Howard County and civic equality in the 21st century, part 1

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In this post (actually the next three posts—I do run on so) I continue my focus on how the Columbia vision of tolerance and diversity might translate into Howard County as a whole as it moves further into the 21st century. In a recent post I cited an article on mixed-race couples and multiracial individuals in Columbia. The article notes that when one mixed-race couple moved to Columbia in 1972 the Supreme Court decision striking down prohibitions on interracial marriage in Virginia and several other states was only five years old. In fact that decision, Loving v. Virginia, occurred on June 12, 1967, only a few days before Columbia’s dedication ceremony on June 21.

In the context of the 1960s and 70s Rouse and Columbia were thus indeed unusual in their commitment to the cause of equal rights. How might that commitment to civic equality translate into the 21st century? According to Mildred Loving herself, one major way is to extend the right of civil marriage to same-sex couples: I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Diane Brown recently echoed this sentiment in an opinion piece in the Howard County Times.

Like all analogies the analogy between then and now is not perfect, but in general I agree that the fight for marriage equality is as worthy a cause for Columbia and Howard County in the 21st century as the civil rights movement was in the 1960s. However this is not really a blog post on the arguments for (or against) same-sex marriage. (You can find lots of the former at the Freedom to Marry site, and lots of the latter at the National Organization for Marriage site. You can also find a local perspective on same-sex marriage at Steve Charing’s OUTspoken blog.)

My goal is rather the same as in some of my other Howard County in the 21st century posts, namely to look to census and other data to put the issue into context and (where appropriate) informally test various hypotheses. In the case of same-sex marriage the types of data that are collected (or not collected, as the case may be) themselves reflect the political controversies around the issue.

To begin with, unlike being African-American, Asian-American, or Hispanic, the Census Bureau (or rather Congress, which ultimately calls the shots here) does not consider gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender to be census-worthy categories, and thus does not ask questions or publish data that would allow direct estimates of the national or local LGBT population to be made. There’s a campaign to try to change that state of affairs for the 2020 census, but for at least the next few years any LGBT population estimates using census data will have to be indirect at best. (I’ll discuss this in more detail in my next post.)

In the absence of good census data, the most widely-accepted figures on the overall LGBT population are almost twenty years old, from the National Health and Social Life Survey conducted in the early 1990s. The NHSLS data resulted in an estimate that 4.2% of the US adult population identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.1 Another more recent survey showing similar results is the National Survey of Family Growth conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In the 2002 survey 4.1% of men and women 18-44 identified themselves as homosexual or bisexual.2

A final figure comes from exit polling conducted for US presidential elections. CNN reported exit poll data in both 2004 and 2008 estimating that 4% of those voting identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Again, this is consistent with the surveys referenced above, although the exit poll data is somewhat questionable given that (at least in 2008) this particular question was asked in only a few states (see below).

In any case, let’s assume that the LGBT population in the US as a whole is about 4%. Now let’s turn to the question of more interest to us, namely what’s the estimated LGBT population in Howard County? Unfortunately the NHSLS and NSFG surveys did not include a breakdown by state, much less county. However the 2008 exit poll data does include data for Maryland, with an estimate that only 1% of Maryland voters identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, well under the estimate for the nation as a whole.3

So, again, what’s the actual percentage for Howard County? As high as 4% (or even more), as the national surveys would indicate? Or as low as 1%, as the Maryland exit poll might indicate? I suspect that the 1% figure may be low, but let’s accept it for now at least as a lower bound.

As a first estimate we can therefore assume that between 1 and 4% of Howard County adults are gay, lesbian, or bisexual. (In a follow-up post I’ll revisit this estimate.) What about non-adults, including teens under 18? My specific interest in this post is same-sex marriage, so my focus is on those members of the LGBT population who are candidates for such. Per census estimates 28.0% of Howard County residents are 19 years old or younger, and 20.8% are 14 or younger. The LGBT population that comprises candidates for same-sex marriage is thus somewhere in the range of less than 1% to 3% of all county residents.4

How does this compare with ethnic minorities in Howard County? The same census estimates show that the estimated LGBT population in Howard County is at least roughly comparable to the population of Chinese-Americans (2.3%), Indian-Americans (3.1%), and Korean-Americans (3.5%).

However the visibility of LGBT people and their impact on the county seems much lower than that of these other populations. Partly of course this is because LGBT Howard County residents don’t actually constitute a visible ethnic minority, but rather can be found in all ethnic groups. I also suspect that this is because (living in Howard County in the first place) they’re suburbanites just like everyone else. They may go into Baltimore or DC for the social scene or special events, but for the most part they’re going to live relatively typical low-key suburban lives.

I also suspect that like everyone else a fair proportion of the LGBT population in Howard County is going to want to do typical suburban things like settling down with a partner and raising a family. I’ll explore that topic further in my next post.


  1. The detailed breakdown for the NHSLS survey was 2.0% gay men, 0.9% lesbians, 0.8% bisexual men, and 0.5% bisexual women. Note that there was no option in the survey to identify as transgender. See Table 8.3B on page 311 of The Social Organization of Sexuality.↩ 

  2. In the NSFG survey 2.3% of men 18-44 identified themselves homosexual and 1.8% as bisexual, for a total of 4.1%. The corresponding figures for women 18-44 were 1.3% and 2.8%, again for a total of 4.1%. As with the NHSLS survey, there was no option to identify as transgender. See Advance Data No. 362, Tables 12 and 13.↩ 

  3. By comparison 5% of the polled voters identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual in California and Massachusetts, and 3% in Illinois and New York—the only other states where this question was asked.↩ 

  4. In essence I’m assuming for simplicity that 25% of Howard County residents are children not yet old enough to marry, leaving 75% of county residents as candidates for marriage. If, for example, GLBT individuals are 4% of that 75% adult population then they comprise 4% times 75% or 3% of the total population.↩