A Pride celebration in Salt Lake City, the American metro with the seventh highest share of LGBT individuals. Reuters/Jim Urquhart

New polling from Gallup tells a tale of growing tolerance.

America has become a far more open-minded and tolerant nation over the past several decades. But the gay population remains more concentrated in some cities and metros than others, according to a new survey by the Gallup Organization.

Surprising as it may seem, the U.S. Census still does not collect systematic data on the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) population. The Gallup survey asked respondents, “Do you, personally, identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender?” The poll was designed in collaboration with Gary J. Gates of UCLA’s Williams Institute, who developed the initial estimates of the location of gay Americans back in 1998 (and with whom I collaborated on research exploring the connection between gay populations and the economic and innovative performances of metros in 2001). Based on more than 374,000 telephone interviews conducted between June 2012 and December 2014, the new Gallup survey provides the most comprehensive picture yet of where LGBT Americans live.

The table below from the Gallup study shows the 10 metros with the largest shares of LGBT people.

San Francisco, long a gay mecca, tops the list, with 6.2 percent of those who live in the San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward area identifying as LGBT. But the rest of the top 10 includes some surprises, with post-industrial knowledge hubs like Portland, Oregon, Austin, Seattle, and Boston, as well as L.A., New Orleans, Denver, and Hartford, Connecticut, and perhaps most surprisingly, Salt Lake City also on the list.

Salt Lake City has long made tolerance in general and tolerance toward the LGBT population in particular a priority. When I spoke to Gates via email, he wrote that it was "not a coincidence or statistical anomaly that Salt Lake City ranked so high." Utah, as he points out, was the first state s to pass comprehensive LGBT anti-discrimination legislation, in 2007. More than half of the states have yet to pass similar laws. "[It] doesn’t happen without a large, visible, and politically engaged LGBT community," Gates wrote.

In light of today’s more tolerant environment, the table below, which shows the metros with the smallest shares of LGBT people, is even more interesting. Topping the list is Birmingham, Alabama. But it is mainly devoid of Southern Bible Belt metros and also of the hard-hit older Rustbelt metros that have lost so much of their younger populations.

The list includes a number of knowledge hubs, like Raleigh in the Research Triangle, and surprisingly, San Jose, the heart of Silicon Valley. This suggests a geographic division of labor in leading tech hubs­; it’s likely that LGBT people live in certain neighborhoods and commute to work in other parts of the region. (Little wonder LGBT-friendly tech companies like Apple, Google and Facebook run buses from San Francisco.) It also could also help explain the recent migration of tech startups from the Valley to the city, and the rise of San Francisco as the nation’s number one center for venture capital investment. Or, as Gates put in an email, “It could also be that the very large tech immigrant communities in Silicon Valley are still more socially conservative than the broader Bay Area population, so LGBT people perceive a difference in social acceptance between the two areas.”

The large metros at the bottom of the list also include the energy hubs of Houston, noted by some for not just its economic performance but also for its cultural diversity. Pittsburgh, despite its much-ballyhooed post-industrial economic transformation, as well as Nashville, with its vibrant music cluster, are also the list of metros with the smallest shares of LGBT individuals.

On the positive side, the study points out that the distribution of the LGBT population across America’s largest metros is “relatively narrow.” Across these 50 metros, 3.6 percent of Americans identify as LGBT, ranging from 2.6 percent on the low end to 6.2 percent on the high end. This may reflect the fact that all the metros studied are relatively large. Or the differences may mirror local cultures that make it more or less comfortable for LGBT people to identify themselves as such, as the study points out. Interestingly, the study notes that according to recent research, just 12 percent of LGBT individuals consider the local openness to and acceptance of the gay population as a major factor in choosing where to live.

In a related study, Gates compares these new rankings to his original results based on data from 1990.  The table below lists metros by their change in rankings from 1990 to today. Salt Lake City has moved furthest up the list, followed by Louisville, Norfolk, New Orleans, and Providence. Buffalo, Las Vegas, Hartford, Jacksonville, San Antonio, Charlotte, Portland, Oregon, and Detroit have also moved up considerably. Gates speculates that this may also have something to do with gay Americans feeling more comfortable speaking about their sexual orientations—even with pollsters on the phone. The number of Americans who identify as LGBT, Gates reports, has doubled, from 1.8 percent in 1992 to 3.6 percent today. Metros that have moved substantially down in the rankings include Minneapolis, San Diego, Sacramento, Houston, Raleigh, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Nashville, Milwaukee, Dallas, New York City, and Atlanta.

(Gates, Williams Insitutie)

Gates said one of the biggest takeaways is that the relative difference between metro area concentrations of LGBT individuals has substantially declined. “In 1990, San Francisco had a concentration of same sex couples that was ten times higher than the lowest metro area on my list,“ he wrote via email. “In the recent Gallup data, the relative difference between San Francisco and the lowest city is only about two times higher.” So while the country has become substantially more polarized along geographic lines—socially and politically—since the early 1990s, it appears that acceptance of LGBT people is an exception to the rule.

Still, even as America has grown more open-minded, the places gay Americans choose to live continue to tell us a lot about tolerance and diversity, Openness toward the LGBT population signals a broader ecosystem that is open to talent from across the spectrum, a place where all sorts of people can settle and mobilize resources to follow their dreams. As Big Sort author Bill Bishop once put it “where gay households abound, geeks follow.” That may be less the case today than it was in 1990, but the different situations LGBT people still face in places across the country still serves as a leading indicator of openness to cultural, social and even economic change.  

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