The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

America’s increased acceptance of gay people isn’t about schools

Marchers rally in St. Petersburg, Fla., on March 12. (Martha Asencio-Rhine/Tampa Bay Times/AP)
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Republican officials once again find themselves at a point of tension. Over the past six-plus years, there have repeatedly emerged moments in which the furies roiling the party’s right-most flank clash with their own sentiments or political strategies. They’re left having to choose between hoping that the energy stays at the fringe or, if not, having to eventually capitulate to popular will. Sometimes, that anger has receded. Often, though, Republicans hoping to avoid the fray are eventually pulled into it — and sometimes they leap in, hoping that it will translate into more energetic support.

At the moment, a sizable, voluble portion of the political right is focused on arguing that the left — as manifested in their view by Democrats, the media and teachers — are trying to prepare young children to be sexually abused. In some cases, this argument is just trolling or an effort to tarnish their political enemies as pedophiles or pedophilia-sympathetic. In some cases, it stems from an apparently sincere belief that children face some threat of being trained by educators to be sexually active.

That belief is often a function of the debate over a law recently enacted in Florida that prevents teachers from offering “classroom instruction … on sexual orientation or gender identity” — a nebulously outlined prohibition that supporters have erroneously framed as being about sexuality. The law would seem to restrict a teacher assigning a book in which a child has gay parents, for example. And while a heterosexual marriage is an identical manifestation of sexual orientation, it is obviously not the focus of the legislation.

Thanks in significant part to a spokeswoman for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) claiming that the bill is formulated as “anti-grooming” legislation — that is, legislation aimed at preventing children from being primed for sexual abuse — the debate over the bill and over discussion of gay people in classrooms in general has often collapsed into a fight of good vs. evil. Those who support the bill aren’t simply helping elevate DeSantis’s platform as he eyes 2024; no, they’re fighting to save children from sexual predators. Given the seriousness of that allegation, Republican officials are warily watching to see what happens next.

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One of the arguments being made to demonstrate that young people are being “groomed” to accept gay relationships is a graph created by Axios in February based on polling from Gallup. It looks like this.

It’s offered with an obvious point: Clearly young people are identifying as gay (or, as Gallup articulates it, LGBT) because they are receiving instruction that they can or should.

Before assessing that claim, it’s worth revising the Axios chart a bit. Presented with the Gen Z bar extending all the way to the edge exaggerates the difference between the youngest and oldest Americans. In reality, most members of Gen Z (as defined) describe themselves as heterosexual, just as most members of prior generations do. (Gallup calls those older than boomers “traditionalists”; I prefer Pew Research Center’s definitions and will use “Silent” as the generation before the boom.)

It’s very important to note the gaps in those bars, too. Members of generations before the baby boom were twice as likely not to respond to Gallup’s question as members of Gen Z. We’ll come back to this.

Another thing that isn’t conveyed in Axios’s original chart is the composition of identities within each generation. For example, there’s not a huge difference in the percentage of members of Gen Z and the baby boomers who identify as gay or lesbian (4.5 percent vs. 1.7 percent). Most members of Gen Z who identify as LGBT — about two-thirds of them — identify as bisexual.

Regardless, this is just background for the broader issue, which is why members of Gen Z might be more likely to identify as LGBT. And to answer that, I’m going to tell a story about my mother.

My mother, born in the baby boom, is left-handed. When she was a kid, her teachers tried to force her to write with her right hand for reasons that remain unclear to me. But this was common: Kids who were left-handed were made to write with their right hands. Eventually, this pattern was abandoned, probably because there was nothing she or anyone else could actually do to change her handedness.

In 2015, The Washington Post’s Wonkblog dug up an interesting bit of data. Before people just accepted that some people were left-handed, back when they tried to make people like my mom write with their right hands, there were a lot fewer people who said they were left-handed.

There’s no immediate reason to think that there are actually more left-handed people now than there were a century ago. What’s changed is how people view left-handedness.

You can presumably see where I’m going with this. In the biennial General Social Survey (GSS) conducted in 2021, younger Americans were consistently less likely to say that same-sex relations were always or almost always wrong than were older Americans. But notice the pattern over time. At the end of the Ronald Reagan administration, three-quarters or more of adults saw such relationships as wrong. Over time, that receded — well after members of the Silent generation or the baby boom were out of school!

There is certainly a cultural aspect to the change. Activists were successful in expanding awareness of how many Americans were (often secretly) gay, which had a snowball effect. If you are gay but afraid to express your feelings publicly, you’re no less gay, but you’re also not serving as an example to those you know of who gay people are. One of the triggers for the expansion of same-sex marriage a decade ago was people coming to understand that they knew gay people who were affected by bans on marriage. More gay people being visible has meant more acceptance of gay people.

That had nothing to do with what teachers were purportedly teaching second-graders.

This is why the gap in our first graph is important. Maybe it’s a statistical fluke that the oldest respondents were twice as likely not to answer the question about sexual identity as the youngest. Or maybe some portion of that group has spent decades feeling as though their sexual identities were something to be ashamed of and kept private.

If we compare Gallup’s data to the GSS, you can see the relationship. Generations whose members are more likely to see same-sex relationships as wrong are more likely to say they aren’t gay, and vice versa.

A lot of the political fight in the moment can be understood as a particularly toxic iteration of long-standing fights over “values” and how gay Americans conflict with some people’s understanding of what relationships should look like — which itself has a generational component.

In the moment, this old tension is being framed in the most toxic terms, with any discussion of same-sex relationships being used as a cudgel of alleged sexual abuse. This, too, is an old tactic and one that many Americans likely thought we had moved past.

Whether we do may depend on how the Republican establishment responds to the moment.