Gays & lesbians in American religion — Three charts on the surprising data

Print More
United Methodist Churches of the NCA - DC Capital Pride

Tim Evanson via Flickr Creative Commons

United Methodist Churches of the NCA - DC Capital Pride

One of the most contentious issues in American religion is the question of sexuality and LGBT rights. It divides denominations. It causes churches to split. For many, the issue is a litmus test for orthodoxy.

But how many people in churches are gay, lesbian, or bisexual? Way more than many would think. Even among conservative religious groups, more than five percent of religious people have had a homosexual relationship.

Gay pews 01aThe General Social Survey asks respondents a number of highly personal and sensitive questions. Using some techniques that ensure confidentiality, the GSS asks people questions about their current and past sexual partners. For the last four GSS surveys, 7.6 percent of American adults reported having at least one sexual partner of the same gender.

The survey also asks each person, “Which of the following best describes you? Gay, lesbian, or homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual or straight?” Just under four percent said they were either homosexual or bisexual.

Which measure is right—what people do or how people describe themselves? They’re both sound. But they tell us different things. Just because people have homosexual relations does not mean that they identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Nearly two-thirds of people who have had homosexual sex say that they are straight (the rest are evenly split between gay/lesbian and bisexual). There are also people (about 20 percent) of people who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual who have never had a sexual partner of the same gender.

Looking at different religious traditions, here’s what we see:

  • Each of the Christian traditions have the same percentage of people who have had homosexual relations. Over five percent of Christians have had homosexual sex.
  • Far fewer Christians identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. As with behavior, there are few differences between different traditions.
  • Jews have a higher percentage of both homosexual behavior and identity, but this could be due to the low sample size.
  • Those who are not affiliated with a religion (the “nones”) are much more likely to be gay. Around 12 percent have had homosexual relations; six percent identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

Unfortunately, there were not enough people in the survey to confidently say the percentages for smaller religious groups.

Gay pews 02a

For some of the larger religious groups, we can further drill down the data. Among evangelicals, we see little differences between denominations and religious groups; the differences could just be due to chance.

One of the most noteworthy differences is the gap among Baptists between those who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual and the those who have had homosexual sex. Nearly six percent report having had homosexual relations, but only 1.2 percent describe themselves as anything but straight.

Gay pews 03a

As a group, mainline denominations may not be that different from other churches, but there are important differences between churches.

Among Methodists and Presbyterians, the percentage who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual is less than those who have had homosexual relations. For Lutherans, the difference is closer but still significant.

The story is different among Episcopalians and other liberal Protestant churches (including the Disciples of Christ and United Church of Christ). These churches have been out front on LGBT inclusion, and their members show virtually no difference between behavior and identity. These churches don’t differ (much) in what they do; they differ in how they describe themselves.

Don’t miss any more posts from the Corner of Church & State. Click the red subscribe button in the right hand column. Follow @TobinGrant on Twitter and on the Corner of Church & State Facebook page.

  • Dio

    Having a homosexual relationship at some point in life, and being gay or endorsing homosexuality, are two entirely different things. The survey would have been better quantified if the percentages were shown for those who have had a homosexual relationship and ultimately determined it was not right for them

  • Lisa P. Ten

    The disparities in percentage between homosexual behavior and self-identification ALREADY show that there are those who have “tried it” and “ultimately determined it was not right for them.” The more interesting question is what the GREAT disparity between behavior and self-identification in the CONSERVATIVE Christian churches tell us — which is that religious shame of one’s sexual nature due to a belief in biblicism (or bibliolatry) causes one to deny who they are and incorrectly label themselves as “straight” or “ex-gay.” Get it???

  • Shawnie5

    And all this is news, how? The NT clearly states that some of the Corinthian church had been man-bedders as well. Different times, same old temptations.

  • But how many people in churches are gay, lesbian, or bisexual? Way more than many would think. Even among conservative religious groups, more than five percent of religious people have had a homosexual relationship.

    Tobin Grant is trafficking in voodoo social statistics for the misedification of the site’s readers. See the work of Edward Laumann. The outer boundary of the homosexual population in toto stands at 2.8% of the adult population.

  • ctd

    The survey only provides some evidence of what I think most people already know. I see nothing surprising here. Most people do not choose their religion or church because its teachings match their sexual orientation or acts. Religious belief is much more complicated than that.

  • Alex

    Homosexuality is itsefl a religion. Since it is clear that homosexuals dispute that their lifestyle is wrong, and since it is clear that the religious texts describe their lifestyle as wrong, there is thus no such thing as a jew/christian/muslim who is also a homosexual because the terms are mutually exclusive. By merely admitting that you are homosexual, you are attempting to claim that the torah/bible/quran is wrong in its condemnation of homosexuality. So here we have homosexuals who claim that they are christian, but then they claim that g-d was wrong concerning the matters he has commented upon in the bible. So which one is it? Is g-d right or wrong? If he is right, then say so and follow his bible. If he is wrong then say so and refuse to follow his bible.

    It is confusing when i hear terms like ‘homosexual christian’ because it would be like saying ‘the blind man who wears glasses’

    Get it?

  • Thanks for posting this article. It resonates strongly with my experience as a closeted, gay fundamentalist and an openly gay Episcopalian. I would like to know more about the GSS and their methods. Where can I find out more? Also please join me at my blog Holy Fire for further discussion of same-sex issues from a faithful, Christian standpoint. God’s richest blessings to all! Thanks be to God!

  • Homosexuality is a phenomenon, Alex, not a religion. Even LGBT-identified people have widely and wildly different ideas about how this phenomenon is to be interpreted. Btw, not all Christians believe alike on social issues. Reread the book of Acts on the circumcision debate. Same thing, different era.

  • Jean F

    I wonder if it is possible to compare the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association, which have fully embraced and supported same-sex marriage for a while, to other progressive churches, whose support is more recent. It would be interesting to see if the percentages change as support for same-sex marriage becomes a more integrated part of a church’s doctrine.

  • Kimmie

    The Episcipal Church straddled the Anglican Communion fence for decades and the ELCA went kicking and screamingn after many illicit ordinations. The UCC has been out in front while others stumbled along trying to feel their way through.

  • Gene Bourquin

    Don’t be confused. I’m a gay Christian soon to be ordained. Your logic is strange? Let’s see. The Bible says you cannot cut your hair, so if you went to barber you’re not a Christian? Or your a woman, and the scripture say you must be silent in Church, but you’re not, so you’re not a Christian. The scriptures tiny number of proscriptions against certain behaviors are so insignificant (perhaps 7 out of 66,000 verses) and often so ill-translated, that any reasonable notion that the Bible means one cannot be Christian and gay is clear ridiculous, at best. If it confirms your prejudice, I guess it makes sense. But in reality, it is silliness. The Bible doesn’t talk about lifestyles. That’s a contemporary concept. Now please remove your mix-fiber garments. No polyester or you’re not a Christian.

  • ctr

    Surprising? Not at all; typical adolescent males are known to experiment with anything that moves; the numbers should be a bit higher.

  • Pingback: Do gay Americans support same-sex marriage? It depends on what you mean by "gay" - Corner of Church and State()

  • Joseph

    So here we go…. Homosexuality is called Sin in the bible, for the new testament sake we can refer to it as sexual immorality, which would cover the entirety of sexually related sins. 1 John makes it pretty clear that “one who walks in darkness” ( a Sin pattern or living in sin or to make it even more clear, not refreshing the single mistake but actively participating in the habit) and says that they “walk in the light” is a liar.

    I start with that with the purpose of addressing your point of not all Christians believe alike on the issue… That is simply not true. There are many people who would call them selves Christians and not believe alike, but not someone who is truly a follower of Christ. By the way, in the same era of Acts sexual immorality is tackled by Paul. You have to read the whole bible to understand the context of individual passages.

    There is no such thing as a Christian who is practicing homosexuality or as a Christian who finds it not a sin.

  • Joseph


    Do you believe that scripture is inerrant?