From a new survey on sexuality in the United States, two conclusions can be drawn.
One: San Francisco is still the gayest city in America.
And two: Everywhere else is tied for second place.
OK, the latter is not precisely true. But it’s pretty darned close, and it serves as a critical wake-up call for those who think they know how sexual orientation works and are mistaken.
It is often thought that our country’s demographics are segregated by geography—that different regions are populated by different types of people. Sometimes this assumption is true. However, here is an instance in which it could not be more false, and it is far past time for us to acknowledge it loud and clear.
The new study is from Gallup, which sought to measure the percentage of self-identified gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the United States. To no one’s surprise, the region in and around San Francisco came in first, with 6.2 percent of its residents falling under the LGBT umbrella. Portland, Ore., was second with 5.4 percent, followed by Austin, New Orleans and Seattle to round out the top five. (My hometown of Boston was sixth.)
Meanwhile, the metro area of Birmingham, Ala., boasted the lowest proportion of publicly LGBT people, with 2.6 percent, followed by Pittsburgh, Memphis, San Jose and Raleigh, N.C.
Viewing the complete results of Gallup’s poll, one could conceivably devise any number of theories about America’s gay, bisexual and transgender population and how it is distributed from one coast to the other.
My own takeaway is as follows: Gay people are everywhere, and in almost equal amounts. Whereas black people are disproportionately concentrated in the Deep South, and Jews are most plentiful in New York and Southern Florida, sexual orientation does not discriminate based on geography. A baby born today has the same probability of being gay—or straight or bisexual—no matter where in the United States he or she is born, and Gallup has just proved it.
At this point, you would be right to cast a skeptical eye on such a claim, since the numbers I have just quoted would seem to suggest the opposite. If the Bay Area has nearly 2.5 times as many self-identified LGBT folks as Birmingham, shouldn’t we assume that sexuality is, in fact, a byproduct of one’s environment?
No, we shouldn’t, and the key is in the term “self-identified.”
You’ll note that Gallup here has made absolutely no attempt to calculate the actual number of gay people who live in different areas of the United States. In fact, it would be nearly impossible to do this with any accuracy, since there are so many gays and lesbians who prefer to keep their sexual identity a secret—not least from poll takers, who are duty-bound to take respondents at their word.
So long as a significant proportion of the LGBT contingent remains in the closet—a group whose size, by definition, we can never know for sure—any answer to the question, “How many gay people are there?” will remain elusive.
Our best available option, then, is to take the limited information we have and engage in a bit of learned conjecture.
To wit: Gallup informs us that, percentage-wise, the area around Portland, Ore., contains roughly twice as many openly LGBT people as Birmingham. Now tell me something: Knowing what we know about both places, is a closeted gay person living in Birmingham equally likely to come out as is a closeted gay person living in Portland?
(Hint: That was mostly a rhetorical question.)
Indeed, why would any gay person in Birmingham come out if they could possibly avoid it? The state of Alabama has certainly made the notion of living openly as a gay person as unappealing as possible. Last month, for instance, when a federal judge ordered the state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the Alabama Supreme Court immediately overruled that decision, rendering some probate judges so flustered that they stopped issuing marriage licenses to anybody.
That, just for starters, is the toxic atmosphere that a gay person faces in the Deep South, a region where public support for gay equality lags far behind the country as a whole—let alone a place like Portland, which, by contrast, has held its annual Pride Festival every year since 1994 and which elected an openly gay mayor in 2008.
So of course there are twice as many openly gay people in Portland as in Birmingham: The latter gives its residents every reason in the world to remain in the closet, while the former provides an environment as safe and as welcoming as anywhere in the country.
As such, when we learn that 2.6 percent of Birmingham is openly gay, we can only wonder about the untold scores of Birminghamians who are in the closet and, for reasons of self-preservation, have no immediate plans to slip out—men and women who, had they grown up in a place like Portland, likely would have publicly embraced their true selves years ago.
Again, we have no meaningful way to ascertain precisely how many of these poor people there are, but I would be amazed if the number isn’t substantial.
My inkling is that there are just as many members of the LGBT community growing up in Dixie as there are in the Mid-Atlantic and the Pacific Coast. That if you factored in every municipality’s down-low gays with its out-and-proud gays, the numbers would be roughly equal from one town to the next.
If you insist on more concrete evidence for this hypothesis, you need only look slightly deeper into Gallup’s own data.
Note, for instance, how No. 11 on Gallup’s list, Louisville, Ky., is 4.5 percent openly gay, while No. 43, Milwaukee, Wis., is 3.5 percent openly gay. As it happens, the survey’s margin of error is +/- 1 percent. That means that two-thirds of the entire sample—and, by extension, two-thirds of the country—is in a statistical tie on this metric. And that’s before any of my fancy sociological theories come into play.
Long story short (too late?), there is no credible argument that being born in a certain place makes you more or less likely to be gay. Period, full stop.
The reason this matters—the reason we must recognize that human sexuality knows no geographical boundaries—is that it serves to counter the idea—implicit in so much of our legislation and rhetoric—that homosexuality can somehow be contained, if not fully stamped out.
While it has been left to other, more authoritarian countries to attempt to literally eradicate would-be sexual deviants—namely, by making their bedroom activities punishable by death—American anti-gay lawmakers are similarly obsessed with the notion that gayness can be made to go away—in this case, by nudging it out of places where it isn’t welcome, such as Alabama, and into modern-day Sodoms and Gomorrahs like Boston and Seattle, which will just have to deal with the hellfire that will inevitably follow.
And this would be fine—an illustration of the wonders of federalism in a heterogeneous society—if homosexuality only existed in blue states, or if every gay person had the ability to pack up and move upon realizing who they really are.
But, alas, that’s just not how it works.
Gay people are everywhere, as are the bisexual and the transgendered. You can try as hard as you can to push them out of places like Alabama, but they will just keep on being born. So all you’ve really done, then, is made your state a hotbed of hostility and ignorance toward a group of people who are never going away. People who, sooner or later, may decide that being targeted and discriminated against for the crime of existing isn’t quite as much fun as it sounds, and will seek other accommodations.
It is a fundamental law of human nature that people will allow themselves to be unjustly victimized for only so long before insisting that their basic dignity be respected. The police department of Ferguson, Mo., learned this the hard way with respect to black people. Is it too much to ask that the residual injustices toward gays be resolved with a little less violence and drama?
We had better hope not. We can’t all move to San Francisco.