We were always here

In the early 20th Century, there was a moral panic: the number of people saying they were left-handed rose from 2% of the population to 11%. Left-handed people were routinely demonised, with entire books being published about the newly discovered sickness of left-handedness. The word sinister, which means malicious or devious, is derived from the Latin word for left.

The number of left-handed people in the world has stayed at around 11% ever since. It’s not that there were suddenly more left-handed people. It’s that over a relatively short period of time we stopped forcing left-handed people to pretend they were right-handed and punishing them if they didn’t comply.

It turns out that when you make the world less dangerous for a particular group of people, those people are more likely to reveal who they are instead of staying hidden for fear of consequences.

There’s a new study doing the rounds that shows that the number of gay, lesbian and transgender people is significantly higher among  Generation Z than it is among the preceding generation, the millennials – and the proportion among millennials is higher than it was in Generation Y, which in turn was higher than my generation, Generation X, which in turn was… you get the idea. If you graph the numbers of people comfortably admitting to be gay, bi, pan, lesbian or trans, it’s a steady upwards slope.

It also gives the lie to the idea that trans people are somehow erasing lesbians or forcing lesbians to say they’re trans men instead; the number of people who say they’re lesbian is up from 0.8% in the previous generation to 1.4% now.

Here’s the US version. The UK polling data is very similar and shows the same pattern. 

The fact that there are more LGBT+ people coming out doesn’t mean that there are suddenly more LGBT+ people. It means that fewer LGBT+ people are forced to stay in the closet.

I think many cisgender, straight people are unaware of just how recent the improvements in LGBT+ rights are. The same “gross indecency” law used to persecute gay man, wartime hero and computer pioneer Alan Turing in the 1950s didn’t leave the statute books in Scotland until 2013. Until last year, New York had a “walking while trans” law that saw trans women arrested simply because they were trans in public. Being trans was still classified as a mental illness (as were homosexuality and female hysteria in previous decades) as recently as 2019. Equal marriage didn’t reach Northern Ireland until last year.

We were always here. But for many of us, it wasn’t safe to say so. And in many parts of the world, it still isn’t.