Friday, February 26, 2021

What we identify as

 The Gallup organization has put up one of those headlines that, while not a lie, gets it wrong: LGBT Identification Rises to 5.6% in Latest U.S. Estimate. You can see how this happened. The headline says there is a social trend. And it's not completely wrong.

Today, society largely approves of LGBT identification, so, not surprisingly, the number of people so identifying has risen. Ann Althouse notes that for our generation, who grew up with the belief that ten percent of the population was gay, it seems a low number. She adds, "And most of it — 3.1% — are identifying as bisexual. Only 1.4% are gay men, and only 0.7% are lesbian.

What interests me is the breakdown within groups. It's obvious from that one line that more men identify as gay than women identify as lesbian. But what of the 3.1 percent who identify as bisexual? How does that group slit up? As it turns out, exactly as I would have guessed. 

  • Women are more likely than men to identify as LGBT (6.4% vs. 4.9%, respectively).

  • Women are more likely to identify as bisexual -- 4.3% do, with 1.3% identifying as lesbian and 1.3% as something else. Among men, 2.5% identify as gay, 1.8% as bisexual and 0.6% as something else.

 The other completely unsurprising result is that people are more comfortable identifying as LGBT as they get younger:

Americans' Self-Identified Sexual Orientation, by Generation

Bisexual Gay Lesbian Transgender Other

% % % % %
Generation Z (born 1997-2002) 11.5 2.1 1.4 1.8 0.4
Millennials (born 1981-1996) 5.1 2.0 0.8 1.2 0.4
Generation X (born 1965-1980) 1.8 1.2 0.7 0.2 0.1
Baby boomers (born 1946-1964) 0.3 1.2 0.4 0.2 0.0
Traditionalists (born before 1946) 0.3 0.3 0.2 0.3 0.1
Figures represent the percentage of all adult members of each generation who have that sexual orientation
Gallup, 2020

The bisexual number goes from tiny, 0.3% to significant in very little time. The jump starts with Gen X who are born after 1965. That is to say, it's only after the major cultural shift of the 1970s that things start to shift. But even at that, look at how much more significant the shift in bisexual numbers is than any other category. If we take boomers as are benchmark, the percentage of people identifying as gay has increased 1.75 times in four generations. The jump is more dramatic with lesbians where the number of people so identifying has increased 3.5 times. Not surprisingly, the number of people identifying as transgender is really dramatic, increasing 9 times in four generations. But all three of those categories put together are dwarfed by the number identifying as bisexual which has increased 38 times!

My guess is that that 11.5% probably accurately represents the number of Generation Zers who have had sex with a member of the same sex at least once in their life. That is, in fact, the one-in-ten claim that Ann Althouse and I both grew up with. The source of this is Alfred Kinsey whom I suspect wanted as high a number as possible for gay men and therefore counted every male who reported having had sex with another man as gay. I would also guess that the slightly higher percentage in the latest Gallup survey is a function of women being more likely to have a same sex experience in their late teens and early twenties than men are.

Suppose you had sex with another girl or another boy at camp back when you were 17. That was the one and only time you ever did but you still remember that encounter fondly and you sometimes fantasize about it and when you do you get aroused. Is that enough to cause you to identify as bisexual? The answer to that would probably depend on circumstance. To be confronted with someone who hopes you might be interested in a same-sex experience with them requires far more of a commitment than answering a question on an anonymous survey. And it becomes easier and easier to answer the survey question as the attitudes in the culture around you shift. 

The whole point of such a survey is to ask you questions such that you are only answerable to yourself. If you tell the nice person from Gallup that you identify as a particular category, they aren't going to challenge you to prove it. I would think that if you had a same-sex experience as a teenager but never again and are now 23, it's a lot easier to say you identify as bisexual than it will be if you are currently 33, 43, or 53 and have not had a same sex experience since 17. The question, after all, is not about what you have or have not done, but what you identify as. The longer the gap, the more it might begin to feel more accurate to say, "Yes I did that but that wasn't really me." And it seems to me that you should be the ultimate authority as to what you identify as.

Ultimately, I think Ann Althouse reads this correctly—the most significant thing about these numbers is how low they are. I'd conclude that we've seen a huge shift in attitudes towards LGBT people but our society remains overwhelmingly heterosexual and that isn't going to change. Society is not going to change that much. For some people this will be a bitter disappointment.

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