New York Times calls D.C. ‘the gayest place in America.’ Is it?

November 18, 2013

Trivia at Nellie’s Sports Bar last year. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

The New York Times published a story over the weekend calling Washington “the gayest place in America.”

Is this claim accurate? Probably not, though it really depends on what you’re measuring. We’ll get to that in a moment.

First, a note about the surveys referenced early on in this Sunday Styles story. Jeremy Peters, the Washington-based Times reporter who wrote it, cites a Gallup poll and a Census report to show how the District compares with the 50 actual states.

Gallup found that 10 percent of adults in D.C. identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, significantly higher than the runner-up on the list (Hawaii, with 5.1 percent) as well as neighboring Maryland (3.3 percent) and Virginia (2.9 percent). The Census Bureau, meanwhile, reported that the percentage of same-sex households in D.C. (4.01 percent) outpaced the rest of the country.

The problem: D.C. is a city, not a state. So comparing D.C. (population: more than 632,000; land area: 61 square miles, according to the Census Bureau) with, say, Oklahoma (3.8 million people, 68,000 square miles) or Montana (1 million people, 145,000 square miles) doesn’t really work.

This sort of thing happens all the time. Surveys regularly lump D.C. in with the 50 states, despite the inherent dissonance in comparing an urban jurisdiction with states that can house a mix of urban, suburban and rural areas. And reporters, myself included, will write about these reports, adding in caveats about how it is like comparing apples and oranges (if the oranges were 10 or 20 times as large as the apples).

Comparing D.C. with other cities makes much more sense, statistically speaking. Peters does this a few paragraphs later:

When our federal district is measured against other cities with large gay populations, a comparison that experts say is better than comparing to states, it still ranks at the top of the list. Gary J. Gates, who studies census data for the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, reports that Washington has 18.1 same-sex couples per 1,000 households. That places it eighth among cities with populations larger than 250,000.

Which brings us back to the question raised by the story’s headline and answered by Peters in his story: Is Washington, in fact, the “gayest place in America?”

That really depends on what you’re measuring. But if you’re just going by population, the Williams Institute’s report shows D.C. lagging behind several other large U.S. cities (something Peters noted in his story). Here’s the chart:


(Chart courtesy of the Williams Institute)

D.C. is near the top of the list, sure, but its 18.08 same-sex couples per 1,000 households trails San Francisco (30.25), Seattle (23.06) and Oakland (21.84), among others. Baltimore comes in just ahead of New Orleans with 10.76.

(It’s worth noting that D.C., like San Francisco, Seattle and Oakland, is one of the areas where same-sex marriage is legal. Atlanta and St. Louis, by comparison, are in states where same-sex marriage remains banned.)

Of course, the District is just part of the larger Washington region. The list of mid-sized cities on the chart also includes Alexandria (11.39 same-sex couples per 1,000 households) and Arlington (11.08).

The District, home to numerous popular gay bars and the High Heel Race in Dupont, among other things, is widely considered one of the most gay-friendly cities in the country.

Is that — and large, federal changes like the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell” — enough to push D.C. ahead of a place like San Francisco, home to significantly more same-sex couples than the District? Yes, the nation’s capital is where historic legislation banning workplace discrimination against gay and transgender employees was passed by the Senate. It is also where that legislation entered limbo, with seemingly no expectation that the House would pass the bill.

Still, how do you quantify something like the gayest city or metropolitan area? The Advocate tried to figure that out earlier this year using criteria that included the number of LGBT elected officials, the legality of same-sex marriage and the presence of a Whole Foods, West Elm or Pottery Barn. They wound up ranking D.C. fourth overall.

Update – Tuesday at 12:05 p.m.:

Peters sent me a very polite response to this post earlier this morning. Here are his thoughts, excerpted from his email:

I worry that some readers might get too hung up on this notion that The New York Times has declared DC the “gayest place in America.” I think that’s being a little too literal. As you correctly point out, I noted that by the most accurate demographic measurements, D.C. is not No. 1. The headline included a question mark, “The Gayest Place in America?” And the point of the essay certainly was not to crown D.C. with any new title based on selective data reading.

Rather, I was offering my observations as someone who had lived in Manhattan for almost seven years — a place that most would acknowledge is pretty gay itself — and arrived here surprised by the thriving, ubiquitous gay population.

So this question of whether or not D.C. is the undisputed gayest place in the nation, I think, misses what is a pretty striking fact, one I bet most people didn’t realize: that by all the measurements we have today — Census, Gallup, media rankings, etc. — D.C. is always at the top of the list for LGBT people. And I doubt many people would have seen it that way 10 years ago.

The only thing I would quibble with in his response was the bit about the question mark in the headline. As I noted in my reply to Peters, the headline had the question mark but the story itself contained the declarative line “I now live in the gayest place in America.”

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He anchors Post Nation, a destination for breaking news, developing stories and quick analysis of events around the country.
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Tom Jackman | November 18, 2013