How Many of Us Are There?

2009 April 15
by admin

I keep seeing the figure “an estimated 36,000” binational couples. It’s in just about every article discussing our plight, and it’s even the figure used by Immigration Equality (formerly, the Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force).

Add that to the 51,445 binational couples estimated to currently be living in the United States, and you get a total of: 94,330 binational couples worldwide in which one partner is an American citizen.

But how accurate is that number? I contacted Victoria Neilson, the Legal Director of Immigration Equality, and she kindly responded quickly. They’re getting that figure from the Charles R. Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the UCLA School of Law, which in turn gets the figure from an analysis of the 2000 census.

I located the appendix of the report that Ms. Neilson referred me to, and interestingly, the report states that the number is an undercount and provides six reasons why. Coupled with the fact that those self-reported Census numbers are now 9 years old, it really begs the question: How many of us are there, really?

Not just self-reported, not just in the USA, and not 9 years ago but now. I’m trying to get a more current figure, that would be an actual estimate (instead of a clear undercount that is almost always portrayed as an estimate). Not only are those figures 9 years old, self-reported, and only for persons residing within the United States, but with a large increase in Americans living abroad between the last Census and now, surely a more accurate figure would be much, much higher.

Why does it matter? Politics. The larger the number — the more of us there are, the more likely that Congress is to act. I am not an academic, but let me give it a shot here, just to see what we come up with. According to the Association of American Residents Overseas, there are currently 6.6 million non-military Americans living abroad. The 2000 census showed approximately 600,000 self-reported same-sex couples. Because we know that figure is an undercount, just for the sake of argument, let’s bump it up a bit. Let’s assume it’s an undercount of, say, 30 percent. That would bring the 2000 census figures for same-sex couples to 780,000. Applying the same formula used by the Williams institute (6 percent of total), that would result in a number of in-country binational same-sex couples at 46,800 for the year 2000.

Would Congress be more likely to get off their duffs and act if they kept hearing an estimate of nearly 100,000 U.S. citizens worldwide in binational relationships?

Estimated same-sex couples in the U.S. as a share of total population in 2000 (281,421,906) is 0.28%. Apply that to current estimate of U.S. population (306,223,158), and you get: 857,425 same-sex couples. Apply the Williams’ Institute’s estimate of 6 percent of total to get binational same-sex couples, and you get: 51,445. In the USA.

Dealing with binational couples living abroad (or separated, one here, one there) gets more complex. Should we assume that the same share of Americans living abroad are same-sex couples? My gut tells me no. My gut tells me, based on my years of living abroad, that the percentage of Americans living abroad who are gay is much higher than that of those living in the USA. I have no real evidence other than the anecdotal for that. But… indulge me anyway: Let’s assume that the share of American expatriates who are gay/bisexual/transgender is significantly higher than in the U.S. proper. Let’s assume it’s twice as high — 20%, by some estimates. Plug in the numbers for the 6.6 million figure, and you get it boiled down to a total number of same-sex couples living abroad of 51,190 (1,848,000 gay expatriates x 2.77%).

Now, the share of same-sex couples within the USA who are binational is 6 percent. Surely the share that are living abroad would be much, much higher, just by virtue of their location. If you’re in a same-sex relationship and you’re living abroad, surely your relationship is very likely to be binational. I’m going to go out on a limb (but not very far) and say that the share of expatriate same-sex couples that are binational is, say, 75% of same-sex couples living abroad. That would bring binational couples living abroad to 38,392 (already higher than that puny “36,000” TOTAL number).

Add that to the 51,445 binational couples estimated to currently be living in the United States, and you get a total of: 89,838 binational couples worldwide who are living together in which one partner is an American citizen. Now how do we account for those who are in binational relationships but are separated by these horribly unfair immigration laws? Let’s put forth a conservative number and say that only 5% of all binational couples are currently separated by law, resulting in an additional 4,492 couples (38,392 x 0.05). Add that to 89,838 subtotal from above, and you get: 94,330.

Would Congress be more likely to get off their duffs and act if they kept hearing an estimate of nearly 100,000 U.S. citizens worldwide in binational relationships?

Surely the above assumptions include a few mistakes here and there. But my point is: can’t we get some professional demographer to come up with a current, realistic estimate, instead of relying on a decade-old known undercount and presenting it as a current, accurate estimate?

4 Responses leave one →
  1. 2009 August 22
    ZoeO permalink

    Your effort to provide a more realistic picture of our numbers makes an important contribution to understanding how many couples are presently suffering from the discrimination in U.S. immigration law that does not permit us to sponsor our permanent partners.

    Although most gays and lesbian Americans are unaware of our plight, as were so many of us who only learned of it when we landed in it, it is reasonable to assert that ‘it could happen to you’ to potentially any other second class gay or lesbian American could conceivable join our third class ranks should they happen to find a great love and want to make a life commitment to a foreign national person. And the likelihood is much greater these days since so many people, gay or straight, are finding love in far-flung places of the globe thanks to the internet.

    Therefore, really, the numbers aren’t really relevant if they don’t potentially include all LGBT Americans because the discrimination affecting bi-national couples will become any one of their reality should they find themselves in a serious, long term relationship with a foreign national. This is an equality issue. As things stand now, LGBT Americans are only allowed to love and partner other Americans! They are not permitted to sponsor foreign partners. This reality should be a wake-up call; it should be felt as the insult it is to all LGBT citizens. Do they realize their ability to partner is circumscribed in this manner?

    Until we hear otherwise, advocacy groups and others citing the 36,000 figure should take care to use it with an advisory. It was an under-count a decade ago and it is an even less reliable number now. It does not accurately reflect our presence in the population nor does it honestly reflect the extent of the potential for harm it presents to all LGBT Americans.

    Personally, I am comfortable using your findings, Mr. Admin, with a reference to this article and in fact, I did just that when I wrote to President Obama last week, after being inspired from reading it. I would be happy to make that letter, as well as another letter I wrote to the President available here if you are interested in sharing it with your readers. I am also sending versions of these letters to members of Congress in my campaign to pass the UAFA as soon as possible.

    Thank you and best wishes to you. Keep up the great work!

  2. 2009 August 20
    admin permalink

    An update on this: I recently contacted the original author of the Williams Institute study re: these numbers, and he was very gracious in providing me with a personal, lengthy response. He reviewed the numbers in the above article and kindly offered a couple of corrections:
    1) The actual count of same-sex couples in Census 2000 was 594,391 (In the article above, I had rounded up to 600,000 before adjusting for undercount.)
    2) He pointed out that the post assumed that 10% of adults in the US are GLB and that most population-based surveys find that figure to be between 3 and 5 percent.

    On the second point, I had used the original Kinsey number (10%), but only when estimating GLBs living abroad – not in the U.S. population in general. I continue to believe that the proportion of GLBs among expatriates is much higher than among the domestic U.S. population, for several reasons:
    1) U.S. citizens living abroad tend to be younger, wealthier, and more highly educated than the U.S. population as a whole, and I’m assuming here that youth, wealth, and higher education are all factors that point toward a higher incidence of LGBT folks.
    2) As someone on the Out4Immigration list pointed out (privately), “people who, in large number, were disaffected back at home and view themselves as outsiders, misfits, renegades, rebels, individualistic natures, … it is quite natural to expect that such groups do in fact contain higher numbers of GLB people in an ex-pat community than one finds happy at home.
    3) Personal observation from my 4+ years spent living abroad. Counting the expats whom I knew (whose sexual orientation I was aware of), I came up with a share that is actually much higher than 20% (2x Kinsey) — I came up with a share of an amazing 35%! Anecdotal, I know, but sometimes, “seeing is believing.”

    Dr. Gates agreed that among those who have a partner, US expats are more likely than the resident counterparts to be binational. But he also said that he thinks it’s likely that expats are less likely to be partnered than residents.

    Finally, Dr. Gates did state that “our [the Williams Institute’s] most recent estimate is that there are about 40,000 US resident same-sex couples who are binational.” Again, that’s within the U.S. only.

    Based on revised numbers, I recalculated and came up with an estimate for total binational couples worldwide in which one partner is a U.S. citizen (or green card holder) ranging from a low of 53,008 (assuming that LGBT incidence of expats is roughly the same as the domestic U.S. population) to 132,997 (when I plugged in my personal observations of incidence of LGBT among expats whom I knew).

    The upshot is that 36,000 is definitely a serious undercount, and it’s not even the official estimate anymore, based on data from 2005-2007, already 2-4 years old, from the same source that supplied the original number.

  3. 2009 April 20
    dukie permalink

    On Friday April 10, Shirley Tan received a decision from the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA).
    The BIA has given Shirley until May 10, 2009 (Mother’s Day) to “voluntarily depart,” meaning she is out of options to remain in the U.S.
    If she were straight, and married her American partner Jay Mercado tomorrow, she could immediately petition for a green card.
    In the short-term, Shirley and her family can only hope for an extraordinary measure to keep her in the U.S.
    In the long-term, the best hope for the Tan-Mercado family is a change to the U.S. immigration law – passage of the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) – which would provide lesbian and gay Americans the same opportunity to sponsor their partners for immigration that straight Americans have.
    more information on

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