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 – is 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, 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.
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.