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The LGBTQ Movement Faltered And We’re Starting To See The Price

LGBTQ acceptance is eroding even among young people. What are we going to do about it?…

By Adam Zivo

There is some very bad news that not nearly enough people are talking about. Acceptance of the LGBTQ community is significantly declining in the United States and has been for several years now. Almost two years ago, a national annual survey by GLAAD found that, since 2016, Americans have become much more uncomfortable with LGBTQ folks. Though the report has since become slightly dated, little research has been done on the issue since. Other statistics, such as consistent increases in anti-LGBTQ hate crimes, suggest that the problem has not abated and may even be getting worse. 

Despite the seriousness of this issue, there appears to be little awareness within the LGBTQ community that its public support is eroding. This ignorance within the wider community is mirrored by a lack of serious analysis by queer leaders and researchers. That needs to change.

And let’s not fool ourselves that this is a US-only problem. While it’s unclear how much this backlash is mirrored in Canada and Western Europe (which share similar historical trajectories on LGBTQ rights), both of these regions have also seen notable increases in anti-LGBTQ hate crimes – so there is good reason to be pessimistic. However, only real research focused on social attitudes will give us clarity. For whatever reason, this research isn’t being done in earnest.

Younger people are turning away

The most troubling thing about the GLAAD report is that it shows that younger generations are turning away from LGBTQ acceptance the fastest. Of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34, only 45 per cent reported feeling comfortable interacting with LGBTQ people in 2018. This was a large drop from 2017 (53%) and 2016 (63%). To put this into perspective, more than a quarter of young Americans who had previously been comfortable with the LGBTQ community were turned off from it in just two years. Decades of progress have been knocked back in a very short window of time.

The disproportionate drop-off in youth support is problematic considering that activists generally trust in generational change to push progress, believing that hate can simply die off if you wait long enough. It calls for a rethink of our long-term assumptions about LGBTQ acceptance. It means opening ourselves up to the possibility that backsliding on acceptance may not be the temporary, last gasp of a dying era. 

Though some parts of the LGBTQ community are aware of the backlash against it, they nonetheless tend to frame said backlash as a generational conflict. The underlying assumption, as optimistic as it is foolish, is that short-term setbacks will ultimately be corrected by the justice of time. “They’ll end up on the wrong side of history,” we whisper to ourselves. Why are we so confident?

The good news is that, while youth support is collapsing, support among other generations appears to be more stable, at least for now. When looking at Americans as a whole, regardless of age, most measures on LGBTQ acceptance have shown slower, though consistent, increases in negative attitudes. For example, discomfort with learning that a family member is LGBTQ grew from 27 per cent in 2016 to 31 per cent in 2018. Other figures, such as discomfort with seeing an LGBTQ couple hold hands, have stayed more or less the same.

Another piece of good news is that support for equal legal rights for LGBTQ people remains stable, with four fifths of Americans consistently backing them. Americans may support LGBTQ rights in an abstract and legal sense, but for younger Americans this support is increasingly being given begrudgingly. Younger generations are shifting from being allies of the LGBTQ community to being merely passive supporters. 

Passive support, while not ideal, is tolerable. What happens, though, if acceptance of the LGBTQ community continues to decline? What happens if new generations of leaders enter into positions of power while harbouring widespread discomfort with LGBTQ folks? It’s hard to imagine how this disdain wouldn’t have an impact on everyday safety and legal rights.

It could be that GLAAD’s research is wrong. It’s hard to draw a definite picture of things from just two years of research done by one organization, which is why it’s frustrating that more work hasn’t been done to investigate this. Also, the existing data leaves many questions unanswered. It only goes to 2018, so what have things been like since then? A two-year gap in data isn’t a big deal if you have stable trends from which you can make inferences. However, with the decline of LGBTQ acceptance being so abrupt, we don’t have the luxury to make educated guesses.

What’s going on?

Measuring the scope of the problem is one task, but another equally important task is understanding why it’s happening. We’re in the dark there, too. This is dangerous. Until we have a proper understanding of why different communities are turning away from us, we won’t know how to win them back. 

Some organizations have tried to fill in the blanks themselves. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) claims that most of the anti-LGBTQ backlash can be traced to the toxic effects of the Trump administration. However, their methodology for adjudicating what counts as hate – let alone ascertaining the underlying motives of social trends – are contested.

The SPLC’s narrative is a convenient and comfortable one. It’s true that Trumpism has amplified anti-LGBTQ voices and fostered a political culture within which all minority groups have been subject to increased harassment and violence. The timing aligns neatly enough, and the story plays well with partisan tribalism. 

But that suggestion also has a lot of problems. First, Trump is least popular with younger generations, where the backlash against LGBTQ folks has been most widespread. This suggests that, however much Trumpism stokes anti-LGBTQ sentiments, it might not be driving the trend. Second, we should be careful about confusing cause and effect. As much as Trumpism stokes the flames of hate, it didn’t appear from nowhere, and is widely understood to be a symptom of an underlying rot that we have failed to adequately address. Until we fix problems at their root, addressing Trumpism will not solve things. Resentment towards LGBTQ people will simply grow and find new outlets. 

It would be futile to look for a single, authoritative reason why LGBTQ acceptance is eroding. The world is complex. Motivations and beliefs vary between individuals and communities, so many different factors come into play. At the same time, if we listen to the people turning away from us, we might be able to discern which things are particularly important. It can be hard to listen to the people who dislike us, even hate us, but this is the best way to accurately understand them and use that understanding to neutralize their anger. It is for our sake, not theirs.

People are telling us why they don’t like us

Within anti-LGBTQ rhetoric today, one thing really stands out. There is a growing narrative that LGBTQ people have become the bullies of society, and that we have become the intolerant ones. This is not an entirely new narrative, as there have always been grumblings about “the gay lobby” and its supposedly nefarious powers over society. What is new, though, is the specifics of the narrative, which focuses on how LGBTQ activism has changed over time. Among homophobes, the popular story is that, while earlier forms of LGBTQ activism were sympathetizable, newer forms of activism have gone too far and become too aggressive and disrespectful.

Predictably, the opinions of homophobes betray a lack of understanding of the enduring challenges and violence still faced by LGBTQ folks today. Nonetheless, they gesture to real transformations in LGBTQ activism that have occurred over the past decade. For much of its contemporary history, the prevailing approach to LGBTQ activism was based on persuasion and on highlighting commonalities between the LGBTQ community and the wider public. Then, in the mid 2010s, something happened. Intoxicated by our own hard-won victories, and believing that these victories couldn’t be easily reversed, we became more adversarial towards the rest of society. “Love is love” was replaced with “queer as in fuck you.”

We stopped caring about getting people to like us…and now people like us less. Our critics are telling us this emphatically. They are explicitly referencing our change in approach. Still, we are somehow shocked by this predictable outcome. With this in mind, rather than dismiss our critics entirely – as we have already done to our own detriment – perhaps it’s better for us to use this as an opportunity for self-reflection. How can we improve LGBTQ activism to stop our support from further eroding? How can we counteract growing, hostile narratives around the LGBTQ community before it’s too late?

Early LGBTQ activism as public relations 

Broadly speaking, you can think about activism in two ways: war or public relations. A warlike mindset means taking a destructive approach to your foes, and fixating on defeating and destroying them. It’s useful sometimes, assuming that your foes can be defeated, destroyed or otherwise neutralized. For example, warring against a small segment of society can be useful, because whatever vendetta they might have against you, what does it matter if they never have the power to pursue it? Why not go to war against fringe hate groups, for example?

Then there is the public relations approach, which means focusing on constructively engaging and persuading your foes. It is the slower, less emotionally satisfying way to approach things, but it also addresses problems at the root. Rather than temporarily suppressing outward expressions of violence, it changes the beliefs that make violence possible in the first place. For foes who cannot be neutralized, this is the better solution.

Over the past few decades, some within the LGBTQ community have preferred to be more like warriors while others have preferred to be diplomats and publicists. The LGBTQ community has never fallen neatly into one camp or the other, as different factions of the community have competed against each other to push their own specific politics. Still, in aggregate, it’s possible to say that the LGBTQ community has, in aggregate and over time, drifted towards one side or the other.

For a long time, things seemed decisively in favour of public relations. Perhaps this is because it was necessary for survival. Though today we fetishize rioting (something best seen in the way that we talk about Stonewall), the more influential parts of LGBTQ activism have historically been about image-building (or, if you want to put it another way, de-stigmatization). It’s not hard to understand why. Up until very recently, LGBTQ people were widely seen as perverts and degenerates and, with the rise of AIDS, as harbingers of disease. When faced with the withering scorn of the majority, fixing your image is a question of survival. You can’t win a war against all of society.

Many of the great stunts of earlier activists were fundamentally about persuasion and fostering empathy. The AIDS quilt, for example, called attention to the humanity of the most marginalized, and was provocative but not adversarial at heart. It was an excellent public relations play. Similarly, in the 1990s and 2000s, it was popular to call attention to the fact that someone you knew or loved might be gay, an idea that may seem banal today but was edgy at the time, and which cleverly de-othered LGBTQ individuals. Another useful example: the struggle to legalize marriage gained public traction partially through re-branding “gay marriage” as “marriage equality,” using subtle changes in framing to stress commonalities over differences. Finally, Pride parades, which some have recently tried to recast as a celebration of rioting, were similarly designed to elicit sympathy through visibility.

The most effective strains of LGBTQ activism wanted to woo the majority, not alienate it, and these activists steadily achieved their goals. Incrementally, LGBTQ people were welcomed into society and spared the harassment that came with being pariahs.

From public relations to war

In the 2010s, things changed. Marriage equality was legalized – which, while a wonderful thing, had the unfortunate side effect of creating the impression that LGBTQ rights had been definitively achieved. Many of the more conventional members of the community, including a large part of the professional class, drifted away from LGBTQ activism. Having won what was for them the ultimate symbol of legitimacy, they believed that they could retreat into a cocoon of normalcy. 

With this abandonment, the voices left behind were disproportionately more aggressive, adversarial and war-like, and less cognizant of the value of compromise and patience. Their militancy was amplified by their justifiable resentment at having been abandoned by the more privileged elements of the community. Rather than adapt the tools and methods that had worked up until this point, they threw them down and went their own way. They could do this, finally, now that their moderate competitors within LGBTQ activist spaces had disappeared.

Simultaneously, social justice advocacy was poisoned by the rise of a style of activism, popularly referred to as woke culture, that prioritized performative outrage over persuasion. Histrionics and purity tests replaced adult conversations and attention to context. Perhaps this was a symptom of the optimism of the later Obama years. Though not great for economic justice, the first half of the 2010s had seen steady progress in many other areas of social advocacy. With the way that history is conceived – as an irreversible march forward, slowed only by temporary stumbles – these years seemed to herald progressivism’s permanent victory in the culture wars. This sense of imminent victory made the foes of LGBTQ rights seem smaller, weaker and defeatable. The project of LGBTQ rights shifted from persuading the majority to vanquishing the stragglers.

This sense of victory was also understandably intoxicating. What group, long marginalized, does not find itself a little intoxicated when given the social clout long denied it? What victim does not want a little revenge against his diminishing oppressors? The tone of social activism became borderline retributional. The unbelievers no longer needed to be persuaded because there was no point in constructively engaging a crumbling opponent. If anything, they should be happy to be attacked, because perhaps that could save them from being stranded on the wrong side of history.

Image-conscious activism was replaced with an arsenal of practices that seemed designed to alienate others. Suddenly activists started saying, “It’s not my job to educate you.” They talked about being compensated for the “emotional labour” of advocating for their own rights, and felt clever for raising new barriers for the dissemination of ideas that would make society safer. By the mid-2010s, they had even begun to jump down the throats of their own allies, harshly policing their behaviour through strict rules and hierarchies, and taking them for granted.

This strange and arrogant indifference to persuading people of progressivism’s merits resulted in a status quo where outward expressions of prejudice were suppressed without treating their underlying causes. Denied outlets to express their rage, the anger of non-progressives grew more and more pressurized, like a cyst filling with pus. This would not be so bad if LGBTQ rights were firmly entrenched and if homophobia and transphobia were marginal beliefs. The anger of the fringes can be managed. But this was not the case, and LGBTQ activists had grossly underestimated the fragility of LGBTQ acceptance and the vast reservoirs of skepticism still to be drained.

A new challenge

Foes of the LGBTQ community caught on to this. By the late 2010s, they had started to effectively frame the LGBTQ community as the “real” bullies in the culture war. New kinds of memes began to proliferate, contrasting old forms of activism with new ones. The old style of activism, which harped on sympathetic ideas of equality using carefully chosen language like “love is love,” had always been hard to combat. Decades of steady growth in LGBTQ acceptance had shown as much. Now, rather than fight that losing battle, homophobes argued that either the LGBTQ community had either abandoned these lofty ideas or had never genuinely believed in them in the first place. More specifically, they argued that LGBTQ people were not interested in equality (or, at least, weren’t any longer) and, more than anything else, wanted superiority and to lord their identities over others. 

The message seems to have stuck, unfortunately. Younger generations, who have had the most exposure to new forms of LGBTQ activism, are now turning away from us the fastest. The aggression and performative outrage that has been so in vogue lately seems to have scared people away. 

The backlash is still fresh, so it ought to be fixable. The problem is that the LGBTQ community is instead doubling down on its new, alienating and tone-deaf militantism, further eschewing the conciliatory messaging that had once been so effective, and potentially accelerating the erosion of support.

It’s difficult to admit that our own behaviour may be contributing to our marginalization. That idea can be interpreted by some as saying that our marginalization is deserved, which is never the case. It can also be hard to see ourselves reflected in the eyes of our foes, because it holds us to the beliefs of people who want to hurt us. However, it’s also okay to say that some activist strategies may not be productive. It’s okay to admit that communities make mistakes in advocating their own liberation. To look inwards and take responsibility for our actions is a crucial form of self-empowerment. Our own behaviour is what we have most power over, after all. We can, at the very least, do this as the first step in mitigating newly surging discomfort with our communities, and begin the process of shoring up support before the problem gets out of hand.

ADAM ZIVO is a Toronto-based social entrepreneur, photographer and analyst best known for founding the LoveisLoveisLove campaign.

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    John / 25 August 2023

    I’m from outside to fold.

    Truly, it is terrifying that even in an article like this at attempts critical self-examination of the movement, that it is still unable to honestly approach and address the root causes of why this backslide is occurring. At this rate, the sheer hubris of the LGBTQ2SIA+ is going to result in a serious reversal for all of us. Who Me’s is an excellent example of the exact kind of attitude that is resulting in the backsliding of support. The reality is, is that advancing attitudes towards social minorities is something that takes a lot of time and simply can not be forced; it’s a slow march forward to build up acceptance and outreach. At the end of the day, we’re still a minority; the idea of “not playing nice” with the “oppressor” is a very romantic notion, but in reality this kind of attitude ends up catching possible allies in the crossfire and is one of the major reasons for this backslide. This “otherness” attitude pervading the community this insistence on using aggressive and shameful labels on “outsiders” is a fantastic way to make outsiders lose sympathy; it doesn’t matter how noble our cause is if we keep turning around and biting their hand whether or not it’s in good faith. “You’re an oppressor”, “You’re an outsider”, “Don’t try to understand, you can’t”, “We don’t need you, shut up”, “We don’t need to educate you”; if you shoot into a crowd, and that crowd has people friendly and unfriendly people to the community, you’re still gonna turn the entire crowd on you whether or not they agree with you.

    I don’t know. I can see the backsliding of support happening in real time; the attitude that the community should be allowed to behave however they want to whoever they want because their cause is just (and it is, indeed, just), treats “outsiders” to the community as non-human and will ultimately be the communities downfall.

    It’s just so sad that these dehumanizing views and this stance of “otherness” towards anyone who doesn’t strictly fall within party lines have become so prevalent in the community enough that it’s the first thing the young crowd see. And clearly they don’t like it. At this rate “the wrong side of history” is going to be drawn by this new generation, and I don’t think the community is going to like where that line is drawn.

    But really, I’ve just given up. It doesn’t seem like the majority of the community understands. Either they feel entitled to revenge, they feel like they can act however they want and still be received well, that they can treat the common majority however they want and get no backlash from them, or that they should have the right to speedrun civil rights while screaming and shouting down the common majority. I guess that’s a long way of saying that there is this attitude of entitlement to overt aggression that makes it so that self reflection is impossible; it feels so rare that someone from the community will reflect and honestly assign the blame to themselves.

    To repair the damage that’s done, the community needs to cool off. They need to honestly self reflect and admit that their overt and recent aggression is their own fault, and that reprisal from the majority was, unfortunately, justified. Think of how upset we get when our existence is mocked, derided, or is mused about not existing; why does the community think the same wouldn’t happen when we do that to the common majority?

    Personally, I don’t see it happening. It’s just so upsetting seeing the community making the literal exact same mistakes that the religious right made over the course of the 90s and 00s, and the only thing coming from the community in terms of self reflection is a million justifications for why everyone else is not human and we can flagellate them as much as we like.

    The hubris, narcissism, aggressiveness, and ignorance will be the communities downfall. Just like it was the religious right’s downfall.

    Beef Wenceworth / 02 June 2023

    I agree with mostly everything in this article other than the movement is not as much about love as it is about sexuality which really ought to be a private matter anyways. There are nowhere near enough reasonable people in the movement like the author of this article and now I am hearing that they are targeting sexually undeveloped children. It looks like people are starting to realize that the LGBTQ crowd will never be satisfied and that the zealotry should be resisted.

    Duke / 12 January 2021

    There is a lot of truth in this article. I think that a big part of the problem comes from referring to this as an “LGTBQ issue”, however or even referring to these communities as “LGBTQ people.” Honestly, the “community” has always been a collection of “communities” and there is a lot of political diversity in those communities as well (not everyone thinking the same about various issues.. there are left wing gays/lesbians and right wing gays/lesbians and people who fall all over the spectrum as well depending on the issue.)

    Very many gays/lesbians definitely moved on after achieving marriage equality and are just busy living their lives and pursuing personal and professional success. Some are certainly still active in the current debates but I think what is being pushed for now is very different from what was being fought for before and is definitely hard to many people (gay and straight) to relate to, which is why there is a drop in support.

    It seems like there is a push to try to force woke viewpoints on every gay/lesbian person and all younger people instead of inviting respectful debate/discussion.

    Detrick / 24 November 2020

    Far be it for me to suggest… Gay life should be inclusive and accepting! As a gay may I’ve not been happy with how I’ve seen the gay community, at times, treat others, marginalizing them. Think what happened for last Gay Pride Toronto, that we were able to hold (as an example) – Yes, as a gay man I boycotted my own parade! Without question lots can argue the angles ’til the cows come home (we all have opinions, perspectives, and assumptions), but the fact of the matter remains, we’re part of society, not apart. Excluding other members of society does not solve problems, ‘ghetto’ mentality does not foster acceptance (on any spectrum), nor does forced exposure. Simply put, bad behaviour has significant impact over time. Society seems so fast to criticize, one would think it common sense for the gay community organizations to present a more accepting, inclusive, front (with consistency). Sadly, as with many, it’s a few ‘bad actors’ that create waves for the rest. I’ve seen bad behaviour from the gay community towards others, and from other communities towards the gay community. Sometimes it’s up to us to step up to the plate and present a more mature, common-sense, level-headed approach. When I see some of the rabid actions and behaviours of supposed leaders and groups in the gay community, quite frankly it sometimes makes me angry to see them treat others in negative ways, yet expecting ‘good’ treatment towards us. To change things for the positive, it starts with looking at ourselves first, looking at our community first, making changes within first – And that quite often is the hardest thing to admit… That we need to address ourselves first. R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

    Who Me / 11 November 2020

    I don’t like this premise. This article has an ahistorical view of history, because it is arguing that people have given up on activism after the “win” of marriage equality, but also arguing that the activists who are still fighting for continued recognition and rights are doing it the wrong way. If we consider things prior to the 2010s, we can see that progress is not just gaining rights/freedom advancements and acceptance through slogans. Gay men and lesbian women have gained acceptance in mainstream culture because it is easier for cisgender people to understand. “Love is Love” is easy to comprehend for heterosexuals (nice to see the author of the article is the founder of a campaign with that name, hmm). It is much more difficult to understand trans and non-binary, two-spirit and other identities because they are more abstract in terms of how gender is understood as opposed to sex and romance. The people who are still fighting for acceptance are in a place to fight because their identity is touted as an ideology, rather than their reality– and Trumpism/conservative people are labeling sociological concepts as “woke” so that they don’t need to engage with how they think and act in social settings. Instead of suggesting how people can fit more neatly into respect politics, maybe the more privileged LGBTQ members should stick up for those who are marginalized more heavily (based on their identity for a multitude of factors) so that they don’t need to expend as much energy fighting so hard. As cute as “love is love” is, it doesn’t represent all of the LGBTQ community because identity is more than just sexual orientation. Marginalized people have a right to be mad when they live in a time where their reality is constantly denied, and also put in danger by not only the President of the United States, but also by a culture that is ready to label any sort of critique as too woke or too critical to engage with. Transphobia seems to be on the rise because it is being actively examined and still allowed to exist within mainstream culture that traditional cisgender-based homophobia is no longer allowed to be. How can we gain more progress for these marginalized identities when we’re trying to be respectful and our “opponent” (oppressor) is not only not listening, but already not giving the belief in something outside of a gender binary more than a little bit of good faith. Instead, you have to argue about how you feel all the time, how long you’ve known who you are, and how it is not just a passing phase for you. Sounds a little familiar of a struggle, doesn’t it? Just because acceptance is widespread and mainstream for some does not mean it is for others. We should be more critical than ever of people who want to distance LGB from TQIA or anything the mainstream would consider a “fringe identity”. We need each other, and being nice about how you are being oppressed doesn’t make the oppressor want to help you, it enables the abuse you are already being subjected to. That’s my take on all of this. It might be difficult to read something written with anger and passion behind it, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t engage with it critically. I heavily disliked this article but made it all the way here to this super long comment. If you made it this far, I salute you and hope you take the time to reflect too. Cheers!


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