Religion, Gender, and Sexuality (in the US)

Featured Image Credit: Huffington Post.

By Paul A. Djupe, Denison University

Battles over same-sex marriage dominated the 2000s and the nation has been waging bathroom wars as a vehicle for expanding transgender rights. So much of American politics has been orbiting the pelvis that we might have emerged with a distorted, mythical view that the religious and LGBT communities exist apart from one another.

The newly released Cooperative Congressional Election Study dataset with its massive sample size of nearly 65,000 people offers an unparalleled view at the gender identity and sexuality of Americans and American religion. The authors of the “common content” portion of the dataset that is publicly available had the foresight to ask the sexual orientation and gender identity of respondents. The sample size provides us with 1,041 respondents who identified as transgender (1.85% unweighted, 2.06% weighted), and 4,737 respondents who identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (8.33% unweighted, 8.00% weighted).

One quick note before diving into the data: while we often use the LGBT acronym, a transgender identity is not an exclusive category but rather overlaps with sexual orientation – please see the figure in the notes for a view of the overlap. Thus, I will present figures for sexual orientation and transgender identity separately.

Despite the culture war clashes of the past 3 decades and the deplorable things that have been said about LGBT Americans (or just opposition to their equal rights) by a select portion of religious conservatives, there are many LGBT Americans in houses of worship. The figure below shows the proportion of each religious tradition represented in the CCES dataset that identifies as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB). It is not surprising to see more LGB individuals identify with a non-religious group and the highest proportion LGB of any religious group is among atheists (20%). But many are still present in religious traditions. Higher proportions are non-Christian, especially high among Buddhists (17.6%), though Hindu proportions resemble Christian proportions. Christians do not differ markedly from each other and range from 2.9% (Mormon) to 6.3% (Mainline).

Figure 1 – Proportion of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Americans across Religious Traditions

LGB of Reltrad

The proportion of each religious tradition identifying as transgender is smaller (the population mean is about 2%) and more evenly spread (see Figure 2 below). Non-Christians are more likely to identify as transgender, especially among Muslims. Here, Mormons are indistinguishable from Jews, Catholics, and non-white evangelicals (among others). White evangelicals have the lowest identification rates at just under 1%, which is not much below Black Protestants and Mainline Protestants. The non-religious do not stand out meaningfully from other groups in the proportion who are transgender.

Figure 2 – The Proportion of Transgender Americans Across Religious Traditions

Trans of Reltrad

A common question attempts to sort Protestants by asking whether they identify as “born again or evangelical Christian.” The results by sexual orientation and transgender identity are shown in the figure below. Transgender Americans lead the way with 44 percent, while heterosexuals trail with just under 30 percent identifying. As with the religious tradition results, gay men identify with the born again label at the lowest rates (11.5%), though they are not distinguishable from lesbian and bisexual Americans (both 13-14%).

Figure 3 – ‘Born Again’ Identity by Sexual Orientation and Transgender Identity

born again

Clearly, people with varied sexual and gender identities are spread across American religious groups. Though they may identify with a religious group, do they engage in religious behaviors? The following figure shows the average attendance and private prayer rates by sexual orientation and transgender identity (among those who identify with a religious group, so excluding atheists and other non-religious identifiers). Heterosexuals average attending just over “a few times a year,” while gay men attend just under that mark (about half a category below). Lesbians attend at a slightly higher rate than gay men and are indistinguishable from bisexuals. The highest attendance rates are among transgender Americans who attend just above “once or twice a month.” The frequency of private prayer follows the same general pattern, though transgender Americans do not pray at distinguishably higher rates from others – both average just over “a few times a week.”

Figure 4 – Church Attendance and Private Prayer by Sexual Orientation and Transgender IdentityLGBT of Prayer and Attendance

Access to small datasets leave us gasping for information about small groups in society, especially ones that are the target of so much attention in American politics as the LGBTQ communities. The CCES has given us a wide open window on sexual orientation, transgender identity, and religion that should put to an end any easy assumptions about them. LGBT Americans are not irreligious and they are spread around the many religious traditions in the United States, especially but not nearly exclusively in non-Christian and non-religious groups. There are so many followup questions to ask about the link between religious identity and political identities and behavior. But this, at least, gives us a great platform on which to start those quests.

Paul A. Djupe is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the former editor of Politics & Religion, and the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple). Further information about his work can be found at his website and occasionally on Twitter.


1. As explained in the text, anyone may have a transgender identity whatever their sexual orientation. The proportions are not even, but still indicate that transgender is not a type of sexual orientation.

trans of sexuality


  1. […] An alternate way of going about this eschews the attendance filter altogether and thinks about classifying people based on their identification.[1] Even if people are not exposed to religious messages through attendance, they may still be disposed toward particular religious messages or hold particular beliefs and values because of their identification. There are (at least!) two ways to go about this. We could rely simply on individual identifications as “born again or evangelical.” Of those typically classified denominationally into mainline Protestantism, around ⅖ identify as evangelical (that’s true in 2018 – see below). At the same time, 20% of denominational evangelicals are not identifiers (26% in the 2018 CCES). So, there is definitely some play in the joints from using one approach or the other. But also note that Catholics, Nones, and Jews identify as born again as well. One really intriguing finding not in evidence here is the very high rate of born again identities among the transgender community. […]


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