I was half asleep and listening to my local NPR station Tuesday morning when I heard the following statistic come over the air: Over half of Evergreen State College students, according to a report from KNKX, identify as LGBTQ. Had the reporter said half of Evergreen's drama department is queer, I might have turned over and snoozed through it, but over half of the entire student body? That's around 2,000 students. It was surprising enough to jolt me awake.
The population of LGBTQ people in the U.S. is expanding. That's abundantly clear. In 2018, Gallup estimated that "a record" 4.5 percent of the U.S. adults count themselves as lesbian, gay, bi, trans, or queer—a slight jump from 2012, when the estimate was 3.5 percent of the population. That one-percent jump was significant, but not a shock.
Where things have really changed is among younger populations.
A 2017 GLAAD poll found that 20 percent of respondents ages 18-34 identify as some variation of LGBTQ. That's huge, and far outnumbers any prior generation. So it's worth asking what's going on with the youth.
The obvious answer is that as society has become more tolerant of sexual minorities, the number of people willing to come out has increased. This makes intuitive sense. The movement for gay rights has been remarkably effective: Only 35 years ago, nearly 60 percent of Americans thought that same-sex relationships (not marriage, just dating) should be illegal. By 2019, that number had fallen to just over a quarter. At the same time, acceptance of same-sex marriage has risen from 27 percent in 1997 to 63 percent in 2019. The "closet" doesn't exist for many young people today: They don't need to come out because they were never "in" it the first place. That's progress, and it's something to celebrate.
But I don't think that tells the whole picture. It's not just that more people are coming out as gay, lesbian, bi, or trans, it's that the definition of "queer" has expanded to include basically anyone who has anything other than penis-in-vagina missionary-position sex. "Queer" has become less and less a descriptor of who you sleep with than a way of signaling one's political ideology. As Sophie Saint Thomas wrote last year in Cosmo (yes, that Cosmo, which, like nearly every mainstream media organization, has moved to the left on social issues), "The vagueness of the term is intentional—queer is an identity created for anyone outside of the heterosexual norm and meant to be inclusive and create a sense of acceptance." It's perhaps ironic then that actual homosexuals are sometimes left out of this inclusive definition—for instance, Mayor Pete, whom Masha Gessen and other queer writers have deemed insufficiently queer because he wears khakis and because the only man he's slept with is his husband.
What does it mean, really, this term? "Queer" started out as a descriptor, then a slur, then was reclaimed by gay, bi, and trans people, and now it's evolved into near meaninglessness. "Queer" now includes straight men who like to get pegged by their girlfriends, kinky people, poly people, people who don't have sex at all (asexuals), people who only have sex with those they are emotionally attracted to (demisexuals), people who only have sex with those they are intellectually attracted to (sapiosexuals), and the entire and ever-expanding nonbinary family, which, the last time I looked, included dozens of subsets like agender, agenderflux, androgyne, aporagender, bigender, butch, demiboy, demigender, and demigirl. And that's just the first few letters under the enby umbrella. "Queer" is so expansive that it can include nearly everyone, including people who are actually straight.
Is that what's going on at Evergreen State? I don't know. Greg Mullins, the library dean at Evergreen, told KNKX that the growth of the LGBTQ population appears to be organic. "It’s not as if there was a plan to say, hey, how can we figure out how to become one of the leading national colleges for the LGBTQ population? No one sat down and did that. That happened over time, naturally, organically, and I think what that means is that this is a great place to come for people who are [LGBTQ]. No matter what their background is, it’s a welcoming environment to come to.”
That's probably got something to do with Evergreen's ever-growing queer population. It's not that most American public colleges are hotbeds of homophobia (they're not) but liberal arts schools, in particular, have long been pretty, well, queer, and Evergreen State, with its reputation for hyper progressive values, seems likely to attract a higher rate of queer students. It's much easier to imagine LGBTQ students choosing Evergreen over, say, a Bible school.
But it's also true that queerness has become something of a trend. I suspect I will be accused of "gatekeeping" or even "homophobia" for saying this, but it isn't a value judgment as much as an observation. Humans are social animals and we have a tendency to mirror behavior we see around us. This is sometimes called "social contagion," and it shows up, in particular, among the young.
I saw it in my own friend group in college in the early 2000s. First Sarah came out, then Emiline, then Lea, then Rachel, and then me. Today, the other four are married to men, but they all called themselves "lesbians" while we were in school, and if "queer" hadn't still been a slur, they probably would have adopted that one, too.
We even had a name for this phenomenon back then—lesbian until graduation—and studies have confirmed that it does exist. A 2003 study, for instance, interviewed young self-declared "nonheterosexual women" over a five-year period and found that a quarter of respondents no longer identified as lesbian or bisexual. Of those, "half reclaimed heterosexual identities and half gave up all identity labels." Interestingly, only one of these formerly queer women, according to the study authors, considered her nonheterosexual period a "phase." Rather, the rest "emphasized changes in how they interpreted or acted on their attractions."
This shows us that self-identification, at least among some people, fluctuates over time. But other studies have found that attraction is basically stable throughout our lives. Those who are exclusively same-sex attracted in youth will likely be same-sex attracted as adults, and the same is true of exclusively opposite-sex attractions as well. Anyone who has gone through conversion therapy can likely attest that you can try to change who are you are attracted to, but it probably won't work. But while attractions may be stable, labels are not, and the expanding definition of the word "queer" has, I suspect, increased the self-described LGBTQ population by a lot.
And why not identify as "queer," especially if it doesn't need to reflect who you fuck? In some environments, there are real social benefits to adopting this label. This isn't to say that bigotry and homophobia don't still exist. They do. People still get shunned from their families and kicked out of their homes for their sexual orientation. My own girlfriend’s parents took nearly four years to meet me in person, and I have friends whose sexuality is so taboo that their families just pretend that it's not happening. Anti-queer prejudice might be rare or invisible in progressive communities like Evergreen State but it’s hardly extinct, especially among deeply conservative and religious communities. People are killed or imprisoned for being gay all over the world, even in 2020. But in some places, in some communities, especially young ones, being queer is undeniably cool.
Take Bainbridge Island, an affluent, largely white town outside Seattle. My cousin Sofie happens to be a senior at Bainbridge High, and I texted her to ask how common it is for people to come out as queer in her school.
"I don’t really see anyone 'coming out' but there’s a lot of queer people at our school,” she responded. "I think our school is accepting to the point where people don’t really need to come out. Sometimes I’ll see someone holding hands or kissing and I’ll think 'Oh, that’s new.'”
When I asked what percentage of her class she thinks identifies as “queer,” she had an exact answer: “I just checked the Healthy Youth Survey for my school and it says about 25 percent ID as something other than straight.” When I asked her if being queer is cool or trendy, she said in certain groups or cliques, yes. And it's not just teenagers adopting the label. For whatever reason, in certain contexts, being queer has become a way of gaining social capital—or even, in some cases, a way of attempting to dodge criticism. Take, for instance, The Good Place actress Jameela Jamil, who responded to being widely dragged on social media for some perceived sin against the LGBTQ community recently by coming out as "queer." As for what that means exactly, who knows? Maybe it means she's attracted to women. Maybe it means she pegs her straight boyfriend. Both now fall under the label of "queer."
Or take this story I heard from a university instructor (not at Evergreen State): She told me that in one of her first-year classes, there are three trans or nonbinary students and about a dozen students who identify as queer. And that's in a class of just 23. "I know this about them because they told me and the rest of their classmates in their introductions," she said, adding that when the class conversation turned to identity one day, an older student asked why so many people identify as queer now, and was informed by a classmate that identifying as straight is a way to oppress others. In this thinking, the only moral identification is queer or sexually fluid because that's the only way to be truly inclusive.
This is not possible for all people, of course, and no one has an obligation to be inclusive with their bodies. If you are a 0 (exclusively heterosexual) or a 6 (exclusively homosexual) on the Kinsey Scale, your sexuality isn't fluid at all. Studies have found that females tend to be more sexually fluid than males, but we don't yet know what, exactly, determines someone's sexual orientation, though it's probably some combination of biological, environmental, and cultural factors. But what we do know is that the old definition of "queer" no longer means what it used to, if it means anything at all.