The LGBTsQewing of America
According to a February 2022 Gallup poll that should have been far bigger news than it was, a whopping 20 percent—one in five, that is—of Generation Z American adults (born 1997-2003) now identify as LGBTQ. That trend shows a sharp upward slope with every successive generation. In fact, LGBTQ identification has roughly doubled with each new generation: The respective numbers for millennials (born 1981-1996), Generation X (born 1965-1980), baby boomers (born 1946-1964), and those born before 1946 are 10.5 percent, 4.2 percent, 2.6 percent, and 0.8 percent. Looking at Americans as a whole, 7.1 percent of us now identify as LGBTQ, double the 3.5 percent who so identified in 2012, not so very long ago.
The identitarian advocate’s take on this development will undoubtedly be that it reflects nothing more than growing freedom, the growing openness within a previously repressive society to once-suppressed modes of sexual expression. It was always the case, that narrative would go, that some 20 percent of us, or perhaps even more, had non-traditional sexual preferences, but society used to force all but the boldest and most determined into a single narrow lane. Sexual preference, after all, is biologically determined and not a choice, as we are repeatedly told by advocates.
That narrative, I would suggest, is patently absurd. It is itself the result of a pernicious mode of suppression, the suppression of speech and science that would point in a different and more obvious direction. The reality, as history and science convincingly demonstrate, is that human sexuality is highly malleable and amenable to social cues, norms, and proscriptions.
Take a case in which the range of acceptable sexual practices has narrowed rather than broadening over time, namely, the age of consent. In the ancient and medieval world, marriage largely tracked biological maturity. Girls could be married, often to significantly older men, at tender ages such as 14 or 15, if not younger. The acceptable marriage age was 12 in ancient Rome, for instance, a practice echoed by the guidance of the Catholic Church in medieval times. A piece of “progressive” legislation in England in 1875 raised the age of consent to sexual relations for girls from 10 to 13. Our present-day norms shifting such matters to the late teen years are, historically speaking, a blip on the screen.
Does this mean, following the logic of LGBTQ advocates, that it is normal and natural for grown men to be attracted to and have sexual relations with barely post-pubescent girls and that only the force of legal repression and social taboos is keeping such desires from manifesting themselves en masse? Not at all, I would argue. Rather, most of us are amenable to a range of sexual practices. We respond to environmental and social conditioning, particularly during certain critical periods of our maturation. We react to what we are told and to what we see all around us in America today, whether in images and videos or among our elders and our peers. And the result is that most of us, in contrast to our ancestors, are genuinely not attracted to young teens. We find the prospect repugnant for much the same reason that those raised in cultures in which insects, dogs, or fellow humans are not eaten are generally repulsed by even the notion of such consumption, while these may be perfectly natural and even relished foodstuffs for those who came of age in other societies.
Take a few other examples closer to the topic at hand. We know that it was not uncommon for ancient Greek men to engage in the practice of pederasty, i.e., to be both married to their wives and, at the same time, to take on boys in their mid-teen years to enjoy carnal relations while simultaneously providing mentorship to their younger brethren. In Melanesia, among the Etoro people, boys’ drinking of the semen of their elders is a coming-of-age ritual, and homosexuality is the norm, interrupted by brief periods of heterosexuality, which is considered sinful; among the Marind-anim, husbands routinely engage in sexual relations with their sisters’ adolescent sons, while wives engage in ritualized sex in groups. What the existence of these various practices, and more like them throughout the world and throughout history, should be sufficient to show is that human sexual preferences are relatively fluid and largely determined by governing norms rather than innate biology.
We might also consider in this connection a less controversial example demonstrating how our own sexual preferences have drifted over time in the West. We can observe this by looking at changing images of female beauty across many centuries, or we can simply think back to more recent American history: While the present-day ideal is more curvy and athletic, the waif supermodel look constituted our ideal just a few decades ago. Surely we do not believe that the heterosexual male brain, over the course of these years, underwent genetic changes sufficiently significant to alter our fundamental desires. Rather, we responded to social currents that substantially shifted those core desires.
Turning from history and anthropology to science, the search for the advocate’s holy grail, the “gay gene,” has consistently come up empty. In fact, a massive 2019 study that correlated the genomes and sexual practices of some half a million people in the U.S. and Europe found not only that no single gene predicted homosexuality but that even the five most seemingly salient genetic markers accounted for less than 1 percent of the differences among reported sexual preferences. When researchers then looked at overall genetic similarity among those who reported having same-sex experiences, genetics accounted for only between eight and 25 percent of the outcome. Clearly, in other words, some mysterious combination of the sum-total of social and environmental factors is doing the brunt of the work.
We have strongly suggestive evidence, moreover, that social cues can play causal roles in swaying impressionable teens to adopt new sexual identities. A much-discussed 2018 study from Brown University professor, physician, and researcher Lisa Littman looked at 256 teens who had suddenly come out as transgender after a childhood with no sign of gender dysphoria. Among 86 percent of those teens, the majority of whom had had at least one other mental disorder, the “coming out” moment was preceded by increased use of social media and/or multiple friends having come out shortly before. Just as tellingly, a large number of studies have confirmed that between 60 percent and 90 percent of kids and teens who think they are transgender grow up, if their bodies have not been altered by surgery and hormones in the interim, to be adults who no longer want to transition (and, instead, usually turn out merely to have same-sex mate preferences).
The simple message such research conveys is something that those of us who have not lost touch with our childhood and our awkward teen years will find unsurprising, and indeed, even obvious: Most kids and teens are works in progress and undecided and confused about many key aspects of their lives. The realm of sexuality, mysterious and alien to the domain of childhood experience, both by nature and by design, falls for many into that “undecided and confused” category. There is no question that some kids are very clearly straight from the get-go, and others are just as clearly and decidedly gay. But there are likely many children and teens who fall somewhere between the poles, a likely reason why even among those in Generation Z who identify as LGBTQ, more than half place themselves in the uncommitted category of “bisexual.” Just as the rest of what will become our more-or-less abiding tastes in life are in flux and in the process of congealing, our likes and dislikes when it comes to all things sexual—what we find desirable as far as body types, personality types, fantasies, fetishes and, yes, even heterosexual, homosexual, or other core sex and gender preferences—may be in varying states of limbo during these tender years.
Complex interactions between our particular biologies, personalities, and environments are going to matter a great deal in determining ultimate outcomes. Imagine, for example, a naturally rebellious kid growing up in an environment in which coming out as trans is the cool, new, outré trend sweeping the nation, offering an opportunity to poke a thumb in the eye of bewildered parents and other elders. Or imagine a sensitive, weak-willed soul craving social approval and finding good friends around her coming out as lesbian or bi-curious. Now imagine these same kids coming of age in a society where deviations from the traditional heterosexual norm are rarities. Here, unless that rebellious kid is really rebellious, we might get a different outcome.
Much of the nuance inherent to this discussion gets routinely swept away when we pose the problem as a false, politicized dichotomy between biological determinism and individual free choice. The American Psychological Association, for instance, warns us sternly that “psychologists do not consider sexual orientation to be a conscious choice that can be voluntarily changed.” At least the first part of that proposition is likely true in most cases (and the second part is true for most as well, if what is envisioned is a voluntary change to be made on a dime), but it is a dodge rather than a revelation. There is probably no single moment when an individual “chooses” to become attracted to members of the same sex any more than there is a moment when we choose to become attracted to redheads. And yet in no way does that imply that we are born with a thing for redheads.
We, as individuals, may not make such choices, but we, as a society, certainly do. As the evidence drawn from other societies across the world and throughout history shows us, the examples we set, the images we project, the information and education we convey, the manner in which we organize our lives and our institutions, all of these will bear upon the prevalence of LGBTQ lifestyles in our midst. We cannot evade our responsibility. It is for us to choose the society in which we want to live.
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In contemplating our options and asking ourselves whether an America in which 20 percent or more of a rising generation identifies as LGBTQ is the America we want, we might consider the following. In a phenomenon characterized by some as “The Mystery of the Declining U.S. Birth Rate,” our birth rate as of 2020 was 55.8 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age, a steep drop of about 15 percent from 2007, when that number was 69.3 per 1,000. Much of this alleged “mystery” is solved when we consider the revolution and exponential increase in LGBTQ acceptance and LGBTQ lifestyles that occurred over roughly the same period. Support for same-sex marriage, for example, stood at a meager 27 percent of Americans in 1996 and was still in the low 40 percent range around 2007, but skyrocketed to 70 percent by 2021. In one fell swoop, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all state laws criminalizing homosexual conduct in the Lawrence v. Texas decision in 2003, and in 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. By 2012, President Obama, in a reversal of his earlier professed views, was endorsing same-sex marriage, and just one year later, the Supreme Court was again getting in on the act, making it unconstitutional to deny federal benefits to same-sex spouses.
Empirical work that accounts for a “cultural lag,” viz., a period of delay between a cultural landmark and a resulting widespread social change, makes clear the correlation between the legalization of same-sex marriage and declining fertility rates. The dire consequences of those declining fertility rates include an older population and a smaller workforce, resulting in lower growth and economic productivity, even while there are fewer working-age people available to be taxed in order to support the social security system on which an aging population is dependent. If we continue along our present path, in short, we will find ourselves living in an America afflicted by the same population collapse that has devastated much of Europe and made it reliant on culturally destabilizing mass immigration (from the more socially conservative, and thus more demographically healthy, third world) to sustain its fading economies.
But beyond even the level of these purely practical considerations, we should consider the cultural significance of a society deviating ever further from traditional family structure and traditional sexuality. The reason alternative lifestyles are proliferating among us, after all, is not merely on account of our greater tolerance for such choices. That explosive push for greater tolerance in recent decades was itself kindled by the long-simmering flame of 1960s counterculture increasingly institutionalized and ensconced in positions of power. Rebelling against the conformity of a post-World-War II nation lorded over by strait-laced military heroes and veterans, the baby boomer generation’s counterculture unleashed a ferocious assault on such conformity, championing rebels, drop-outs and deviants. Free expression and non-traditional lifestyles were core components of this go-your-own-way generation’s message.
What occurred as a predictable result is the undermining of all erstwhile sources of stability and meaning, whether organized religion, local community life or the institution of the family and the sexual practices associated with it. Just as organized religion gave way to a desperate hankering after alternative modes of spirituality through which individuals sought a more intimate, personal connection with the divine, traditional heterosexual relations—associated with procreation, family life, and suddenly restrictive patriarchal norms—began to give way to a desperate hankering after alternative modes of sexual expression through which individuals sought a more intimate, personal connection with themselves and one another. Anticipating these developments in his 1955 work, Eros and Civilization, the Frankfurt School alum and “Father of the New Left” Herbert Marcuse encapsulated this sense that sexual deviancy, with its defiance of paternalistic sexual norms, was a pursuit of some species of greater pleasure than that available through the thing that everyone did:
The perversions seem to give a promesse de bonheur [i.e., promise of happiness or gratification] greater than that of “normal” sexuality. What is the source of their promise? Freud emphasized the “exclusive” character of the deviations from normality, their rejection of the procreative sex act. The perversions thus express rebellion against the subjugation of sexuality under the order of procreation, and against the institutions which guarantee this order. Psychoanalytic theory sees in the practices that exclude or prevent procreation an opposition against continuing the chain of reproduction and thereby of paternal domination—an attempt to prevent the “reappearance of the father.” The perversions seem to reject the entire enslavement of the pleasure ego by the reality ego. Claiming instinctual freedom in a world of repression, they are often characterized by a strong rejection of that feeling of guilt which accompanies sexual repression…In a repressive order, which enforces the equation between normal, socially useful, and good, the manifestations of pleasure for its own sake must appear as fleurs du mal [i.e., flowers of evil]. Against a society which employs sexuality as means for a useful end, the perversions uphold sexuality as an end in itself…They establish libidinal relationships which society must ostracize because they threaten to reverse the process of civilization which turned the organism into an instrument of work.
Here is the catch: As the Berkeley sociologist Robert Nisbet argued in far greater detail in Community and Power (1962), the detachment of more and more individuals from traditional communal institutions and practices creates a vicious circle. Their more intrinsic rewards aside, organized religion and the traditional family confer the most meaning and personal satisfaction upon individuals when such institutions are widely esteemed and directly connected to external hallmarks of value, whether exclusive economic benefits or cherished social standing. When more and more of us jump ship while economic and social value and esteem are shifted elsewhere, what remains behind will no longer seem as appealing. The old forms will lose their haloes, the sense of an enchanted life in which they could once envelop us. But because the new modes of expression arising in place of the old are explicitly posed as antinomian, counter-hegemonic, and individualized, they, of necessity, cannot succeed in effectuating a complete transfer to themselves of that elusive sense of wholeness and enchantment associated with their predecessors. What they inevitably bring about, instead, is a version of the hedonic treadmill, as the next fleeting spiritual and sexual trend succeeds the last in ever-more rapid succession, with proponents of each successive iteration repeatedly finding themselves looking in the rearview mirror at speeding bandwagons overtaking the ones they had only recently mounted. And this, of course, is precisely what we have seen arise among us, as the icons of one sexual revolution, such as Martina Navratilova, become the demonized rearguard impeding the progress of the next wave. The unsurprising end result is an all around loss of collective and individual meaning and life satisfaction, as society degenerates from a crucible refining a diverse citizenry into a sturdy universal alloy to a spinning centrifuge unceremoniously hurling more and more of us outward toward irreconcilable opposite poles.
To be sure, the lost soul hankering after ever-better alternatives or desperately switching from one gender to another and back in search of that elusive sense of calm in the storm is a victim caught in our social maelstrom and need not be blamed, scolded, or stigmatized for our collective failings. The solution to this problem is communal, not individual. It is about what we teach and don’t teach our children at school, what we show and don’t show them on screens, what our laws prohibit and permit, what our institutions incentivize and disincentivize, what our psychological, psychiatric, and medical associations adopt and reject as their governing norms and ideologies. Making the lives of gay or transgender people more difficult than they may already be is a far less appealing option than making gay or transgender lifestyles less appealing in the first place. There are those, as I have said, who will be gay in any society. They have always existed. Let them be. It is the far larger number of toss-up cases with whom we are concerned. Instead of punishing adults after the fact, let us work to avoid tempting kids to make the errors in judgment that lead them into the wilderness.
And let us, most of all, endeavor with all our collective imagination and resolve to re-mythologize and re-enchant our traditions and traditional sexual experiences that the counterculture has done its utmost to uproot. We do this by changing laws and norms, yes, but we do it, first and foremost, by singing hymns, erecting images, and telling stories, both real and fictional, both sacred and secular. A few well-rendered tales of great doomed love—Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra, Troilus and Cressida—will save more souls than a thousand legislative enactments ever could. We must preach this gospel vigorously and persistently not only for the sake of our own congregation but for the sake, still more, of those who have strayed and who do not realize that what they were seeking was waiting for them right here at home all along.
Alexander Zubatov is a practicing attorney specializing in general commercial litigation. He is also a practicing writer specializing in general non-commercial poetry, fiction, essays, and polemics that have been featured in a wide variety of publications. He lives in the belly of the beast in New York, New York. He can be found on Twitter @Zoobahtov.