable discourse. Understanding sexuality as a social construction takes a position that is sort of outside of the “choice vs. biology” debates surrounding sexuality. And this hypothesis is within the social constructivist tradition. Jane Ward wrote a wonderful piece, she calls “No One is Born Gay or Straight” ( that delineates some of these nuances if you’re interested. It is a position that challenges the notion that your sexuality was “always in there just waiting to come out,” but it challenges this notion for gay and straight identified people (and everyone in between and outside). Thanks for your comments.

    • mysticalsocprof says:

      ” I agree that the data on people of color being more likely to be members of gender and sexual minorities. It’s a pretty powerful illustration of the racism inherent in the racialized discourse that surrounds “the down low” as Boykin consider it. ”

      Keith Boykin and JL King might have played some level of ‘dueling banjos’ with the idea of the ‘down low’ phenomena, but I think both of them are making mountains out of molehills. There’s an inherent homophobia that is indeed present in the African American (and Latino, and Asian) community, which prevents many from coming out in the same way that their White counterparts might. How this fleshes itself out, from a socio-cultural point of view, is what both of them have tended to overlook, such as demonstrative feminine behavior among some gay black males, or the number of non-gay identified MSM who will only have sex with transgenders (this is a huge topic here in Baltimore).

      “The problem is that the debate is often one in which choice is pitted against biology.”

      I’d disagree – I think the populace has matured to a three way debate, one that includes the classic ‘nature vs nurture’ idea. So in other words, is it genetic, is it how you were brought up, or is it a choice.

      “Understanding sexuality as a social construction takes a position that is sort of outside of the “choice vs. biology” debates surrounding sexuality.”

      This is why when I teach intro, I teach ‘gender, sex, and sexuality’ as they are completely different. I think the thing that muddles the process is that ‘sex’ as Soc defines it is clearly physiological. Gender is clearly social. Sexuality is, truly, both.

      “Jane Ward wrote a wonderful piece, she calls “No One is Born Gay or Straight” ”

      I read the piece, and while a nice opinion piece, I wasn’t convinced. Her argument was sound, and it made perfect sense. However, to challenge the idea that ‘the science is wrong’ without hard science on the other side….I’m not so sure. I would accept, probably a difference between ‘sexual action’ and ‘orientation’, and the fact that an act does not make you a sexual orientation. I might even accept it _could_ be a choice for some. I’m just not sure…

  3. good morning, mysticalsocprof! Do you think visible (or even public) role models are sufficient in the fulfillment of the ‘coming out’ motif that we find extant from LGBT discourse of the 70’s through the 90’s? I feel there might be more o it than that – even in urbanized areas. Have we arrived in a new era of ‘post-closetism’?

    • In short my answer is ‘no’. I don’t think the relationship is causal; however, I think exposure to identity-friendly reference groups can increase the likelihood of coming out, though it would be difficult to test (either qualitatively or quantitatively). There are indeed more co-factors, but I would say the existence of living, breathing gay people who aren’t being stereotyped via media and are just living their lives can influence coming out.

      Looking at social movement trends, and the concepts that “the younger generation is more x” or “the younger generation is more y”, we see that the generation immediately following a watershed moment (and the 80’s were certainly that) tends to be more liberal, activist, and visible. I most assuredly think that plays a part.

  4. Pingback: Representing LGBT People in Survey Research | my sociology

  5. Eric Swank says:

    Some recent studies investigate how rural areas provide a hostile social climate that pushes sexual minorities to the larger cities. Some of these studies suggest that the rural locales and urban locales are equally bad in several instances.

    Swank, E., Fahs, B., & Frost, D. M. (2013). Region, Social Identities, and Disclosure Practices as Predictors of Heterosexist Discrimination Against Sexual Minorities in the United States. Sociological Inquiry, 83(2), 238-258.

    Preston, D. B., & D’Augelli, A. R. (2012). The Challenges of Being a Rural Gay Man: Coping with Stigma (Vol. 89). Routledge.

    Barton, B. (2010). “Abomination”—Life as a Bible belt gay. Journal of Homosexuality, 57(4), 465-484.

    Wienke, C., & Hill, G. J. (2013). Does Place of Residence Matter? Rural–Urban Differences and the Wellbeing of Gay Men and Lesbians. Journal of homosexuality, 60(9), 1256-1279.

  6. Pingback: Conditionally Accepted | Representing LGBT People in Survey Research

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