Gallup has just conducted the biggest polling ever on LGBT people. They asked over 121,000 people across the country a simple question: “Do you, personally, identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender?”
The number saying yes: 3.4%
Of course that is only a baseline number, as this was the percentage of Americans willing to come out as LGBT to a pollster on the phone. We know the real number is a good bit higher than that because of all the people who prefer to keep their orientation or gender identification private, for whatever reason.
Most importantly, that 3.4% number includes the elderly, yet only 1.6% of those over 65 years old identify as LGBT. Among 18-29 year olds the number is 6.4%, and even higher for women 18-29 at 8.3%. Clearly the number of out LGBT people will grow as this out generation ages and the closeted generation fades, and those higher numbers among the young are closer to the real numbers as they come from younger people who have grown up in a more open and accepting era.
The study has a lot of other interesting data along with this headline statistics, making it well worth a read through, including that minorities are more out than whites, that women are more out than men, and that LGBT have less education and wealth than their straight compatriots…to bust a stereotype.
We will never know the exact number of LGBT people because the questions around it are too personal and the edges that define our community too fuzzy, but clearly, we are many.
Just to give the size of those LGBT numbers some perspective: According to the US Census, out Mormons make up about 1.9% of the country, Jews 1.7%, Muslims 0.6%, and Southern Baptists 6.7%.
We are many. We are valuable. And we deserve equal citizenship rights.
Ever wondered why we call heterosexual people “straight”?
Because homosexuality was a crime and “straight people” were those who did not commit that crime.
Saint Matthew started it all Matthew 7:14, which King James’s translators rendered as: “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”
English speakers have said rule abiders follow the “straight and narrow” ever since. Dude gets out of prison and we tell him he should “go straight” and people who don’t do drugs are “straight.” Someone who is not straight is bent, a word we used for criminals, as well as homosexuals and any sexuality that did not have mainstream approval, back when those where overlapping categories. Straight people are those who follow the rules, and are therefore not homosexual.
…and this all reminds me of a joke. When gay guys in a car come to an intersection we can’t really instruct the driver to “go straight,” so we have a substitute of our own – instructing the driver he should proceed “gaily forward.” Every little sub-culture has its own awkward humor. ;-)
When I was first out, in the early 1980s, we called ourselves the Gay community, but over time it became increasingly obvious that when people heard the word gay they only thought of gay men, so to give women their due Lesbians were separated out, and the Bi people in the middle included, so we the Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual community. Then it became clear that GLB did not really include the interrelated issues of gender, and so a T was added for Transexual, and we became the LGBT community.
Of course four letters are not enough to account for all of the variations in human sexuality and gender, so in the spirit of acknowledging everyone, we kept adding letters, to the point it got a bit ridiculous. I think I laughed out loud the first time I saw LGBTQQIAAP:
- L: Lesbian. Women attracted to women.
- G: Gay. Men attracted to men.
- B: Bisexual. People attracted to both sexes.
- T: Transgender. People whose interior sense of gender is different than their exterior physical sexuality, whether male to female (MTF) or female to male (FTM).
- Q: Queer. People who don’t want to label themselves by their sex acts but do want to claim being different, eccentric, and fabulous. Reclaimed from an old hate term, Queer can also be highly offensive, depending on usage.
- Q: Questioning. People still working out who they are attracted to, often applicable to the young.
- I: Intersex. People born into bodies that are not definitiviely male or female, including those born with ambiguous genitalia, bits of both male and female plumbing, or genetics beyond the standard XX and XY.
- A: Asexual. People who are affectional but aren’t that into sex.
- A: Allies. Straight people who support the LGBTQ+ community.
- P: Pansexual. People attracted to others more by individual personality, differing from bisexuality in that they ignore the gender binary altogether.
And of course that is not all. Another of my personal favorites comes from Canada where they add North American respect for an indigenous non-European category, making it LGBTQQIAAP2S, or some variant thereof:
- 2S: Two Spirit. The traditional gender variation in First People communities who often served as the community’s visionaries and healers.
And for those who think this all sounds trivial, India’s Supreme Court recently recognized the legal status of traditional Hijras, people born male or intersex but live as women or in-between genders. So voters registering in the world’s largest democracy now have gender checkboxes that include M, F, and O, for Male, Female, and Other.
At some point all these letters add up to acronyms so long no one can say them, and they become too long to even fit on a tshirt! But more importantly, using labels right can be tough. On the one hand, they are incredibly useful – think American, athletic, Muslim, grandmother, plumber, and shy – all useful signposts for navigating the social sphere and showing respect, or disrespect, for other people. Yet they can also be limiting or misdirect people from the truth. Grandmother may sound like a sweet label, but not all grandmothers are sweet. Meanwhile Muslim may mean terrorist in some people’s ears, but there are more than a billion and a half people on the planet who strongly disagree. I was raised Mormon and I am gay, but the words gay and ex-Mormon are only a hint of my larger story, because like everyone else I am so much more than my labels.
Most people fit in the middle of the demographic bell curves, by definition. It must be a wonderful thing to feel like you are “normal,” although I have met few people, straight or gay, who admit to feeling completely normal on the inside. I think we all feel a little special, sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse. But if this magical state of normal does exist, I am all for it. My existence outside the norms is not an attack on anyone else’s typicality.
The truth is am both “normal” and atypical. In many ways I am a pretty typical white American male, for example, and yet I am a good bit taller than average, and of course I am gay. None of these qualities should disqualify me from equal respect as a human being, they are just variations in the size, shape, and nature of my humanity.
The gay/LGBT/LGBTQQIAAP+2S community, then, is a group of people whose sexuality and sense of gender lie outside the center of the bell curve. We are a club inclusive of outsiders, where anyone who feels they belong is welcome. At the same time we often divide up into smaller sub-groups, as it can be empowering to be with others like ourselves. That’s why people have church picnics after all, as it can be great to hang out with your own community, even if you have friends, family, co-workers, and others in your community outside of the church. Lesbians, drag queens, and queer androgynous kids all feel the same way, as it can be joyful to experience communion and solidarity with fellow travelers, even as they maintain their place in the larger social world.
The gay community is now at the paradoxical crossroads of the problem of labels. We are increasingly hyper-specializing into finely grained sub-groups, while at the same time we are letting go of those groupings and identities and integrating into the mainstream. A young gay person can now choose an intricately defined self-identity and live within a tightly proscribed tribe of like-minded friends, or they can choose a traditional path of marriage and family little different from their straight peers. For me all of this represents success, as I want people to be who they are and puzzle out their path through life with the support of healthy community, something I wish for everyone – straight, gay, or none of the above.
Let us enjoy our labels and groupings: Texan, Presbyterian, voluptuous, ripped, Eagle Scout, volleyball player, stubborn, brown, pedestrian, Chinese, fundamentalist, Hare Krishna, and female. And at the same time let us see beyond the labels and respect each individual for who they are, far beyond the limitations of language.
And as for sexuality, at our core maybe we are all just humansexuals, doing the things that humans do in all the different ways that humans do it, and maybe that too is something worth celebrating.
America was rocked when the New York Times reported, on January 22, 2001, that Pluto was no longer a planet. A huge uproar followed as we all grew up knowing there were nine planets, and yet suddenly there are only eight. A solid truth about the universe was thrown into question.
Such is the nature of science, and such is the problem of labels. As Neil Degrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium, explains, the word planet became stretched to irrelevancy. According to Tyson, there are many objects in our solar system, and many ways to describe them. The word planet originally meant wanderer, as the ancients observed the planets moving in different patterns than the rest of the heavens. Clearly these celestial objects that could move independently of the stars must be powerful indeed, certainly magical, and maybe even divine. But with scientific observation we now realize planets do not wander, they orbit in a predictable way, and the number of objects in orderly orbit around the sun is vast. So how do we describe these objects?
Ancient people counted seven planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus. Neptune was discovered in 1846 by noting something off in the orbit of Uranus, and then calculating where a next planet must be. Tiny Pluto was added in 1930, making nine. The problem is that Pluto is not the ninth largest object circling our sun. Eris is larger and very far out there, and Pluto is number ten. At only 0.2% the mass of Earth, with a width that would span New York to Denver, Pluto really is tiny, and its role as a planet unclear.
Planets and dwarf planets of the solar system (NASA)
Tyson makes the case for describing the solar system as it actually is. We can list the gas giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, or the rocky bodies Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, and Pluto. We can list the dwarf planets Eris, Pluto, Ceres, Haumea and Makemake. Or we can list the solar system’s objects by size starting at the largest and cutting off at some arbitrary point when we’ve reached the top 10, or 12, or 20. The simple label of “planet “does not actually describe anything useful, other than celestial objects visible to the naked eye that move differently from the rest of the heavens, which is descriptive of our experience but not of the objects themselves.
If such a material concept as planets can be called into question, any label about humans and human behavior must be suspect. As with planets, we may find some labels useful shorthand, while needing to get more descriptive if we really want to describe our differences accurately, or really understand each other at any depth. Some people call this political correctness when we try to actually get our labels right, but sometimes it is essential, because the old labels may no longer apply to our enhanced understanding. Pluto isn’t changing, but our understanding of our universe is.