A first-of-its-kind Gallup survey confirmed Friday what many people have long assumed — that the San Francisco area has the nation’s highest concentration of men and women who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
Few other areas come close.
But the survey of the biggest 50 metropolitan areas, which asked a question that has never been addressed by U.S. census takers, also revealed a surprising Bay Area split. The San Jose area appears to have one of the nation’s smallest gay communities — about half the size of San Francisco’s, per capita.
The difference may come down to a simple northward migration across Silicon Valley, with many people choosing to live in or near San Francisco because of its longtime progressive lean.
As the Gallup poll takers noted, many other cities with high concentrations of gay residents, such as New Orleans, Denver and Austin, Texas, “have reputations as socially progressive cities within states and regions that are much more conservative, perhaps making them regional hubs for the LGBT population.”
The poll of 374,325 people across the country, taken from mid-2012 to December of last year, found that 6.2 percent of respondents identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in the San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward area. The greater Portland, Ore., area was second, at 5.4 percent, followed by Austin, New Orleans and Seattle.
San Jose surprise
But the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara area ranked 47th in the nation, at 3.2 percent, placing it among such unlikely company as Memphis (3.1 percent), Pittsburgh (3 percent) and Birmingham, Ala. (2.6 percent).
“That’s pretty shocking,” said Tom Nolan, a gay rights leader and former San Mateo County supervisor. “Perhaps everybody comes into San Francisco now for nightlife. San Mateo County can’t sustain a single gay bar anymore.”
Nolan said the high cost of housing is almost certainly affecting who lives where, though it was not immediately clear why the north would outpoll the south so significantly, when housing prices in both towns are prohibitive.
State Sen. Mark Leno, who represents San Francisco, said the poll’s use of “diffuse metropolitan areas” instead of actual cities made the numbers trickier to interpret. The LGBT population of San Francisco, he said, is traditionally thought to be about 20 percent, with San Jose at 10 percent or more.
“I’m not even sure we’re comparing apples to apples,” he said.
But Wiggsy Sivertsen, a longtime South Bay LGBT activist, offered some possible explanations for the poll results.
“A lot of friends over the years have moved out of this valley and moved to San Francisco because in a sense that’s where the action is,” said Sivertsen, a professor emeritus at San Jose State University. San Jose “isn’t the kind of community that people are out and about — they go to work and come home. … There ends up being people like myself who are older, more settled and perfectly content to live here.”
Sivertsen, who lives in Los Gatos, said she suspects there are “many more gays and lesbians who live down here who are still fairly closeted, which tends to skew that statistic a bit.”
San Francisco is seen as a safer area to be out because of its entrenched LGBT culture, she said. “The culture makes it clear that this is your community.”
Ken Yeager, who as a Santa Clara County supervisor is the first openly gay elected official in the county, said he was among those polled. He suggested there may have been some awkwardness with the questions themselves — an unease that could vary by geography.
Poll takers asked people, “Do you, personally, identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender?” The margin of error was plus or minus one percentage point, Gallup said.
“I’m as out as out can be, and my first thought was, ‘Do I really want to tell Gallup that I’m gay?’” Yeager said. “There might be some hesitancy for some people to self-identify with someone they don’t know at all.”
Gallup analysts, too, said the relatively low numbers in the San Jose area were unexpected.
They acknowledged that the poll results were influenced by the boundaries of the metropolitan areas. The San Francisco metropolitan area includes San Mateo, Marin, Alameda and Contra Costa counties, while the San Jose area includes Santa Clara and San Benito counties.
“San Jose may be the most surprising metro area to be among the 10 lowest, because it is home to Silicon Valley and many technology companies that have been among the most vocal supporters of LGBT rights,” the pollsters said. “The low ranking could mean that many LGBT individuals who work in Silicon Valley choose to live closer to San Francisco and its vibrant LGBT social scene.”