urban institute nonprofit social and economic policy research

Gay and Lesbian Demographics

gay_marriage_handsA Research Focus of the Urban Institute

Family structure, both conventional and unconventional, is one of the many issues explored by the Center on Labor, Human Services, & Population. Researchers delve into issues on same-sex marriage, Census 2000's method of counting gay men and lesbians, the link between social tolerance and a city's high-tech industry success, and more.

About the Research

Behind the debate regarding marriage rights for gay couples lie straight facts. Census 2000 showed us that same-sex couples live in 99 percent of all U.S. counties. They live—and mostly likely vote—in nearly every congressional district. Information from Census further allows us to analyze understudied subsets of the gay and lesbian population, such as seniors, couples with children, and racial and ethnic minorities. For instance, 96 percent of all U.S. counties have at least one same-sex couple with children under 18; yet only seven states and the District of Columbia have laws supporting gay and lesbian couple adoption. We observe trends in same-sex families, identify workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, examine economic outlooks for gay and lesbian seniors, and explore the fact that enlisted gay men and lesbians defend this country.

Recent Findings

More than 36,000 gay men and lesbians actively serve in the military.

Even though the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy does not permit lesbians and gay men to serve openly, census data make clear that they are actively serving in the armed forces, in guard and reserve units, and have served in the military throughout the later part of the 20th century. Estimates suggest that gay men and lesbians represent 2.5 percent of active duty personnel. When the guard and reserve are included, nearly 65,000 men and women in uniform are likely gay or lesbian, accounting for 2.8 percent of military personnel.

In general, coupled gay men are less likely to report military service than other men, while coupled lesbians are more likely than other women to serve. Service rates in the last decade of the 20th century among coupled lesbians age 18–27 were more than three times higher than rates among other women.

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Lack of a marriage license may cost tens of thousands of dollars—and the loss of a home—when a partner dies.

In more than one in 10 same-sex couples, one partner is 65 years old or older. Census 2000 shows us that 97 percent of U.S. counties have a senior in a same-sex partnership. The greatest numbers of same-sex senior couples live in California, New York, and Florida. Illinois and Arizona also have significant numbers. Prevalence aside, the aging of the gay, lesbian, and bisexual community is not particularly golden for many. These couples cannot be recognized as legally married, so a surviving partner loses financial ground. Survivors are denied the Social Security benefits that married couples get, face heavy taxes on any retirement plan, and get charged an estate tax if they inherit a home, even if it was jointly owned.

Same-sex senior couples are more likely to still be making mortgage payments when one dies. Combined with other financial losses, this higher debt burden puts surviving partners at greater risk of losing their home. Even before a partner's death, these seniors risk losing their home when an elderly partner enters a nursing home. Federal Medicaid law permits a married spouse to remain in the couple's home, but not an unmarried partner.

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Workplace protection is linked to higher earnings for gay men.

Median earnings for gay men are $3,000 below the income of men with female partners, though the gap shrinks in states with workplace-protection laws and increases where none exist. Among less-educated men in the 11 states that protect workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation, earnings of partnered gay men come closer to earnings of men with female partners.

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Attracting same-sex couples can be good for business, communities, and the high-tech economy.

Hundreds of American towns bear gay markings in thriving urban businesses, suburban cultural offerings, and revitalized holiday venues. Increasingly, cities are trying to attract gay and lesbian residents to enliven the culture by diversifying it. Cities have also figured out that gay people are often more willing than others to move into and devote income to improving distressed neighborhoods, which attracts other people and sets a cycle of improvement in motion.

Diversity enhances innovation and creativity by allowing different perspectives and ideas to be heard. The creative and innovative people driving the tech economy seek places high in cultural and racial/ethnic diversity–and so do gays and lesbians. It is likely not a coincidence that high-tech centers like metropolitan San Francisco, Washington, Austin, Atlanta, and San Diego also have large and visible gay populations.

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How are gay men and lesbians counted in Census 2000?

Since the U.S. Census Bureau asks no questions about sexual orientation or behavior, how do researchers identify gay men and lesbians? The Census form does ask about relationships between individuals in the household, including husband/wife, son/daughter, brother/sister, and so on. For the first time in 1990, the Census Bureau also added an "unmarried partner" category. If the person filling out the census form designates another adult of the same sex as his or her unmarried partner, the couple is counted as a same-sex unmarried partner household. Research strongly indicates that the same-sex unmarried pair identified by the census are, in fact, gay and lesbian couples.

The way data is edited once it's collected changed in Census 2000 too. In 1990, when another adult of the same sex as the householder was identified as a "husband/wife," the couple was counted as a heterosexual married couple. In 2000, the "husband/wife" was counted as an "unmarried partner." Counting these same-sex married couples along with the same-sex unmarried partners helps explain the dramatic upsurge in the same-sex couple counts between 1990 and 2000. An even bigger factor may be the growing willingness of gay men and lesbians to identify themselves as partners.

Many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals never show up in the Census data. The most significant omission is of single gay men and lesbians since, survey data show, only about a quarter of gay men and two-fifths of lesbians are in couples at any given time.

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