Innocent onlookers and passersby may at times wonder to themselves if the number of queer and LGBT people has in fact grown exponentially in the last couple of decades, and more with each passing year. Even I have a touch of innocence to me. But answers don’t come in black or white—rather, they span the entire spectrum of the rainbow, and then some. While there’s no doubt in my mind that the visibility of LGBTQ people and therefore communities has grown due to increasing acceptance, and while I am certain that people feel more comfortable identifying as queer or gay or trans now than they once did, I do not believe that the number of people who identify that way internally has really changed all that much. Yes, the vocabulary has changed, and yes, social media has happened to all of us. But discussion and magnification do not change the core of real, lived queerdom, do they?
Figures drawn from the largest representative sample of LGBT Americans collected in the US show that the number of American adults who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender increased from 3.5% in 2012to 4.1% in 2016. These numbers indicate that over 10 million adults now identify as LGBT in the US—about 1.75 million more than in 2012.
A 2015 report by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) on the sexual attitudes of millennials found “seven percent of millennials identify either as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.”The last major meta-analysis of the size of the LGBT population in the US, produced by the Williams Institute in 2011, estimated that 3.5% of adults identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and that 0.3% identified as transgender.
The fact that these numbers all point to an increase is what it is: an encouraging sign that people’s reluctance to come on out and self-report may be going the way of the dodo. As social acceptance of LGBT people rises, being labeled “gay” is not a big deal as it once was. While I’m in no way discounting the fresh hell many LGBTQ people undoubtedly suffer out in the world or at home with their families, we also live in an age where OKCupid offers 12 sexual orientation options and more than 20 gender ones.
In Canada, trans people’s right to use the name and gender pronouns they choose is protected by law–a hard-fought victory won by generations of queer and trans activists, artists, and scholars who continue to fight to ensure these legals rights are reflected in people’s behaviour. No easy task.
Early gay activists claimed that 1 out of every 10 people strayed from the straight and narrow. But as Gary J. Gates of the Williams Institute notes in a Washington Post op-ed, this 1-in-10 statistic, which continues to circulate informally today, was actually more strategic than it was factual. Interestingly, however, what the new data suggests is that more older Americans may be lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender than previous estimates led people to believe—indeed, the 1-in-10 stat may have in fact been closer to correct than critics thought. It seems highly unlikely, then, that the overall proportion of LGBT people has changed much over the last few generations. According to a recent study in the Journal of Sex Research that analyzed data from 1991 to 2010, the prevalence of reported same-sex sexual behavior has fluctuated a lot over the years, yet “the percentage of people reporting a pattern of predominantly same-gender sexual behavior has neither increased nor decreased over time.”
L, G, B, T, and Q, and all the identities outside of these and between these are not the same, and cannot be conflated, but stats are as of yet limited—as is the very notion of a statistic to begin with. If anything is clear, however, it’s that the existence of alternate genders, sexual orientations, and lifestyles are slowly but surely taking up the space they should. Still, outside the little circles of freedom that queer and trans communities have carved out, some level of repression is still required to stay safe and/or accepted in most places. Which is precisely why growing visibility—both in the stats and in the streets—continues to be integral to LGBTQ lives.
photo: soeursoeur , location: Cafe velour
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