The Rise of LGBT Power

One of the striking findings from our 2021 GSS (General Social Survey) is a pronounced rise in LGBT identification among Gen Z and Millennials. This is in contrast to older generations, which manifest low LGBT shares.

Much of this shift is accounted for by the decline in reticence over same-sex behavior. But the rise is greatest for bisexuality and slowest, in percentage point terms, for gay and lesbian identification.

1. The rise of LGBT activism

In the 20th century, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists organized and fought on many fronts for equal rights in areas including employment, housing, military service, and public services. They were central to AIDS activism, and have played a role in shaping medical advancements to treat the disease. They were on the forefront of anti-hate crime and marriage equality campaigns, as well as efforts to enact hate crimes legislation and to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

As LGBT people have continued to face oppressive social conditions and legal barriers, they have become increasingly active in their own empowerment, with their work often cross-pollinating with other activist movements. For example, as a result of increased activism against racism and the growing popularity of feminism, women’s reproductive health has become a focus in LGBT organizing.

In recent years, the number of LGBT politicians has grown, with New York City now having its first openly gay Mayor Corey Johnson and more than six states having LGBTQ representatives in state legislatures and two cities with openly gay mayors. Meanwhile, more than one million people marched in support of LGBT rights in 2017. While these gains have been significant, they still remain far from complete. Discriminatory laws and socio-cultural norms continue to marginalize LGBT persons from education, health care, housing, and employment opportunities, creating an environment of exclusion that leads to violence, stigmatization and discrimination against LGBT individuals and communities.

2. The rise of LGBT visibility

The proportion of young Americans who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender has grown rapidly in recent years. It is now over 20%, according to 2021 Gallup data. This is partly due to the aging of Gen Z, but it also reflects increasing acceptance in our society and increased legal protection against discrimination.

The increase is not uniformly distributed among the different age groups, however. In particular, white and university-educated Americans are significantly more likely to be LGBT than minorities or those with less education. This may reflect the greater polarization along ideology and party affiliations in these groups, but it may also be because LGBT identity is more correlated with liberal politics than other issues.

In addition, the number of LGBT people serving in elected office has risen dramatically in recent years. There are now 843 LGBTQ persons in elected positions, a 21 percent year-over-year increase. This is largely a result of what LGBTQ Victory Institute calls the “rainbow wave” in 2018 and 2019 elections.

These gains are a welcome change from the centuries of persecution of people who identified as homosexual or otherwise outside mainstream gender roles, including sensational public trials, exile, medical warnings and language in the pulpit. These oppressive practices shaped the cultural context in which today’s LGBT community lives, but they also contributed to its growth as a social movement.

3. The rise of LGBT advocacy

Early movement leaders, including Frank Kameny and Lilli Vincenz, wrote books and newsletters, held conferences, and picketed the White House. They also created opportunities for LGBT performers, whose “drag” humor found acceptance in venues from Shakespeare’s theatre to Japanese Kabuki to Chinese opera.

The disruption of World War II brought many formerly isolated gay men and women together, both in military service and on the home front, where they challenged discriminatory employment policies and sought equal civil rights. Researchers such as Alfred Kinsey helped to increase awareness of the broader range of homosexual identities and behaviors by suggesting that sexual orientation constituted a spectrum rather than a binary.

In the late 1970s, the Mattachine Foundation holds the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, seeking equal civil rights laws. In the same year, the Supreme Court rules in favor of One, Inc., publisher of the first pro-gay magazine in the United States, which was shut down by the FBI for allegedly obscene material.

As gay rights gained ground in the United States, attention shifted to global activism as more than 75 countries continued to criminalize homosexuality and where AIDS deaths were at their highest rates. The experiences of LGBTQ people are characterized by social isolation, violence, poverty and inadequate access to health care. They include higher risks of disease, particularly for hepatitis and HIV, as well as mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and self-harm.

4. The rise of LGBT leadership

In the wake of broader social changes and heightened awareness about lgbt people, LGBT leaders and activists emerged to shape the movement’s agenda. Gay men and lesbians formed religious organizations like Frank Kameny’s National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and women of all sexual orientations forged new community groups including Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).

The disruptions of World War II brought closeted rural men to cities where they met with progressive attitudes; and the success of Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement led many Americans to reconsider their views on gays. Despite this progress, the movement was still struggling to gain acceptance.

The concealable nature of same-sex sexual orientation sets it apart from other visible marginalized characteristics, such as race and disability, but our findings suggest that same-sex leaders face some of the same challenges as others with visible disabilities or racial minorities. For example, if gay leaders behave femininely, they violate leader gender role stereotypes that predict masculine behaviors, which may cue followers to pay more attention to their same-sex sexual orientation than is warranted. Similarly, lesbian leaders who behave masculinely violate leadership femininity stereotypes and are thus at greater risk of being seen as less effective leaders (Dodge, Gilroy, & Fenzel, 1995). The gains in visibility and advocacy have also helped to propel a more inclusive and affirming political landscape. According to Victory, openly LGBTQ people have now reached “equity” in state legislatures—that is, the number of LGBTQ elected officials equals the percentage of the population who is LGBTQ—and a full 50% of U.S. mayors are LGBTQ.