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Gay Men and Lesbians in the U.S. Military

Estimates from Census 2000

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Document date: September 28, 2004
Released online: September 28, 2004

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).


Executive Summary

Intense policy debates about the compatibility between homosexuality and service in the United States armed forces contrast with limited information about the characteristics of the gay men and lesbians who choose to serve their country through military service. Using data from Census 2000, this research brief begins to remedy this information gap and estimates the size of the gay and lesbian population serving in the military and offers a demographic portrait of this often invisible minority.

Despite a variety of rules designed to keep gay men and lesbians out of military service, 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. However, their patterns of service are not precisely the same as those of other men and women. 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. These patterns hold true for service in the active military, the national guard and reserve, and among veterans.

Estimates suggest that more than 36,000 gay men and lesbians are serving in active duty, representing 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. Other key findings from this research brief:

  • Gay men and lesbians have served in all military eras in the later part of the 20th century. In particular, military service rates for coupled lesbians far exceed rates for other women in every military era of the later 20th century. Nearly one in 10 coupled lesbians age 63-67 report that they served in Korea, compared with less than one in 100 of other women. Even in the most recent service period from 1990 to 2000, service rates among coupled lesbians age 18-27 are more than three times higher than rates among other women.
  • While years of service do not differ much between coupled gay men and other men, lesbians report longer terms of service than other women. Among all women age 18-67 who report military service, nearly 82 percent of coupled lesbians and less than 74 percent of other women report serving more than two years.
  • Coupled gay men who are veterans or report training in the guard or reserve show greater racial and ethnic diversity than other men. Among men who report guard or reserve training, the proportions of coupled gay men who are African American and Latino exceed those of other men. Among female veterans, the pattern is the opposite of that shown with men. Coupled lesbians are more likely to be white than other female veterans and are less likely to be African American.
  • Coupled gay men who report guard or reserve training or who are veterans report annual incomes below that of other men, while coupled lesbians report incomes above that of other women. An exploration of employment status provides some explanation for the income gaps observed. Coupled gay men with guard or reserve training are less likely to be employed full time and more likely to not be in the labor force than other men. Conversely, coupled lesbians who are veterans or report guard or reserve training have substantially higher rates of full-time employment than other women and are less likely to report not being in the labor force.
  • North Dakota, Hawaii, Alaska, Virginia, and Idaho have the largest proportion of veterans among same-sex couples. Men and women in same-sex couples in North Dakota are twice as likely to be a veteran than the national average. Among metropolitan areas, Pensacola, FL, Norfolk, VA, San Diego, CA, Dayton, OH, and Santa Rosa, CA, have the highest rates of veterans among same-sex couples. Pensacola's rate of 34 percent is more than three times the national average.
  • Nearly one million gay and lesbian Americans are veterans. The states with the largest population of gay and lesbian veterans include California, Florida, Texas, New York, and Georgia. Among metropolitan areas, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, San Diego, Chicago, and New York have the highest populations of gay and lesbian veterans.
  • The District of Columbia leads all states with a rate of 10.2 gay or lesbian veterans per one thousand adults, more than double the national average. Per capita rates are also high in Vermont, Hawaii, Maine, and Washington. Santa Rosa, Pensacola, San Francisco, San Diego, and Norfolk are among the metropolitan areas with the highest per capita rates of gay and lesbian veterans.


Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).



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