Home to the Urban InstituteThe Gay & Lesbian Atlas

Chapter One


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Why Study Gay and Lesbian Location Patterns?

While the words "we are everywhere" can be heard frequently at gay and lesbian political events, Census 2000 provided the first empirical confirmation of this rallying cry. The finding that same-sex unmarried partners were present in 99.3 percent of all counties in the United States (Smith and Gates 2001) was one of the most commonly reported statistics from the release of Census 2000. News that gay and lesbian couples live in nearly every community may not seem all that startling. Yet the census data solidify what was only conjecture among some people. As fact, these data can be used to open minds. When informed that 55 same-sex couples were counted in his hometown in Mississippi, Republican State Sen. Dean Kirby told The Clarion-Leader (Jackson, MS), "Surely you jest. Wow! I have never met any of these people."1

These census data can open eyes, too. They can dispel stereotypes and present a more accurate picture of gay and lesbian families. Lobbyists from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest national gay and lesbian political organization, and from other gay/lesbian civil rights groups now regularly use this information to convince congressional representatives that gay and lesbian people live, and most likely vote, in their districts. Elizabeth Birch, then HRC Executive Director, cited the census data in her 2003 testimony before a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee during hearings on a possible constitutional amendment to ban civil marriage for same-sex couples.2

Of course, the importance of understanding the location patterns of gay and lesbian couples goes beyond simply acknowledging that they exist. It goes beyond recognition of their political clout. Gay and lesbian service providers, activist organizations, and an increasing number of companies seeking to market to the gay and lesbian population can all benefit from a more precise understanding of the location patterns and demographic characteristics of this population.

Political Awareness

Issues such as civil marriage for same-sex couples, gay and lesbian adoption rights, domestic partner benefits, and hate crime and antidiscrimination statutes (that include sexual orientation) constitute a broad public policy agenda that could be influenced by these new census data. The same-sex marriage issue in particular looms large in the 2004 presidential campaign, as some conservative groups consider banning such contractual unions a higher immediate priority than abortion restrictions.3 These high-profile debates are marked by an astonishing lack of empirical data. Until now, it was difficult to assess the potential impacts of these policies because so little was known about the gay and lesbian population. That's about to change.

In addition to enlightening policy debate, hard facts on the gay and lesbian population illustrate that it is a sizable voting block and an increasingly visible constituency in many American communities. In the California gubernatorial recall election of 2003, for example, 4 percent of voters identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, a figure similar to national polls in the 1996 and 2000 presidential elections.4 It is probably no coincidence that 8 of the 10 states with the highest concentrations of gay and lesbian couples voted for Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election, and that 14 of the 20 states (and the District of Columbia) with higher-than-average gay and lesbian concentrations also supported the Democratic candidate.

Census 2000 makes it possible to document the extent to which states with high proportions of same-sex couples generally have more favorable laws regarding gay men and lesbians. The data can confirm that 9 of the 12 states that have not passed a "Defense of Marriage Act" restricting marriage to only heterosexual couples are among the 20 states with a gay and lesbian couple concentration above the U.S. average. Similarly, 11 of the 14 states with laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation are among these same 20 states. Statistically, states with more gay/lesbian-supportive laws have higher concentrations of gay and lesbian couples.5

The demographic and geographic analyses of the gay and lesbian community contained in this book offer critical information to inform public policy debates and offer politicians a glimpse at the characteristics of an increasingly important voting constituency.

Providing Public Health Services

Using census data to examine the spatial distribution of gay and lesbian couples can offer important insight into the location patterns of the gay and lesbian community as a whole. The ability to reach this population in certain areas may be critical for public-health workers. While many organizations that provide services or resources to the gay and lesbian community have a good sense of where this population lives in their service area, such estimations often neglect important subgroups of gays and lesbians such as racial and ethnic minorities or people who do not openly identify as gay or lesbian. Evidence of where these populations concentrate could help in reaching these often hard-to-serve groups.

The public health field already has discovered the value of census data. Information on same-sex male couples counted in the 1990 Census was incorporated into the design of the Urban Men's Health Study (Catania et al. 2001), an important survey that provides critical information about HIV risk factors and behaviors among men who have sex with men (MSM). Spencer Lieb, an epidemiologist at the Florida Department of Health, helped with the plan to target prevention and treatment services to HIV-positive MSM in Florida. Lieb compared the location patterns of reported MSM living with HIV/AIDS and census-identified same-sex male unmarried partners within Florida counties and found striking similarities in the location patterns of these two groups, including when the sample was split based on racial/ethnic identification (Lieb et al. 2003).

Lieb's finding has two important ramifications. First, it confirms the ability to reach hard-to-locate populations more efficiently. Many jurisdictions lack good data on the HIV status of residents and often rely on AIDS-incidence data for targeting prevention and treatment programs. Individuals can be infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, for many years before exhibiting any symptoms of the disease necessary for an AIDS diagnosis. Data that count only documented AIDS cases provide potentially decades-old pictures of where any epidemic "hotspots" might exist. The high correlation between HIV-positive MSM location and census same-sex male unmarried partners suggests that census data offer a reasonable and more current proxy for assessing the location clusters of MSM when data on HIV infection are unavailable or viewed as too confidential for release.

The high correlation discovered by Lieb also provides important evidence of the validity of census data in actually representing the location patterns of all gay men. Since the HIV-positive MSM population includes both single and coupled gay men, its strong association with census male couples offers evidence that the broad location patterns of gay-male couples may not differ substantially from the location patterns of gay men in general. This is important because census data only identify gay men who are part of a same-sex couple. The correlation between location patterns of gay men and gay-male couples bodes well for any organization attempting to target resources or services, public health-related or otherwise, toward the gay and lesbian population.


An increasing number of companies view the gay and lesbian community, with a buying power estimated at $485 billion (Brown, Washton, and Witeck 2002), as an important component of their overall marketing strategy. While these marketing efforts are not without controversy, they have become increasingly more common, even in "mainstream" media. The success of such television shows as NBC's "Will and Grace" and Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" demonstrates that gay and lesbian subject matter is increasingly acceptable to the general population.

While not a panacea in the gay and lesbian struggle for acceptance, marketing efforts designed to reach this population do offer gay men and lesbians a sense of being included in the broader society. The extent that some of this marketing goes beyond advertising in gay-themed magazines or newspapers into wide-ranging media outlets also demonstrates that gay and lesbian individuals are an important component in American society.

As CEO of Witeck-Combs Communications, Inc., Robert Witeck works with a wide range of companies hoping to target their products to the gay and lesbian population. Witeck states,

Across America, gays and lesbians hold jobs, own businesses, pay taxes, take vacations, invest in stocks, raise children, and spend money on goods and services. Like everyone else, they save for their education, their retirement, and their pleasure travel too. It's not surprising that corporations have begun to affirm their respect and inclusion of gays and lesbians by adopting fair-minded workplace employment practices—a trend now favored by a majority of the Fortune 500. And by translating this corporate citizenship into marketing strategies, businesses also express how much they value their gay customers and shareholders.6

Understanding where to best target gay and lesbian-specific marketing campaigns is critical to these companies, and census data offer a mechanism to focus comprehensive marketing campaigns with a new precision.

Community and Economic Development

One of the most intriguing uses for census data on gay and lesbian location comes from Richard Florida, best-selling author of The Rise of the Creative Class (Florida 2002), who argues that creativity constitutes the central driving force for success in today's economy. Florida posits that regions must attract and retain creative and innovative people to secure a promising economic future, and will thrive when individuals with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints can easily interact. Because a concentration of gay/lesbian couples signals diversity, knowing where they live can prove useful to those communities.

This link between diversity and economic success was first proposed in a Brookings Institution paper (Florida and Gates 2002) exploring the relationship between technology and tolerance. The authors demonstrate a strong link between a thriving tech-oriented economy and diverse populations, including those with high concentrations of gay couples. The presence of a large gay and lesbian population serves as one signal of a high level of community diversity, tolerance, and acceptance for people who are different. This tolerance, the authors find, creates low barriers to entry for all people into the labor market and enables firms to draw from the widest possible mix of creative and innovative employees.

Corporate America and, to a lesser degree, governments are increasingly including gay and lesbian-supportive policies as a way to encourage diversity. Ninety-two Fortune 100 companies ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in their organizations. Further, nearly two-thirds of them offer health benefits to same-sex partners. Governments appear a bit slower to catch on to this trend, as only 14 states and the District of Columbia prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in both public and private employment (an additional 11 states prohibit such discrimination in public employment only).7

Regional diversity (reflected in part by the visible presence of gay men and lesbians) does not go unnoticed by companies seeking to locate in communities where creative and innovative individuals can flourish. Bill Bishop, reporting on Florida's work for the Austin American-Statesman, put it well. He wrote, "Where gay households abound, geeks follow."8 These geeks can be the engine of success for many regions and corporations responding to their presence. Richard Florida often cites Carley Fiorina, CEO at Hewlett Packard, telling America's governors, "Keep your tax incentives and the like, just give us talent. We will go where the highly skilled people are."9

Social Science Research

Census data can reach perhaps their greatest potential in the social science research community. A demographic exploration of gay and lesbian families provides important insights into broader social science theory about family dynamics and economic decisionmaking.

Social science theories on the family acknowledge the importance of fertility and child-rearing behavior on a variety of family decisions. However, most social scientists agree that the decision to have children is part of a cluster of simultaneous decisions including marriage, employment, and location. Lesbians, and even more so gay men, are less likely to have children than other couples and are not able to legally marry in the United States. While no definitive understanding exists of the mechanisms of sexual orientation and gay/lesbian identification, it is commonly understood in the research community that sexual orientation is not chosen. As such, it can be thought of as a randomly occurring event in the population. If this is the case, then the lower probability of child rearing among gay men and lesbians or their inability to marry does not result so much from a constellation of family-related choices, but rather from a random event unrelated to these choices. Thus, gay men and lesbians provide an intriguing social science test case to study how family decisionmaking processes differ when the probability of having children is reduced or when the beneficial effects of marriage are not available.

This case is articulated clearly in a paper by Dan Black, Gary Gates, Seth Sanders, and Lowell Taylor entitled Why Do Gay Men Live in San Francisco? (2002). The authors assert that in the absence of children, individuals and households will have higher disposable income and smaller housing requirements. This means that childless households can devote more income toward the purchase of "amenities" and will locate disproportionately in expensive, amenity-rich regions. Because for gay men the childrearing decision can be thought of as exogenous, or unrelated, to the location decision (since the "random" event of being gay lowers the likelihood of child rearing), they provide the best group from which to test this theory. The results support the theory, finding that gay men tend to locate in more amenity-rich regions of the country.

In addition to children, social science theories about relationship formation and dynamics are often heavily tied to theories of gender roles and expectations. Studying the dynamics of same-sex couples offers a mechanism to explore these issues in the absence of gender differences, again providing insights into broader social science theoretical perspectives.

Selected Findings

Here are some findings from analyses contained in the Atlas:

  • Vermont edges out California as the state with the highest concentration of gay and lesbian couples in the nation. California, New York, and Massachusetts rank among the top 10 for both the total number of gay and lesbian couples and the overall concentration of same-sex couples in the state. While Florida does not rank among the top 10 states (it is 11th), three Florida cities (Wilton Manors, Miami Shores, and Key West) make the top 10 list of U.S. cities and towns with the highest concentration of gay and lesbian couples. Among large metropolitan areas, San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle, Fort Lauderdale, and Austin rank highest in same-sex couple concentration.
  • Gay men do not necessarily choose to live in the same communities as their female counterparts, and vice versa. State same-sex male- and female couple concentration rankings share only five states (Arizona, California, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Washington) between the respective top 10 lists. Only one county (San Francisco County) appears among the top 10 counties for both male and female couples. While San Francisco, Fort Lauderdale, Santa Rosa, Seattle, and New York top the list of metropolitan areas for gay male couples, the top areas for lesbian couples are Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Santa Fe, San Francisco, and Oakland.
  • Same-sex couple neighborhoods differ substantially from those of heterosexual married couples, but less so from heterosexual unmarried couples. On average, gay male couples, and to a lesser degree lesbian couples, live in neighborhoods that are more urban, more diverse, have more educated residents, have older housing stock, and have higher crime rates than the neighborhoods heterosexual married couples live in.
  • The one in four gay and lesbian couples with children do not necessarily live near other gay and lesbian couples. Same-sex couples with children tend to live in states and large metropolitan areas with relatively low concentrations of gay and lesbian couples. Mississippi, South Dakota, Alaska, South Carolina, and Louisiana are where same-sex couples are most likely raising children.
  • Nearly one in five people in a same-sex couple is at least 55 years old. Seniors dominate the gay and lesbian population in the upper Midwest (North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming). They make up 30 percent or more of each state's gay and lesbian couple population.
  • Areas with large minority communities have the highest concentrations of minority gay and lesbian couples within the broader population and within the gay community. The South dominates the rankings of states by the concentration of African-American couples among all households and among other gay and lesbian couples. Texas metropolitan areas (with their large Hispanic communities) feature prominently in similar rankings by the concentration of Hispanic gay or lesbian couples.

While Census 2000 data on same-sex couples affirm the presence of gay men and lesbians nearly everywhere in the United States, a closer examination of their spatial distribution and demographic characteristics provides important information to the political and public policy communities, public health officials, marketers, community and economic development professionals, and social scientists. Findings from this research can inform a variety of policy debates and provide added value to research on and service delivery to gay men and lesbians.

Census 2000 provides the largest and most geographically representative sample of gay and lesbian families available in the United States today. No other data source permits the exploration of the geographic patterns of this community in greater detail, nor allows for an analysis of such understudied subsets of the gay and lesbian population as couples with children, seniors, and racial and ethnic minorities. Census data also permit comparisons between same-sex couples and their heterosexual counterparts.

The Gay and Lesbian Atlas offers a compelling portrait of gay and lesbian families that both confirms and challenges common anecdotal information about the gay and lesbian community. For example, while it may come as no surprise that San Francisco, Key West, and western Massachusetts all host large gay and lesbian populations, it might surprise some that Houston, Texas contains one of the 10 "gayest" neighborhoods in the country, or that Alaska and New Mexico are among the states with the highest concentration of gay and lesbian coupled seniors in their senior population. The data support the growing anecdotal evidence that increasing numbers of children are being raised by gay and lesbian couples. However, same-sex couples with children frequently live in areas of the country known for more conservative political and cultural views.

This Atlas marks a beginning of the exploration of census data to describe the characteristics of gay and lesbian families in the United States. Analyses of more detailed data offer myriad opportunities to construct a rich portrait of the geographic, demographic, and economic characteristics of the gay and lesbian community. These analyses begin to fill an important information gap by providing an empirical perspective to the vibrant policy and intellectual debates affecting the lives of gay men and lesbians that reach into corporate boardrooms, classrooms, and virtually all levels and branches of government across the United States.


1. Clay Harden, "Census: 4,774 gay couples in Miss.," The Clarion-Leader, August 22, 2001.

2. See http://www.hrc.org/newsreleases/2003/030904eb_testimony.asp for a transcript of her testimony.

3. See Mike Allen's article "Gay Marriage Looms Large," Washington Post, October 25, 2003.

4. California poll results can be found at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/replacementballotexitpoll.html. According to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Voter News Service polls indicate that nearly 5 percent of all voters reported being gay or lesbian in the 1996 and 2000 presidential elections (see http://www.ngltf.org/news/release.cfm?releaseID=568).

5. The gay-supportive laws score is constructed using state laws regarding civil unions, Defense of Marriage Acts, gay/lesbian adoption policies, sexual orientation discrimination statutes, hate crime laws including sexual orientation, and the absence of sodomy laws enacted as of December 2003. The gay/lesbian law score and the gay/lesbian concentration index have a significant statistical correlation of 0.62 (p < .05). Interpreting this relationship is not simple. Several factors could contribute to this positive association. Gay and lesbian couples may migrate to states with a more favorable legal climate. However, favorable laws are more likely the consequence of a state's larger and more visible gay and lesbian population. Same-sex couples in states with more favorable laws may also be the most comfortable in reporting their relationship as such on their census form.

6. Author interview of Robert Witeck, March 4, 2003.

7. States that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in both public and private employment (as of December 2003) are California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin. States that prohibit such discrimination in public employment only are Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, Pennsylvania, and Washington.

8. William Bishop, "Technology and Tolerance: Austin Hallmarks," Austin American-Statesman, June 25, 2000.

9. Richard Florida, "Pittsburgh, Let's Wake Up and Play," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 11, 2000.

The Gay & Lesbian Atlas, by Gary J. Gates and Jason Ost, is available from the Urban Institute Press (Paper, 11" x 8.5", 242 pages, ISBN 0-87766-721-7, $49.50). Order online or call (202) 261-5687; toll-free 800.537.5487.

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