When the Supreme Court hands down its pending rulings in two same-sex marriage cases, the news media will face a couple of challenges. One is to report the decisions as clearly as possible. The other is to describe the group most affected by them.
That second challenge is more complicated than it seems. Are they gays? Are they gays and lesbians? Or are they LGBT, an acronym that's gone mainstream in the last few decades even though — as is often the case with group labels — it's not fully embraced by everyone it purports to identify.
One prominent voice in the debate, blogger Andrew Sullivan, last week called the LGBT label "ubiquitous" but dismissed it as "close to meaningless" because he said it doesn't capture the variety of experiences among the sub-groups that make up the acronym: (L) lesbians, (G) gay men, (B) bisexuals and (T) transgender adults.
Sullivan was blogging in response to a survey of 1,197 LGBT adults across the country published this month by the Pew Research Center. Our survey was full of data that helped to make his point. For example, it found that gays and lesbians are quite different from bisexuals when it comes to disclosing their sexual orientation. Some 77% of gay and 71% of lesbian respondents said that all or most of the important people in their lives knew about their sexual orientation; just 28% of bisexuals said the same.
It found that gay men and lesbians were more likely than bisexuals to say that their sexual orientation was an important part of their overall identity, and more likely to describe it as a positive factor in their lives.
But just as the survey found these and other sub-group differences, it also found a lot of similarities. Both the LGBT population as a whole and each of its sub-groups are more liberal than the public as a whole, more likely to be Democrats, more satisfied with the overall direction of the country, less religious, less happy with their lives and more likely to perceive discrimination not just against themselves but against other groups.
We chose to survey all of these sub-groups because each is directly affected by the legal issues before the court. The title of the report — "A Survey of LGBT Americans" — reflects the diversity of our sample: 40% of the respondents self-identified as bisexual, 36% as gay men, 19% as lesbians and 5% as transgender adults. It also embraces a term that has achieved widespread popular usage.
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But we're well aware that umbrella labels are rarely an easy fit. We know because we've asked lots of groups about them.
For example, just 25% of Hispanics say they most often identify themselves by the pan-ethnic terms "Hispanic" or "Latino." And only 20% of Asian Americans most often use the term "Asian American" to describe themselves. Most in both groups typically identify themselves by their family's country of origin (Mexican American, Chinese American, etc.); others prefer a simple "American."
We've also asked Hispanics a somewhat different question: Do they think Hispanics in the U.S. share a common culture? Just 29% said they do. Similarly, when we asked gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender adults how much their concerns and identity overlapped with those of the other groups that make up their umbrella acronym, fewer than a third said "a lot."
Given these underwhelming endorsements, it's worth asking: Where do these broad labels come from? And what makes them stick?
They tend to emanate from the political and community leadership of a group, and they serve a variety of purposes: to increase a minority group's numbers and influence, to assert group rights and protections, and to embrace shared interests. They stick when the broader culture, which is always in the market for descriptive labels, accepts them as legitimate.
LGBT may not be around forever. While critics like Sullivan find the acronym too broad, others say it's too limited, and in some quarters it's already been overtaken by LGBTQ or LGBTQQ, with the Qs standing for queer and questioning.
There's a long history here. In America, group names are always works in progress. They evolve. Case in point: For the first time in more than a century, "Negro" won't be a category on the 2020 U.S Census form; the term has fallen out of popular usage. People of that race will be able to self-identify as African American or black.
There's no telling what new group name might lie ahead for LGBT Americans. Or for whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians and the rising number of Americans who identify as mixed race. America is all about change. When the culture changes, so do the labels.
Paul Taylor is executive vice president of the Pew Research Center, and Mark Hugo Lopez is associate director of its Hispanic Center.