The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Do gay people come out to pollsters before their families? It appears so.

Texas marriage plaintiffs Vic Holmes, left, and partner Mark Phariss, right, hold hands on the steps of the Texas Capitol during a news conference celebrating marriage equality on June 29 in Austin. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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The story of LGBT issues in the United States is a story that's been told frequently through poll numbers. There's the fast-rising support for same-sex marriage, alongside the growing percentage of Americans who believe sexual orientation is something people are born with.

But also on the rise has been the percentage of people who know someone who's gay or lesbian. In 1985, about a quarter had a friend, relative, or co-worker who told them personally that he or she was gay. By 2013, that number had tripled to 75 percent.

LGBT rights are issues that have been driven in part by the personal; people know someone who is gay, and frequently that's reflected in how they feel about the issues. The jump between 2009, when 58 percent of Americans knew someone close who came out to them, and 2013, when 75 percent did, correlated neatly with a rise in support for same-sex marriage, from 40 percent to 54 percent.

But in some cases, pollsters knew someone was gay even before their family did.

"There are people who the only people they're comfortable coming out to is a pollster," Gary Gates, research director at the UCLA Williams Institute, told The Fix in a phone interview.

Gates found that, according to data from the 2008 General Social Survey, 15.8 percent of people who identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual said they had never told anyone about their sexual orientation. A Pew poll taken several years later, in 2013 when a majority of the United States supported same-sex marriage, found a smaller figure -- 10 percent of gay men and 6 percent of lesbians -- who said that "only a few" or "none" of the important people in their life knew about their sexual orientation.

But those numbers jumped when it came to telling their parents: 34 percent hadn't told their mothers about their sexual orientation or gender identity and 39 percent hadn't told their fathers. Even considering some might not have done so because a parent died, those numbers are still pretty striking.

For as loud, proud and visible as LGBT issues have been from Pride parades to a lit-up, rainbow-colored White House, there's still plenty that's bubbling under the surface. Sexual orientation and gender identity is something that for many people is private. Some people might not even tell pollsters.

For example, a higher percentage of people in Massachusetts and Vermont told Gallup they were lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender than in Mississippi and North Dakota. The difference between states where same-sex marriage became legal early on vs. states where it wasn't legal until the Supreme Court's decision last month is due to a number of possibilities, including that people who are LGBT move to states where it's more accepted and the fact that LGBT people might gravitate toward more liberal states. But it also suggests people in states less friendly to LGBT issues are less likely to identify that way publicly -- or to a pollster.

Age is also a factor. Those who are 18 to 29 years old are more likely to identify as LGBT (6.4 percent) compared with those who are 30-49 (3.2 percent), 50-64 (2.6 percent), or 65 and older (1.9 percent).

As the social stigma and risks surrounding identifying as LGBT decreases, we could see an increased number do so. Today, 3.4 percent of Americans identify that way. In five to 10 years, we could see the national figure inch its way closer to the number for 18 to 29 year olds.

And by then, it's likely pretty much everyone will know someone who is gay and has come out to them.