More People Are Now Queer, Which Means…What?

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The percent of U.S. adults who identify as something other than heterosexual has doubled over the last 10 years, from 3.5 percent in 2012 to 7.1 percent, according to a Gallup poll released Thursday.

The increase comes primarily from a rise in such identities among the youngest U.S. adults.

Some people say this is a good thing. Others say it’s a bad thing. I say we have no idea what this actually means.

Because “LGBTQ+” now means so many things to so many people, we can’t say much about the fact that more people identify this way. It’s like saying more people identify as “patriots.” Or as “independent.”

(Gallup notes that “respondents who volunteer another identity (e.g., queer, pansexual) are included in the LGBT estimate,” so it really is a “+” or “queer” category they’re using.)

We can say this: these days, more people want to identify themselves as outside conventional sexual expectations. They’re into BDSM, or non-monogamy, or they go to cuddle parties. This is especially true of Generation Z, those born in 1997 or later. Of course, that’s true in every generation since 1900—young people announce their intention to reinvent sex. They scandalize their elders, influence popular culture, and think they’re unique.


No problem there.

Today, however, young people don’t think of their traditional (!) sexual experimentation as simply behavior. For many, “LGBTQ+” (and “queer”) is an identity. It’s a club. Being gay (and bi) used to be a small closeted club, and now it mostly isn’t, because the world has moved forward. And so, for example, there are now fewer urban gay bars, because gay people mostly go to any bar they like. Similarly, Chinese people’s assimilation into American society has led to the decline of most Chinatowns—they just aren’t as necessary as they used to be.

What no one knows is how many of today’s Gen Z’s self-identified queer people will still identify as queer when they’re 40. Or what it will mean if they do.

With the addition of T (transgender) to LGB, the category LGBT is no longer necessarily about who you sleep with or are attracted to. It now includes some people who sees themselves as outside of some socio-cultural gender normativity.

That’s fine, of course.

And this has opened the door to other groups jockeying for inclusion in the “queer” category, such as self-described asexuals, demisexuals, and those questioning their identity. The “+” in LGBTQ+ makes it clear that the category is for anyone who feels a kinship to others in the group. That kinship won’t necessarily be about parallels in attraction or sexual expression (as it was for LGB), but rather in rejecting various social ideas about gender and eroticism. Or to put it in more positive terms, the category includes anyone who celebrates fluidity, experimentation, and comfort with ambiguity.

That’s fine, of course.

As people expand the category, what will it mean in 5, 10, or 15 years? If it means “I reject the gender binary,” fine—although the majority of gay people don’t. If it means “I reject discrimination based on sexuality,” fine—most straight people now do, too. And if it means “I’m young and transgressive and flaunt my ambiguity,” fine—although that doesn’t exactly make you kindred to LGBT people who want to marry, adopt children, serve in the military, or be a city’s mayor.

But now that an individual’s sexual identity can change, and as new categories of sexual identity will almost certainly be developed in the next few years, we don’t know how stable anyone’s sexual identity will be as they age.

So as we look ahead, there are two moving targets:

  • What LGBTQ+ will mean;
  • How people will identify as they age.

And in that respect, the new “sexual identity” is like the old “sexual interest”—fluid, temporary, uniquely personal.

And that’s fine. Although it’s not exactly big news.

Last month, my neighbor’s 11-year-old proudly announced that she’s queer. She’s never been romantically involved with anyone, and she loves being a girl. So when her dad asked her what “queer” means, she said “it means I believe that everyone should be able to love and marry whoever they want.”

What a wonderful sentiment. Whether she’s queer, of course, is another matter altogether. Or is that what “queer” now means–not who you’re attracted to, but rather what you believe?

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