What’s the correct number of lesbians? Gay men? Bisexuals? Trans people? Is there a number that is too high? Too low? Just right?
Every year, Gallup releases a survey of how many Americans identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (L.G.B.T.). The 2023 edition found it was about 7 percent. That percentage has held relatively steady over the past three years, but it is about double the percentage in 2012 (3.4 percent). Perhaps most notably, the number of transgender Americans has increased, as has the number of people who identify as nonbinary.
A lot has happened over the past decade, a lot of it to the benefit of L.G.B.T. people. This is the best time in American history to be L.G.B.T., with the proviso that the bar for such an achievement is incredibly, unspeakably low. Marriage equality is now the law of the land, and more people know someone who is trans now than they did a few years ago. Many people now live in public, too, sharing our lives on social media with strangers. There are more visibly L.G.B.T. people because there are more visible people, period.
But that visibility has produced a very strange complaint from some critics. L.G.B.T. people are OK in theory, they seem to argue, but there are simply too many of them.
“Has anything like this ever happened to any society, ever?” Rod Dreher asked in The American Conservative. “Three out of 10 women under the age of 25 consider themselves to be gay or transgender. Five percent, sure. Maybe even 8 percent. But 30?” The Georgia representative Marjorie Taylor Greene predicted on her podcast: “Probably in about four or five generations, no one will be straight anymore. Everyone will be either gay or trans or nonconforming or whatever the list of 50 or 60 different options there are.” The comedian Bill Maher said on his show that by 2054, if we follow what he sees as the current trajectory, “we will all be gay,” adding that the rise in the number of younger people identifying as transgender seemed suspicious. “All the babies are in the wrong bodies? Was there a mix-up at the plant?”
L.G.B.T. people are, of course, no strangers to public antipathy, the voices that seem to see the rising number of L.G.B.T. people as a “sign of a deeply decadent culture” or even a “dying civilization.” But what makes this form of criticism seemingly novel is that it focuses on quantity rather than quality.
Even seemingly straightforward descriptions of the statistics can get overheated quickly, something as ephemeral as “following a trend” (like bisexuality, according to some outlets) or as widespread as a “social contagion.”
The increase in visible trans people is factual, of course. There are more out trans people, and trans young people, today than there were 10 or certainly 20 years ago — which makes sense, given that 20 years ago even the idea of legalizing same-sex marriage on a national level was a wedge issue so contentious that it may have helped tilt key races. But treating the increase as a “diagnostic craze” or cause for concern implies that there is a trans set point of sorts — a correct number of people who are permitted to be trans.
One of the most influential proponents of this view was Abigail Shrier, whose book “Irreversible Damage” warned of a “transgender craze seducing our daughters.” She described in a Daily Mail piece the rising number of people who identify as transgender as an example of social contagion akin to the “Salem witch trials of the 17th century, the nervous disorders of the 18th century, and anorexia nervosa, repressed memory, bulimia and the self-harm contagion in the 20th century.” She does not, however, deny the existence of trans people. In fact, she goes further than that: “Indeed,” she writes, “some small proportion of the population will always be transgender.” But how many? Which ones? And who gets to decide?
When I asked K.J. Rawson, an associate professor of English and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Northeastern University and the director of the Digital Transgender Archive, if he’d noticed this phenomenon of the “too many trans people” trope, he told me that it reminded him of the sideshow era of the 19th and 20th century — where so-called freaks could proliferate and thrive, provided they stayed within the circus tent. Then, he said, there was an idea that “a certain amount of gender transgression was spectacular. As long as it’s still in that realm, it’s OK and it’s entertainment.” But he told me that when L.G.B.T. people stop being sources of entertainment and start being neighbors, coffee shop owners and even teachers, “I think that then those are the moments where you start to see far more anxiety about how much power these spaces can generate.”
As for the idea that some trans people are just victims of a social trend, Hugh Ryan, a scholar of L.G.B.T. history, traced it back to the work of 19th-century sexologists in an interview with me. According to Ryan, they drew a distinction between “inverts,” who are what they are, and those who exhibit “acquired inversion” — otherwise straight or cisgender people who began to identify as L.G.B.T. because of the influence of others.
Isaac Schorr put it similarly in National Review: “To suggest that social suggestibility could be playing a role in the skyrocketing numbers of young girls’ expressing their desire to become males, for example, is not of course to say that gay and transgender people would not exist without these topics’ being discussed in the public square. It’s only to say that people, and especially young people, are susceptible to being influenced on all manner of issues, especially when the arguments they’re hearing come from people in positions of authority — such as teachers — and are presented as truth.”
This fear is based on an understanding of gender and sexuality as alarmingly fragile, easily undone by a gay teacher or a trans TikTok influencer. But the vast majority of people are straight and cisgender, and the vast majority will no doubt be so in the future. And that will be good, because heterosexuality is good. And so is homosexuality, bisexuality and being transgender.
There’s been an objective increase in the number of visible L.G.B.T. people in the last decade. But the discomfort with that visibility isn’t an objective fact of life. There is no maximum number of people on earth who can be trans before we face civilizational ruin or planetary collapse. This is the first time in American history in which gay and trans people have been able to live as themselves in any real way, with jobs and marriages and dogs and cats and visibility. And when others panic about rising numbers and fret about what “causes” people to be trans (or queer in general), the not-so-hidden message is that repression might be necessary to stop them, as if the temptations of trans life are too alluring otherwise and might entice “normal” people too much. Yes, more people are trans now than they were a few years ago. And that’s … normal.
Jane Coaston (@janecoaston) is a staff writer in Opinion.
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Jane Coaston was the host of Opinion’s podcast “The Argument.” Previously, she reported on conservative politics, the G.O.P. and the rise of the right. She also co-hosted the podcast “The Weeds.”
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