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America’s Increased Gay Acceptance Isn’t About Schools

Republican officials once again find themselves at a point of tension. Over the past six-plus years, moments have repeatedly emerged in which the furies agitating the party’s far-right flank clash with their own sentiments or political strategies. They must choose between hoping that the energy stays on the sidelines or, if not, ultimately having to capitulate to the popular will. Sometimes that anger receded. Often, however, Republicans hoping to avoid the fray end up being drawn into it — and sometimes they rush in, hoping that will translate into more forceful support.

Right now, a large and vocal part of the political right is focused on the argument that the left — as evidenced by Democrats, the media, and teachers — is trying to groom young children for sexual abuse. In some cases, this argument is just trolling or an effort to tarnish their political enemies by calling them pedophiles or pedophile sympathizers. In some cases, this stems from a seemingly sincere belief that children are threatened with being trained by educators to be sexually active.

This belief is often a function of debate over a recently enacted law in Florida that bars teachers from offering “in-class instruction…about sexual orientation or gender identity” – a nebulously worded prohibition that supporters have wrongly qualified as sexuality. The law would appear 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, that is obviously not the subject of the legislation.

Thanks in large part to a spokeswoman for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) saying the bill is framed as “anti-grooming” legislation – that is, legislation aimed at preventing children from being primed for sexual abuse – the debate over the bill and the discussion of gay people in classrooms in general has often turned into a fight of good versus evil. Those who support the bill aren’t just helping to elevate DeSantis’ platform as he looks to 2024; no, they are fighting to save children from sexual predators. Given the seriousness of this allegation, Republican officials are watching with caution to see what happens next.

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One of the arguments put forward to demonstrate that young people are “prepared” to accept homosexual relationships is a graphic created by Axios in February based on a Gallup poll. It looks like this.

It’s offered with one obvious point: it’s clear that young people identify as gay (or, as Gallup articulates it, LGBT) because they’re being instructed that they can or should.

Before evaluating this claim, it is worth revising the Axios chart a bit. Presented with the Gen Z bar extending to the edge exaggerates the difference between younger and older Americans. In fact, most members of Generation Z (as defined) describe themselves as heterosexual, just like most members of previous generations. (Gallup calls those older than baby boomers “traditionalists”; I prefer the Pew Research Center definitions and will use “Silent” as the pre-boom generation.)

It is also very important to note the gaps in these bars. Pre-baby boomers were twice as likely to not answer Gallup’s question as Gen Zers. We’ll get to that.

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

Either way, that’s just one context for the larger 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 during the baby boom, is left-handed. When she was little, her teachers tried to force her to write with her right hand for reasons that remain obscure to me. But it was common: left-handed children had to write with their right hand. Eventually this pattern was dropped, probably because there was nothing she or anyone else could actually do to change her laterality.

In 2015, the Washington Post’s Wonkblog unearthed some interesting data. Before people accepted that some people were left-handed, back when they were trying to get people like my mom to write with their right hand, there were a lot fewer people saying they were left-handed.

There is no immediate reason to think that there are in fact more left-handers today than a century ago. What has changed is how people perceive left-handedness.

You can probably see where I’m coming from. In the biennial General Social Survey (GSS) conducted in 2021, younger Americans were consistently less likely to say that same-sex relationships were always or almost always bad than older Americans. But note the pattern over time. At the end of the Ronald Reagan administration, three-quarters or more of adults viewed these relationships as bad. Over time this has diminished – long after the silent generation or baby boomers have left school!

There is certainly a cultural aspect to the change. Activists have succeeded in raising awareness of the number of (often secretly) gay Americans, which has had a snowball effect. If you are gay but are afraid to express your feelings publicly, you are no less gay, but you are also not serving as an example to those you know who are gay. One of the triggers for the expansion of same-sex marriage a decade ago was that people realized they knew gay people affected by the marriage ban. More visible homosexuals meant greater acceptance of homosexuals.

It had nothing to do with what teachers were supposed to teach second graders.

This is why the gap in our first chart is significant. It is perhaps a statistical coincidence that older respondents were twice as likely to not answer the gender identity question as younger ones. Or maybe some of this group has spent decades feeling like their sexual identity is something to be ashamed of and kept secret.

If we compare the Gallup data to the ESG, you can see the relationship. Generations whose members are more likely to view same-sex relationships as bad are more likely to say they are not gay, and vice versa.

Much of the current political struggle can be understood as a particularly toxic iteration of longstanding struggles over ‘values’ and how gay Americans clash with some people’s understanding of what relationships should look like. – which itself has a generational component.

For now, this old tension is 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 a tactic that many Americans probably thought we had passed.

Whether we do or not will depend on how the Republican establishment reacts at the time.

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