The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion More and more Americans say they’re not straight. It gives me hope.

The rainbow glag flies beneath the U.S. flag at the Stonewall National Monument in New York in October 2017. (Mark Lennihan/AP)
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When I came out to my mother in 1990, her first words of advice were to not tell anyone. She said being gay could hurt my nascent career. The reaction was as painful as it was understandable: Back then, the world was a very different place for a 20-something LGBTQ American.

When I was the age of today’s Generation Z, being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning — basically, any identity that wasn’t heterosexual — meant living in a nation that was neither tolerant nor accepting. Even in a gay mecca such as New York, the few of us who were out of the closet were still seen as courageous.

So, imagine my pride in seeing Gallup’s new data showing more and more Americans publicly embracing their sexual orientation and gender identity. Ten years ago, 3.5 percent of U.S. adults self-identified as LGBTQ. Today, it’s a record 7.1 percent. And, yes, it’s largely Gen Z that has driven the increase in the figure — as well as in my hope for the future of this country.

No longer feeling like a stranger in my own country.

Gallup reports that “roughly 21% of Generation Z Americans who have reached adulthood — those born between 1997 and 2003— identify as LGBT.” That means the oldest among them is only 25. As an out gay Gen Xer who has watched successive generations come out earlier and earlier, I am in awe of the ease with which members of Gen Z seem to confidently glide through this world. That’s not to say they don’t still face challenges. They do, and the challenges only compound my awe.

Indeed, LGBTQ Americans and, particularly, children are still under relentless assault in many states. In Texas, the state attorney general last week deemed some gender-affirming care for trans youth “child abuse.” Gov. Greg Abbott (R) followed up Tuesday with an odious directive to state agencies to investigate said “abuse.”

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What’s worse, Abbott threatens prosecution of anyone who fails to report gender-affirming care, including members of the general public. Appalling doesn’t even begin to describe this, especially at a time when a record number of trans women and gender nonconforming people are being murdered.

A transphobic tirade against the Equality Act masquerading as feminism.

In Florida, the legislature is busy pushing through an irresponsible measure dubbed the “don’t say gay” bill, which forbids discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. As Chasten Buttigieg warned Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in a tweet last month, “This will kill kids. … You are purposefully making your state a harder place for LGBTQ kids to survive.”

Meanwhile, despite nationwide marriage equality, LGBTQ Americans can still be fired or denied housing and education. On Wednesday, the Human Rights Campaign renewed its call for Congress to pass the Equality Act, saying “basic freedoms are missing in 29 states for LGBTQ+ Americans.” They dramatized this stark statistic with a star-spangled banner containing only 21 stars.

But while the progress remains slow or even grudging, so much has changed since I was Gen Z’s age back in the ’90s.

Same-sex couples can legally marry. LGBTQ people work at all levels of the federal government, including the Cabinet, with Pete Buttigieg serving as our married-with-children transportation secretary. Popular culture is filled with LGBTQ representation, too. A new report from the media monitoring group GLAAD said the 2021-2022 prime-time broadcast season hit a record “percentage of LGBTQ series regulars on broadcast.”

I’m out, and I’m a columnist at The Post, an anchor at MSNBC and a contributor to “PBS NewsHour.” I’m thrilled my mother was proved wrong, and so is she.

Perhaps the best thing today’s LGBTQ Americans have that my generation didn’t when we were 25 is public support. When the “don’t say gay” bill made news, the president of the United States tweeted a condemnation and promised, “I have your back, and my Administration will continue to fight for the protections and safety you deserve.”

Hours after Abbott’s order in Texas, Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman now running for governor, tweeted: “To every trans kid in Texas: You’re amazing. … You belong right here in Texas, and I’ll fight for you to live freely as yourself and free from discrimination.”

Of course, actions have always spoken louder than words. But this Gen X gay man is old enough to remember when we had to fight as hard as we could just for the words. Our acts of coming out were courageous, as was the activism that flowed from the AIDS crisis initially ignored by President Ronald Reagan; these acts forced people to see us. Now, the people support us. The arc of our moral universe started to bend when we not only demanded to be acknowledged, but also demanded respect and equal justice under the law.

The fight for equality is nowhere near over. But a world in which 21 percent of Gen Z is comfortable identifying as something other than heterosexual shows that it’s not just beginning, either. LGBTQ Americans are less fearful to live out loud. And I couldn’t be prouder.

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