In recent years, Americans have become increasingly more accepting of adults who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who believe homosexuality should be an accepted part of society has risen to 63% in 2016, up from 51% 10 years earlier.

At the same time, more Americans are identifying as LGBT in surveys. According to Gallup, the percentage of American adults identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender increased to 4.1% in 2016 from 3.5% in 2012. That’s about 10 million adults identifying as LGBT in the United States last year, approximately 1.75 million more compared with 2012.

As the LGBT community has grown, so has its economic impact. And marketers have taken notice. The after-tax spending power of the LGBT community in the United States was US$917 billion in 2015, according to a study by Witeck Communications. That amount could exceed US$1 trillion by 2020 — rivaling, and in some instances exceeding, the buying power of other American minority groups.

Getting information about the LGBT population helps both that particular community and advertisers.
Getting information about the LGBT population helps both that particular community and advertisers.

As a result, our clients have been asking for more information about the LGBT communities in their local markets. Nielsen Scarborough, being a local-market survey, is uniquely positioned to collect this information, but we faced some challenges. Even with greater acceptance of the LGBT community and more American adults identifying as LGBT, sexual orientation is still an uncomfortable topic for some survey respondents.

The introduction of our new methodology — eFirst — provided an excellent opportunity for us to test a sexual orientation question. I discussed eFirst in detail in my December 13, 2016, blog post. The eFirst methodology utilises online and mailed surveys instead of telephone interviews. We began implementing eFirst in our syndicated studies starting in 2014. Today, we measure 19 markets using the eFirst methodology.

Because completing a survey online or on paper is a less intimate and personal experience compared with answering questions asked by a live interviewer over the telephone, we decided the sexual orientation question was better suited to the eFirst environment.

The question reads: Select which of the following best represents how you think of yourself. The response choices are:

  • Straight or heterosexual, that is, not gay or lesbian.
  • Gay or lesbian.
  • Bisexual.
  • Something else.
  • Unsure.
  • Do not wish to answer.

Not surprisingly, the response choice that received the largest response is “straight or heterosexual,” averaging 88.6% of total adults across the 19 markets. But the response item receiving the second most responses is “do not wish to answer,” averaging 7.6% of total adults across the 19 markets. This indicates some respondents are not comfortable answering questions about their sexual orientation.

But respondents are not comfortable answering a number of personal questions. By comparison, the average “no answer” rate for the household income question is about 10%. So, we are encouraged by the number of respondents who chose to identify their sexual orientation.

Across the 19 markets, an average of 3.2% of adults identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, ranging from a high of 4.2% in Baltimore, Maryland, and Richmond, Virginia, to a low of 2.2% in Minneapolis, Minnesota. That represents almost 905,000 adults across the 19 markets.

While individual market in-tab for gay, lesbian, and bisexual adults is not yet robust enough for extensive analysis on a local-market level, the 19-market aggregate yields a solid sample base upon which to conduct in-depth analysis of this group.

Clearly, we have much to learn about the LGBT community and how to best represent it in surveys. As its acceptance and influence grows, so will interest from marketers wanting to communicate with this valuable audience.

Just as we have laboured to accurately represent ethnic and racial minority populations in our surveys, we need to do a better job representing the LGBT community. The LGBT community — and our clients — deserve no less.