Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society
About 4% of Americans identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer.1 That number is likely to rise, as it’s 7% among millennials versus just 1-2% among those aged 50 or older.2
Inclusion has three components: (1) Similar treatment by key institutions (schools, the legal system, etc.) and by other groups. (2) Opportunity to participate fully in society, which entails not just the absence of barriers but also, where necessary, ample supports. (3) Embrace as part of the community.
LGBTQs have long been among the most excluded groups in America. This has begun to change, and in some respects we’ve made remarkable progress. How far have we come? How far do we have yet to go?
- Are sexual orientation and gender identity biological or social?
- Equal treatment and equal opportunity
- Growing tolerance, but less than full embrace
The best evidence on the causes of sexual preference comes from comparison of identical twins and fraternal twins. Identical twins share the exact same DNA, while fraternal twins don’t, so traits that are caused mainly or entirely by genes will tend to be more similar among pairs of identical twins than among pairs of fraternal twins.
Twin studies have found that many identical twins differ in their sexual orientation. When one is lesbian or gay, often the other isn’t. This suggests that genes aren’t destiny when it comes to sexual preference. On the other hand, identical twins are more likely than fraternal twins to have the same sexual orientation, which suggests that biology does play a significant role. This is true for both lesbian women and gay men.3
As figure 2 shows, a growing share of Americans have come to view homosexuality as something a person is born with rather than a product of upbringing or environment.
There is less research on gender identity, but here too between-twin similarity is much more common among identical twins than among fraternal twins, suggesting that genes matter. In-utero processes, particularly exposure to testosterone during pregnancy, also appear to be a key influence.4
EQUAL TREATMENT AND EQUAL OPPORTUNITY
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination by employers based on race, religion, national origin, and sex. In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that the Act applies to gay and transgender Americans.
About half of the states and some cities have outlawed discrimination, including discrimination in housing, based on sexual orientation and gender identity. And in 2012 the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity issued a regulation barring such discrimination in federally-assisted housing programs.5
Same-sex sexual intercourse was illegal throughout the United States until Connecticut became the first state to decriminalize it in 1962. As figure 3 shows, other states slowly followed suit until a 2003 Supreme Court decision legalized it everywhere.
Allowing lesbians and gays to marry enhances their freedom and their ability to feel part of the community. It also confers various legal benefits, such as the ability to file a joint tax return, to receive spousal and survivor Social Security benefits, to be eligible for health insurance on your spouse’s plan, to stay with your spouse in a hospital room, and more.
Same-sex marriage is legal everywhere in America, due to the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision. This is in some respects a stunning development. In 1996, the federal government had passed the “Defense of Marriage Act” stipulating that marriage must be between a man and a woman.6 A number of states also passed prohibitions of same-sex marriage in the 1990s and 2000s via referendum or legislation.
The tide began to turn in 2004 when Massachusetts’ state supreme court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and legalized same-sex marriage in the state. In 2012, Maine, Maryland, and Washington legalized same-sex marriage via popular referendums, and in the next two years courts in six other states declared bans on same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional. The Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision forbids states from banning same-sex marriage or refusing to recognize same-sex marriages in other states. Figure 4 shows how recent is this shift, and how rapidly it occurred.
The legal change paralleled a shift in public opinion about same-sex marriage. As figure 5 shows, the share of Americans who think same-sex marriage should be legal has jumped from around 10% in the late 1980s to 67%.
As of mid-2020, 29 of the world’s 190-plus nations have legalized same-sex marriage.7 The Netherlands was the first to do so, in 2001. Among the rich longstanding-democratic countries, only Italy, Japan, South Korea, and Switzerland haven’t.
Are there grounds for objecting to this development? In the US, the 14th amendment’s equal protection principle implies that government should not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation unless there is some compelling reason to do so. Is there a compelling reason?
Some arguments look to children. On average, children fare better with their two original parents than with a single parent (never-married, divorced, or widowed) or with a parent and step-parent.8 If same-sex marriage weakens the link between marriage and childrearing, perhaps it will encourage out-of-wedlock births and thereby harm children. This argument, however, implies that we also should outlaw marriage among the elderly, and no one favors doing that. Also problematic for this line of reasoning is the fact that out-of-wedlock births have been increasing steadily for half a century, long before same-sex marriage was legalized.9
Ross Douthat once offered a variant of this argument. Opposite-sex-only marriage law, he suggested, “holds up the domestic life … in which children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents as a uniquely admirable approach to child-rearing.”10 That might be so. But should we, then, prohibit a person with a child from marrying anyone who isn’t the child’s other biological parent? That doesn’t seem sensible.
Others contend that children fare better with heterosexual parents than with homosexual ones. However, the best available research suggests that isn’t true.11
Will same-sex marriage cause the institution of marriage to decay? While that is conceivable, similar worries in the past about inter-class and inter-racial marriage proved unfounded.12
Might same-sex marriage eventually lead us down a slippery slope to legalization of polygamy? It isn’t clear why it would, since same-sex marriage embraces the traditional stipulation of one and only one marital partner.
The US military ended its ban on service by lesbians and gays in 2011. It did the same for transgender persons in 2016. Estimates of the number of trans Americans who currently serve in the military range from 2,500 to 15,000.13 More than 70% of Americans think they should be allowed to do so, as figure 6 indicates.
However, the Trump administration has said it intends to reverse the position on transgender military participation. The stated reason is that allowing transgender persons is “disruptive,” that it “erodes military readiness and unit cohesion.”
The best available evidence suggests that diversity actually doesn’t tend to reduce unit cohesion. Alexander Downes explains14:
“Despite widespread hostility to the idea beforehand, a post-World War II Army survey about the experience of units that received black infantry replacements after D-Day found 80 percent of white officers and 96 percent of white NCOs stated that black and white soldiers had gotten along very well or fairly well. Other studies have shown that the integration of women, gays, and transgender people into the U.S. military — or other militaries around the world — has not adversely affected cohesion, either. The reason is simple: The heterogeneity of a group’s members is unrelated to its cohesiveness…. Indeed, much research has shown that diverse individuals can come together and perform effectively as a group if they are committed to achieving a goal that requires cooperation, known as ‘task cohesion.’ In other words, soldiers need not like each other to perform a task well.”
President Trump also has said that the military “cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs” of having transgender persons in the armed forces. Yet that cost is estimated to be only 0.1% of the military’s total medical spending on its members.15
Access to public restrooms
Should transgender persons be required to use restrooms that correspond to their sex at birth, or should they be allowed to use restrooms that correspond to their gender identity? As figure 7 indicates, Americans are split evenly on this issue.
The chief argument made by those who favor the sex-at-birth requirement is that male sexual predators might take advantage of transgender-inclusive laws to attack women and/or children in public restrooms. Yet nearly 20 states have had inclusive bathroom laws in place for a long time, and those laws aren’t correlated with greater incidence of such attacks.16
GROWING TOLERANCE, BUT LESS THAN FULL EMBRACE
Americans’ tolerance of nontraditional sexual orientation and gender identity has increased sharply in the past generation. A steadily rising share say, for example, that homosexuality should be accepted by society, homosexuals should have equal rights in terms of job opportunities, they should be allowed to marry, and they would be okay to have as a neighbor.17
LGBTQ Americans appear to recognize this shift. In a 2013 survey, 92% of adults identifying as LGBT said society had become more accepting of them in the previous decade.18
Yet tolerance isn’t the same thing as inclusion, and we’re still a long way from genuine embrace. As figure 8 shows, while the share has increased significantly, as of 2018 only two-thirds of Americans said homosexuality is “not wrong at all” when given the response options not wrong at all, wrong sometimes, almost always wrong, and always wrong.
The story is similar for the share who say they wouldn’t be upset to learn their child is gay or lesbian, as figure 9 shows.
On several occasions the Pew Research Center has asked American adults what they think about lesbian and gay couples raising children. As of 2013, just two-thirds said they think it’s a good thing or doesn’t make much difference, as figure 10 shows.
How does Americans’ embrace of LGBTQs compare to other rich democratic nations? Since the early 1980s the World Values Survey has periodically asked people to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 whether they think homosexuality “can always be justified, never be justified, or something in between.” As figure 11 shows, as of 2012 only a little more than 20% of Americans said that homosexuality is always justifiable. This put us behind a number of comparator countries, and well behind the leaders. The same is true for the share saying homosexuality is not wrong at all, shown in figure 12 (here the most recent cross-country data are for 2008).
Here is Paula England’s description of the experience of a typical gay American19:
“To understand what it means to be a member of a sexual minority group, consider the situation of a hypothetical 17-year-old name Tom, who has just recently begun to identify himself as gay…. Tom listens to rock music, and most of the songs are about sex or romance between men and women. The plots of most television shows or movies feature romances or sexual escapades between men and women. In his high school, bias against gays abounds. His male friends frequently insult each other with the term no one wants to be called (‘fag’), and another common put-down is ‘You’re so gay!’ Tom was never on the receiving end of these insults, and he doesn’t want to be either; that’s one reason he doesn’t want to tell people at his high school that he is gay. He also hears friends say “no Homo’ jokingly when they are touching each other. At his family’s church, nothing is said pro or con about homosexuality, but his friend who belongs to a more conservative church says that, at his church, the preacher talks about the evils of being gay from the pulpit. Tom reads that same-sex marriage is now legal in the United States, but the only weddings he or his parents have been to involve a man marrying a woman. He has never met a married couple consisting of two men. He certainly can’t imagine gaining popularity and figures he might invite ridicule if he asks a boy to his senior prom. It is little wonder that Tom gets the impression that his same-sex attractions are something to hide. His experience is typical of young people growing up gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
“But some members of the LGBTQ community experience even worse things. Those who show affection for someone of the same sex are often ridiculed by youth peer groups, regardless of whether they appear masculine or feminine. Some employers refuse to hire those they think are gay or fire people upon discovering it.”
In 2013, the Pew Research Center surveyed Americans about their attitudes toward LGBT persons. One of the questions asked was “How much social acceptance is there today of …?” Figure 13 shows the level of acceptance as perceived by LGBT adults who were surveyed. A majority felt that bisexual women and men, lesbians, and gay men are at least somewhat accepted. But only a third or less felt that each of these groups is accepted a lot. And the perceived level of acceptance for transgender persons was very low; only 3% believe there is a lot of acceptance, and another 18% perceive some acceptance.
In the same 2013 survey, 59% of LGBT adults reported being subject to slurs or jokes because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, 39% reported having been rejected by a friend or family member, 30% said they had been threatened or physically attacked, 29% said they had been made to feel unwelcome at a place of worship, 23% said they had received poor service at a restaurant, hotel, or other place of business, and 21% reported being treated unfairly by an employer.20
Hate crimes against LGBTQ persons have decreased in frequency over the past two decades, as figure 14 shows. But the decline has been small, and LGBTQs are among the most common victims of such crimes, along with Jews and Muslims.
Given the still very limited embrace by their fellow Americans, it’s not surprising that many LGBTQs hide their sexual preference and/or gender identity. A steadily growing share have been “coming out.” We can tell this in part by the fact that about 75% of Americans say they have a friend or relative or coworker who has told them they are gay or lesbian, up from 25% in the mid-1980s, as figure 15 indicates. Yet as of 2013, only 56% of LGBT adults said they had told their mother about their sexual orientation and just 39% had told their father.21
Only 18% of LGBT adults say they are very happy, compared to 30% of all adults, as figure 16 shows.
Studies suggest that 25% to 45% of transgender Americans have attempted suicide, with the largest such study finding a figure of 41%.22
Americans have become much more tolerant toward LGBTQ persons in recent decades. The legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015 and the prohibition of employment discrimination against gay and transgender Americans in 2020 were milestones in this development. Yet we remain a long way from inclusion. Public opinion surveys suggest a sizable minority of Americans think homosexuality is wrong, oppose same-sex marriage, don’t like the idea of lesbians and gays raising children, and would be upset if their own child was lesbian or gay. Many LGBTQs experience discrimination, and they are one of the groups most frequently victimized by hate crimes.
Among LGBTQs, transgender persons experience the least social acceptance. And at the moment, even some of their basic rights and opportunities — to serve in the military and to use restrooms that correspond to their gender identity — are under threat.
- Gallup, “In US, More Adults Identifying as LGBTQ,” 2017. ↩
- Anna Brown, “Five Key Findings about LGBTQ Americans,” Pew Research Center, 2017. ↩
- J.M. Bailey, M.P. Dunne, and N.G. Martin, “Genetic and Environmental Influences on Sexual Orientation and Its Correlates in an Australian Twin Sample,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2000; Niklas Långström, Qazi Rahman, Eva Carlström, and Paul Lichtenstein, “Genetic and Environmental Effects on Same-Sex Sexual Behavior: A Population Study of Twins in Sweden,” Archives of Sexual Behavior, 2010. ↩
- Wikipedia, “Gender Identity”; Daniel Trotta, “Born This Way? Researchers Explore the Science of Gender Identity,” Reuters, 2017. ↩
- Wikipedia, “LGBT Rights in the United States.” ↩
- This came in response to a 1993 ruling by Hawaii’s state supreme court that prohibitions of same-sex marriage were unconstitutional. ↩
- Wikipedia, “Same-Sex Marriage.” ↩
- Lane Kenworthy, “Families,” The Good Society. ↩
- Kenworthy, “Families.” ↩
- Ross Douthat, “The Marriage Ideal,” New York Times, 2010. ↩
- What We Know, “What Does the Scholarly Research Say about the Wellbeing of Children with Gay or Lesbian Parents?,” Columbia Law School. ↩
- Inter-racial marriage was illegal in 30 states prior to 1948 and remained illegal in 16 (mostly southern) states until a 1967 Supreme Court ruling. ↩
- Gary J. Gates and Jody L. Herman, “Transgender Military Service in the United States,” Williams Institute, UCLA Law School, 2014; Agnes Gereben Schaefer el al, “Assessing the Implications of Allowing Transgender Personnel to Serve Openly,” RAND Corporation, 2016. ↩
- Alexander B. Downes, “Would Transgender Troops Harm Military Effectiveness? Here’s What the Research Says,” Washington Post: The Monkey Cage, 2017. ↩
- John Tozzi and Rebecca Greenfield, “Here’s How Many Trans People Serve in the U.S. Military,” Bloomberg, 2017. ↩
- Emanuella Grinberg and Dani Stewart, “Three Myths That Shape the Transgender Bathroom Debate,” CNN, 2017. ↩
- Lane Kenworthy, “Tolerance,” The Good Society. ↩
- Pew Research Center, “A Survey of LGBT Americans,” 2013. ↩
- Paula England, “Gender and Sexuality,” in The Sociology Project 2.5, Pearson, 2018, pp. 284-285. ↩
- Pew Research Center, “A Survey of LGBT Americans,” ch. 3. ↩
- Pew Research Center, “A Survey of LGBT Americans,” ch. 3. ↩
- Ann P. Haas, Philip L. Rodgers, and Jody L. Herman, “Suicide Attempts among Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Adults: Findings of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey,” The Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law, 2014; S.E. James et al, “The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey,” National Center for Transgender Equality, 2016. ↩