Jewish Journal


July 19, 2010

How Many Members of the Tribe Are Family?


Counting is an important concept for Jews.  We count the Omer in the lead-up to Shavuot.  In Numbers, the Israelites are commanded to conduct a census.  As someone who does a lot of number crunching as her day job, I’m intrigued by the counting we can (and cannot) do of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities.

The most frequently asked question I get is, “How many gay (or lesbian, or bisexual, or transgender) people are there?”  And, unfortunately, it isn’t an easy question to answer.  Very few surveys ask about sexual orientation and even fewer ask about gender identity.  Much of the counting we do comes to the US Census, which only lets us identify same-sex couples who live together.  From those figures, there are about half a million same-sex couples in the US.  Another survey tells us that about 4.1% of the adult population identifies at LGB – so that’s about 9 million people.  And there are no good statistics about the number of transgender people in the US.

What about Jews?  Anecdotally, it seems like a lot of Jews identify as LGBT.  As my mom says of my own hometown and the stories the other Jewish moms tell about their LGBT kids, “There must have been something in the water!”  Los Angeles has had as many as two LGBT temples and several LGBT Jewish organizations.  What does the data say about The Tribe and how queer we really are?

Fortunately for someone like me who loves data, there’s a big survey that comes in handy in answering this question.  The General Social Survey asks Americans lots of questions – including questions about sexual orientation and religion.  In 2008, 12.6% of Jewish respondents identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.  That is nearly 7.5 times as many Protestants and more than 8 times as many Catholics. 

The General Social Survey can’t tell us why higher numbers of Jews identify as LGBT. 

Is that Jews who identify as LGBT don’t feel as alienated from their faith as those raised in Catholic or Muslim homes, so LGBT Jews are more likely to continue to identify as Jewish instead of running from religion?  Perhaps. 

It is that LGBT identified non-Jews see the affirming aspects of Judaism and become Jews-by-Choice?  Perhaps. 

But, the “why” isn’t as important as the “how.” 

How can we make the Jewish community as welcoming and affirming of LGBT Jews as possible?  How can such Jews feel valued?  How can we ensure that LGBT Jews feel counted?

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