October 15, 2015

America’s Coming Out on Facebook

By: Bogdan State, Nils Wernerfelt

In honor of National Coming Out Day (October 11) and #SpiritDay (October 15), this post examines how some highly-public moments for the LGBT community affected support for this movement and the rate at which people came out on Facebook. Examining aggregated, de-identified information about people in the U.S. on Facebook, we look at the total number of people who came out on each day. We define “coming out” as (1) updating one’s profile to express a same-gender attraction or (2) specifying a custom gender (this tool, which was introduced in February 2014, allows people to better express their gender identity on Facebook).

We report three major trends. First, consistent with popular perceptions, the last year has witnessed steady growth in the number and rate of people coming out on Facebook. Second, support for LGBT groups has likewise increased. Finally, the Supreme Court Obergefell ruling had a strong effect on the number of people coming out on Facebook and support for LGBT groups.

Coming Out on Facebook

Figure 1 plots the total number of Americans who have come out on Facebook since National Coming Out Day in 2014. The plot shows the percentage of individuals who came out on Facebook each day as a percentage of those who came out on October 11th, 2014 (National Coming Out Day). For instance, on June 26th 2015 – the day of the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality- the line intersects the y-axis at just above 250%. This indicates that the number of people, in total, who came out on Facebook on this day was roughly 2.5x higher than it was on October 11th of the previous year:

*Figure 1

Over the past year, approximately 800,000 Americans updated their profile to express a same-gender attraction or custom gender. Further, not only has the total number of Americans who have come out on Facebook risen dramatically, but so has the number coming out each day. As the chart demonstrates, the number of people on Facebook coming out per day is on track to be three times what it was a year ago.

This graph also shows periods in which there are sharp increases in the number of people coming out on Facebook. The most obvious increase is seen following the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, indicated by the red vertical line. On a typical day, one out of every ten people who change their “interested in” status on Facebook do so to reflect a same-gender interest. On the day of the Supreme Court ruling, this ratio was double, one out of every five people. Additionally, in the days following the June 26 Supreme Court decision, we saw more than 26 million people display a rainbow filter on their profile picture.

Currently, more than 6 million Americans have come out on Facebook (based on the criteria used in Figure 1). Since we only consider those who have expressed a same-gender attraction or list a custom gender on their Facebook profiles, it is likely that this figure is an underestimate of the total number of “out” Americans. Strikingly, of those who are out on Facebook, approximately 78% made this change to their profile since the beginning of 2012. While this figure may be somewhat conflated by growth in the number of people on Facebook, the sheer magnitude of this increase suggests that the LGBT movement has made significant strides in recent years.

*Figure 2

The fraction of out LGBT people on Facebook per state varies widely across the country, with some states having more than double the fraction in others.

Support for LGBT Groups

Approximately 5.7 million Americans are fans of at least one of the 300 most popular LGBT pages (this list includes the large organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD or Equality Now, as well as many smaller pages). Below, we plot the numbers of new fans of LGBT-affiliated pages acquired during the past year, normalized against the value on October 11th, 2014.

*Figure 3

The total number of fans of LGBT pages has increased close to 25% over the past year, with a noticeable leap around the recent Supreme Court decision.

Again, we see an increase in fan numbers around the June 26 Supreme Court ruling: in fact, fan pages for LGBT-rights groups acquired over 150,000 new fans during the five days following the decision. While this event marked the largest single increase in support for LGBT pages, we also see spikes on the Sunday following World AIDS Day (December 1st 2014) and on the day of oral arguments at the Supreme Court in the Obergefell case (April 28th, 2015 – though this effect may have been amplified due to Diane Sawyer’s interview of Caitlyn Jenner on April 24).