Counting the gays

Dr. Gary Gates & his team at the Williams Institute have started releasing analyses of the 2010 Census results for same-sex couples.

Let’s look at the summary for Michigan first.

Sadly, it’s is ranked 43rd among all the states (plus DC) for number of same-sex couples per 1000 households.  Washington, DC is first, Vermont second; the Dakotas 49th and 50th. The Great Lakes region & the Upper Midwest in general don’t do so hot on this measure;  apparently the gays don’t much fancy living here.  An alternate explanation is that, for whatever reason, gays are less likely to live together in the same household here.

On a county level, you get the highest densities of same-sex couples per 1000 households in the Tree Town area (Washtenaw County) and in Ingham County, another place I used to live.  However, when you look at this measure at the municipal level, you find that, as expected, the gays are crowded into southeast Oakland County along Woodward between 8 and 13 Mile.

Here’s what it looks like at the census tract level:

But of course it’s the boys we really care about:

Our mid-sized cities are gayer than Detroit by this measure:

Lansing, Land of Lesbians is #19, Ann Arbor at #23.

If you haven’t already figured it out, this is a lousy way to measure how gay an area is.  Consider the national map:

The proportion of same-sex couples matters a lot less than the absolute numbers.  Which sounds like a better place to find other gays — 8 gay couples in a county with 1,000 households, or 500 gay couples in a county with 100,000 households?  In the New York Times story on the Williams Institute data,  both interviewees for and commentators on the story were rightfully cynical about this measure;  it is intuitive that you just can not compare a large city like San Francisco to a tiny one like Pleasant Ridge.   Nor does it make sense to use the incorporated place as your level of analysis, as opposed to the metropolitan area.  I am not sure why the Williams Institute places such emphasis on this peculiar measure.

To his credit, Gates acknowledges that the Census data is just not cutting it.  As he explains in an op-ed for the Washington Post, we need to find more refined metrics:

I’ve attended dozens of meetings with representatives from federal statistical agencies to ask them why they are not counting the LGBT population. They tell me that they worry about survey respondents refusing to answer such questions or, even worse, terminating the survey. They also wonder exactly what questions to ask…

The Ford Foundation recently funded a five-year study in which scholars… concluded that concerns about non-response or survey termination are unfounded. Respondents decline to answer questions about their income much more often than they refuse to provide information about their sexual orientation or gender identity.

As to concerns about what we mean by LGBT, there is no precise definition. Instead, the scholars came to a consensus on a set of questions that measure different aspects of sexual orientation… Not every survey must ask questions about every dimension of sexual orientation and gender identity, but rather they should consider what dimensions make sense to measure, given the purpose of the survey.

A survey designed to measure workplace discrimination, for instance, may focus more on those who publicly identify as LGBT, since it can be difficult to make a case that you are being discriminated against because of your sexual orientation or gender identity unless you’ve been open about it… A survey of younger people might want to focus more on sexual attraction, since many young people have not had any sexual experiences and are not yet comfortable with specific labels of their sexual or gender identity.

In fact, the number of people who self-identify as LGBT can and will differ from the number who say they have same-sex sexual experiences and the number who acknowledge same-sex attractions. Differences in these estimates do not mean we can’t measure the LGBT population with accuracy. Rather, they demonstrate that sexual orientation and gender identity are complex concepts worthy of further study.

If you’re looking for further reading on this topic, our local demographer/ally, Kurt Metzger,  recently produced a nice op-ed on how our state’s policies are lagging behind its reality.

5 responses to “Counting the gays

  1. So, is Isle Royale some sort of secret gay vacation spot? Because that’s what those maps are making me think.

  2. ha I know, kind of reinforces my point

  3. It looks like Keweenaw County has just 998 households. So that means there are at least 4 gay households there.

  4. I think it’s interesting that they use cohabitating same-sex couples as a measure of gayness. And by “interesting” I mean “that is a very weird measure of things.”

  5. Pingback: Updated Williams Institute data | Motown To Tree Town

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