The highly-respected Gallup Poll just interviewed a random sample of 15,349 American adults about their sexual orientation and identity. We have their results, but the meaning of the numbers is very much up for grabs.
First, the basics: 5.6% of Americans say they identify as LGBT. That includes 3.1% who identify as bisexual, 1.4% who identify as gay, under 1% identifying as lesbian, and under 1% identifying as trans. In a country of 254 million adults, that totals 14 million people—about the same as the population of Illinois.
Clearly, that’s a lot of people. What’s less clear is what these various people mean by identifying as LGBT. It gets even more complex when it comes to Generation Z, people born since 1997 (i.e., currently 18-24 years old). In this poll, one of six “Zoomers” consider themselves LGBT. And of these LGBT-identified people, almost 3/4 say they’re bisexual.
So what do these numbers mean? It’s hard to tell. The definition of “sexual orientation” used to be pretty clear: it described the gender of people whom you were attracted to and had sex with.
In a radical shift, many people now use it to name the community they identify with. And that can be a problem both for public policy and personal relationships.
For example, my 12-year-old niece has never had sex, but says she’s LGBT—because she believes in “equality” (not because she’s interested in sex or attracted to anyone). That can be a problem if at some point she feels she needs to be sexual only in a way that fits this identity. Imagine her confusion if in five years she’s only attracted to males. Will she feel that betrays her allegiance to “equality?” Will her LGBT-identified friends diss her for abandoning the LGBT “cause?”
(And yes, I’d have the same concerns if she proudly declared herself “heterosexual” because of “equality” or any other ideological reason.)
Similarly, I have adult patients wanting to behave in sexually non-traditional ways—gay, poly, sapiosexual, whatever. “But,” say some of them, “I don’t identify with the label.” When I ask why, they often say, “I don’t want to be part of that community, I just want to have sex the way I want to.” Sometimes they say “I don’t want people to think I’m part of that group.”
In the most extreme cases, some kids are now saying they’re trans because they believe in equality, not because they have gender dysphoria. Or they’re trans because they see it as a way out of their current interpersonal or psychological dilemmas. This can lead to a lot of heartache all the way around.
Note: This isn’t what I think, it’s what some formerly trans kids say after deciding they’re not trans after all. People who simply report this fact are NOT trans-phobic, just like journalists who report that African-Americans have higher rates of diabetes than whites aren’t racist.
As a therapist, new patients frequently tell me their orientation early in the first session. Naming your “orientation” (say, asexual or demisexual) is completely different than saying “I don’t have erotic attraction to anyone” or “I’m only attracted to people with whom I’m emotionally close” or whatever description is accurate. Of course, I believe and accept whatever patients tell me is their lived experience of their attraction, fantasies, and preferences. Of course.
Orientation as Identity?
These days, sexual orientation is often discussed as an identity—who you are—which of course comes with baggage and context (the same way that ethnic, religious, racial, and other identities do). By contrast, feelings are, well, feelings, which are not who you are, and which could change anytime without requiring an upheaval in identity.
It should go without saying (but continually needs to be repeated) that everyone should have the right to be attracted to, and to have any kind of consensual sex with, anyone they want. This simple aspiration should transcend all questions of sexual orientation and gender identity. Unfortunately, some people feel they can be respected and seen solely through the lens of their unique sexual identity, and so they feel compelled to defend it every moment they can, regardless of whether they’re actually being attacked, and regardless of the larger political or social consequences.
For centuries, non-heterosexuals fought for the right to be considered “just people,” someone who happened to be gay or kinky or poly or whatever. While accepting the truth of their attractions and preferences, most non-heterosexual people didn’t necessarily want the world to think that that was the most important thing about them.
Times have changed. Especially among many younger people, once someone identifies as queer, non-binary, non-gendered, etc., they want everyone to know this fact about them, and not just to respect it (which of course is reasonable), but to care about it.
But just as I can be friends with someone without knowing that they’re a devout Mormon, I can be friends with someone without knowing their sexual identity. Not knowing or caring about someone’s religion or ethnicity isn’t disrespectful. And not knowing or caring about someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity isn’t disrespectful, either.
This isn’t privilege talking, this is equality talking. If this sounds like privilege to you, what assumptions are you making about my sexual orientation and identity?
Of course, if I want to know someone really well, there’s a lot of personal things I’ll have to discover: their passion for fishing. Their father’s alcoholism. Their love of the Bible. Their acrimonious divorce. Their delight in Bulgarian music, now that they’re exploring their Bulgarian heritage.
And yes, the fact that they identify as kinky or non-binary or trans or a furry or whatever their sexuality is.
And, as my niece would say, the fact that they believe in equality.
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