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36,000 Gay Men and Lesbians Are on Active Duty in the Military

Document date: October 20, 2004
Released online: October 20, 2004

Contact: Latricia Good, (202) 261-5709, [email protected]

WASHINGTON, D.C., October 20, 2004—Although the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy requires gay and lesbian service members to remain silent about their sexual orientation, it does not prevent them from enlisting, says a new Urban Institute study.

Nearly 20,000 gay men and more than 16,000 lesbians are estimated to be on active duty, representing 2.5 percent of active duty personnel. An estimated 65,000 gay men and lesbians are in uniform when those in the National Guard and reservists are included, or some 2.8 percent of all military personnel.

Demographer Gary Gates, in "Gay Men and Lesbians in the U.S. Military: Estimates from the Census 2000," estimates that 1.4 percent of men on active duty are gay and 9.3 percent of women are lesbian. Some surveys indicate that among adults 4 percent of men are gay and 3 percent of women are lesbian.

Given the high service rates among lesbians, it is difficult to assess the impact of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, Gates concludes.

"Since the share of gay men in the military is lower than that in the adult male population, it appears the policy discourages gay men from serving," says Gates. "However, in recent decades the difference in the rate of military service between gay men and other men has been decreasing, suggesting they are more comfortable serving today than in the past."

The first to analyze the characteristics of gay and lesbian soldiers, the study assesses the size of the gay and lesbian military population, provides a demographic portrait of the group, and shows where gay and lesbian veterans live.

Since the Korean War, Gates notes, gay men have been less likely than other men to report military service, while lesbians have been substantially more likely than other women to serve. These patterns hold true, Gates found, whether one is on active duty, in the National Guard, a reservist, or a veteran.

The differences in service rates, however, have been narrowing over the decades. In the '90s, service rates for gay men were on par with those of other men, while lesbians were three times more likely than other women to report military service.

Lesbian soldiers are four years older than other women on active duty, are more likely to be white, and stay in the military longer. Gay men do not differ much from other men in age, race, and length of service.

The report also discusses where the nation's nearly one million gay and lesbian veterans reside:

  • The states with the most gay and lesbian veterans are California, Florida, Texas, New York, and Georgia.
  • Among metropolitan areas, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C, San Diego, Chicago, and New York have the largest populations of gay and lesbian veterans.
  • The District of Columbia leads all states with 10.2 gay or lesbian veterans per 1,000 adults, more than double the national average. Per capita rates are also high in Vermont, Hawaii, Maine, and Washington.
  • Among metropolitan areas, Santa Rosa, CA; Pensacola, FL; San Francisco; San Diego; and Norfolk, VA, have the highest per capita rates of gay and lesbian veterans.

"Gay Men and Lesbians in the U.S. Military: Estimates from Census 2000," by Gary Gates, is available at http://www.urban.org/url.cfm?ID=411069. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the Military Community Services Network funded the research.

Note on Methodology

The decennial census does not ask about sexual orientation, sexual behavior, or sexual attraction (three common ways used to identify gay men and lesbians in surveys). Rather, census forms categorized individuals in a household by how they are related to the person filling out the form. If this person designates another adult of the same sex as his or her "unmarried partner" or "husband/wife," the household counts as a same-sex unmarried partner household, commonly understood to be a gay or lesbian couple.

The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization that examines the social, economic, and governance challenges facing the nation.

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