The instantly recognizeable ‘LGBT flag’ seem to be everywhere nowadays. It’s printed on National Trust badges; it’s flown outside U.S. embassies; and it’s painted on the side of police cars. Mega-corporations emblazon their logos with the flag every June, which comprises ‘LGBT pride month’ (though their Middle East divisions are notably exempt from this trend).
Has the rainbow-isation of everything been accompanied by an increase in LGBT identity – in people identifying as a sexual minority? It has, according to a comprehensive new study by political scientist Eric Kaufmann. Focussing on the U.S. (where there’s an abundance of relevant data) he finds that society is becoming less ‘straight’.
Unsurprisingly, the rise in LGBT identity is concentrated among young people. Depending on which dataset you look at, between 16 and 25% of under 30s now identify as something other than ‘heterosexual’. The true figure is likely toward the lower end of these estimates, says Kaufmann. Even so, this would still mean that one in every six young Americans has an LGBT identity.
Okay, so a lot of people say they’re not straight. But is this reflected in their actual behaviour? In part, yes. But Kaufmann finds that rising LGBT behaviour accounts for less than half the rise in LGBT identity. As the chart below indicates, non-heterosexual identity is up by 11 percentage points since 2008, whereas non-heterosexual behaviour (reporting at least one same-sex partner in the past year) is only up by 4 percentage points.
What explains the disparity between identity and behaviour? There’s now a large segment of women who identify as ‘bisexual’ despite having only male sex partners. In 2018–21, 55% of ‘bisexual’ women under 30 had only male sex partners, compared to just 13% in 2008–10. A similar trend was evident among ‘bisexual’ men, though it was much less pronounced.
Note: part of the rise in non-heterosexual behaviour may reflect higher rates of reporting now there’s less stigma. And while this would imply that figures for earlier years are underestimates, it couldn’t explain the growing gap between identity and behaviour.
Turning to politics, Kaufmann finds that LGBT identity is heavily concentrated among those with ‘very liberal’ views. As the chart below indicates, between 34 and 49% of under 30s with such views – compared to less than 15% among conservatives.
Of course, one would expect non-heterosexuals to gravitate away from conservatism, with its emphasis on the traditional family. But notice that the percentages for moderates are only slightly higher than for conservatives. This suggests the pattern can’t simply be explained by non-heterosexuals embracing ideologies that are more tolerant of their lifestyles.
Zooming-in on college students, Kaufmann finds dramatic differences by subject area. Those studying the social sciences or humanities are about 10 percentage points more likely to identify as LGBT than those studying the hard sciences. And among those taking “highly political majors” like gender and race studies, the LGBT share reaches 50%!
All this suggests the LGBT phenomenon represents a kind of fashion on the political left. It’s now possible to raise one’s status (either as a ‘victim’ or ‘non-conformist’) by claiming to be ‘LGBT’ – even if one’s behaviour is strictly heterosexual. Of course, fashions have a habit of changing, and it remains to be seen how long this one will last.