A recent Gallup survey of more than 12,000 Americans shows that the proportion of US adults who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning/queer/nonbinary/pansexual, the “+” in LGBT+, has reached a record share of the nation’s population, 7 percent. That’s double the 3.5 percent share a similar Gallup poll showed in 2012.
Almost all of the increase reflected young adults’ greater identification as LGBT+. Here’s the generational breakdown:
- Generation Z (born 1997-2003): 21 percent identify as LGBT+
- Millennials (1981-1996): 11 percent
- Generation X (1965-1980): 4 percent
- Baby Boomers (1946-1964): 3 percent
- Traditionalists (before 1946): 1 percent
Generation Z is now replacing the increasingly elderly Traditionalist Americans. Gen Z comprised 7 percent of the adult population in 2017 but grew to 12 percent by 2021 as death claimed many Traditionalists, and their share of the population fell from 11 to 8 percent.
Gallup began compiling statistics on the LGBT+ population in 2012. Since then, among those born before 1981—Gen X, Baby Boomers, and Traditionalists—the proportion identifying as LGBT+ has held fairly steady. Among Millennials, there was a modest increase, from 6 to 8 percent. But among Gen Z, the proportion LGBT+ identification almost doubled from 11 to 21 percent.
Corroborating this finding, a recent survey based on Centers for Disease Control data shows that while the proportion of adults identifying as transgender is around 0.5 percent, the proportion of teenagers who consider themselves trans is almost three times that, 1.4 percent.
But Isn’t 10 Percent of the Population Non-Heterosexual?
For 75 years, social scientists have struggled to determine the proportion of the population that’s LGBT+. Shortly after World War II, a research team led by Indiana University’s Alfred Kinsey, the first major sex researcher, interviewed several thousand Americans. Ten percent of them said they were not exclusively heterosexual. But Kinsey’s sample was far from representative. His interviewers talked with anyone willing to talk to them, including patrons of many gay bars, which skewed his findings toward overstating the LGBT+ share of the population.
Subsequent studies based on more representative samples have found that only 3 to 5 percent of the population is not exclusively heterosexual. But during the 1970s, as gay activists urged LGBT+ folks to come out, they adopted the slogan “We Are Everywhere,” and seized on Kinsey’s 10 percent estimate, which became the conventional wisdom. Now Gallup says the real figure is 7 percent, greater than previous studies, but less than Kinsey’s estimate.
Why This Change?
What accounts for the recent increase in LGBT+ identification? That’s not entirely clear, but social scientists have advanced several possible explanations:
- Acceptance, While most social and religious conservatives continue to rail against any identity other than cisgender heterosexual, these days, Americans are increasingly accepting those who identify as LGBT+. Greater acceptance has freed many closeted folks to come out.
- Safety, The LGBT+ population has become much more visible, vocal, politically active, and influential. As a result, anti-discrimination statutes once reserved for racial minorities have been increasingly extended to include sexual and gender minorities. As a result, more people feel safer about coming out.
- Experimentation, Post-Kinsey studies of sexual preference show that around 10 percent of Americans experience same-gender erotic play before settling into whichever sexual identity they eventually embrace. Some decide they’re gay/lesbian/bisexual. Most conclude they’re heterosexual. Sexual and gender experimentation is by far most prevalent among young adults, the group showing the largest jump in LGBT+ identification. As LGBT+ identity becomes more accepted and safer, it makes sense that more young adults would experiment with it. Will they remain LGBT+? We’ll have to stay tuned for surveys a decade or two in the future.
- Endocrine disrupters? Sexual and gender identification is shaped to some extent by sex hormones. It’s not totally controlled by these hormones, but hormones have some influence. For most of human history, sex hormones were synthesized only in the body. But after World War II, plastics, pesticides (DDT and others), and many industrial chemicals introduced compounds similar to estrogen into the environment. Some found their way into our food and water supply, and eventually into us. These unnatural estrogens—”xenoestrogens,” xeno means foreign—have tilted some animal species’ hormone balances toward female, and have interfered with male reproductive organs in alligators and other wildlife species. Some scientists also blame xenoestrogens for observed declines in human sperm counts. Might xenoestrogens play a role in today’s surge in gender questioning and transitioning?
The Irony of Bisexuality
In the Gallup survey, most of those identifying as LGBT+ said they were bisexual:
- Bisexual: 57 percent of those declaring themselves something other than cisgender heterosexual
- Gay: 21 percent
- Lesbian: 14 percent
- Transgender: 10 percent
- Other (queer, nonbinary, pansexual, etc.): 4 percent
Again, bisexuality was age-related. Those most likely to declare themselves bisexual were the youngest adults, with each older age group less and less likely to claim bisexuality.
Social and religious conservatives who decree homosexuality and gender transitioning rarely mention bisexuality. The same goes for the news media. Meanwhile, bisexuals are far from invisible. Google “bisexuality,” and you get close to 500 million hits. But within the LGBT+ population, bisexuals are the group that’s least culturally visible. This is ironic given that they represent the largest group within the LGBT+ population. For more on bisexuality, see my previous post.
Beyond Sexuality: The New Gender-Identity Tribalism
Many applications for passports, driver’s licenses, and other official documents ask one’s sex—male or female. But in the 21st century, that’s outdated. These forms actually want to know applicants’ gender. The meanings of the terms “sex” and “gender,” once more or less synonymous, have diverged. Gender is who you are. Sex is who you fantasize undressing. LGBT+ conflates the two. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual indicate sexuality, while transgender, queer, and non-binary denote gender.
Today’s young adults are experimenting not only with sexual preference but also with gender identity. A generation ago, “queer” meant gay or lesbian. No longer. The definition of queer has evolved and now refers to those of any gender or sexual preference who think it’s fine to be something other than cisgender heterosexual. Today, to be queer is to belong to an almost tribal group of like-minded thinkers who reject traditional notions of sexuality and gender.
Case in point: A friend has a neighbor with an 11-year-old daughter who recently told her parents she’s queer. This girl enjoys being a girl, has never questioned being female, and has never had partner sex with anyone. So how could she be queer? Her father asked her what it means to be queer. “It means I believe that everyone should be able to love and marry whoever they want.”
I couldn’t agree more. Who knows? Maybe yours truly, a geezer cisgender heterosexual, is queer, too.