Two Sexes. Infinite Genders.

How the world changes and yet stays the same


Gallup’s latest report on the Ls, Gs, Bs and Ts has raised a few eyebrows. It shows a slow, gradual rise in those identifying as “LGBT” so that it now stands at 5.6 percent of the population — a record. Cue Rod.

I know this is a hot topic, but, seriously, I can’t see this as a big deal. When I was coming out a hundred years ago, we were constantly told that 10 percent — at least! — of the country was gay. “One in ten” was a common buzzword in gay groups, and most gay people believed it. And in what was my first of many heresies as a homosexual, I never bought that. How on earth did I keep recognizing the same people at march after march and parade after parade if there were over 30 million of us? And why should we care how many of us there are?

When you examine the details of the latest poll, I’m reassured that my intuition was right and all that feel-good propaganda was wrong. It turns out that in 2020, only 1.4 percent of US adults are gay men, and only 0.7 percent are lesbians. So all the gays and lesbians amount to a little over 2 percent of the country’s adults. And that seems about right to me.

The surprise, however, is that there are now almost as many people identifying as “trans” as “lesbian”. In Generation Z, trans identification (1.8 percent) now beats lesbian i.d. (1.4 percent) as a proportion of the whole. Over three generations, trans identity has gone from 0.2 percent to 1.8 percent, a staggering 800 percent increase. That may be because anti-trans attitudes are shifting for the better and more people feel able to express themselves; it may also be because of a shift among lesbians to the trans category, as butch dykes increasingly become men; and some of it is probably due to the sheer trendiness of being trans among the young. It’s kind of amazing — and wonderful — that trans identity has gone from being freakish to being the coolest thing, among the young. But for some, let’s be real here, it may just be identity-slumming when talking to a pollster.

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Bisexuals, at 54.6 percent of all “LGBT” identifiers, are now a majority, and in Gen Z, clock in at 72 percent! The qualification to this is that only 3.7 percent of bisexuals live with someone of the same sex while over 30 percent live with someone of the opposite sex. And I have to say I think it’s a bit odd that such a big chunk of the “LGBTs” are actually functioning in heterosexual relationships — and that doesn’t even count the hetero trans population. If Gallup had added a Q, for “queer”, we could include even more fashionable heterosexuals — or maybe, given the absence of that category from the Gallup list — they chose the bisexual category. It’s one more reason, I’d argue, that we should disaggregate the “LGBT” construction so actual gay people can be measured more accurately, instead of lumping us in with vague categories that include lots of people in heterosexual relationships.

But does this mean we should panic about increasing gender fluidity in the younger generation? Again, I really don’t think so. The sex binary is intrinsic to the survival of our species. That’s just biology and human reproductive strategy. Aggregate sex differences — physical, psychological, behavioral — are deeply rooted in our species’ DNA. They’re not going away because a bunch of Foucault disciples want them too.

But gender is not sex; it’s how that sex is expressed and manifested. And if the range of ways to express or describe your sex as man or woman is expanding and evolving, that’s a huge win for our culture. It means that many more interpretations of what it is to be a man or a woman are now socially acceptable, liberating people from the expectations of crude gender stereotypes. (This is why I worry that young gay gender-non-conforming kids may be categorized by some as trans, if they exhibit stereotypes of the opposite sex. But gender non-conformity does not mean you’re trans. You’re more likely to be gay and straight.) So I really don’t have much of an objection to the 56 or 112 genders some propose, apart from the fact that some of them are more than a bit silly. I mean: “cavusgender”, “ceterofluid”, ‘demifluid”, “genderwitched”, “quoigender”? You can look them up for yourselves.

I’d argue, in fact, that there are many, many more than 112 ways to express your maleness or femaleness. Just as every person is unique, so is the expression of gender. The combination of a sex and a singular personality is always unique. And what is well worth leaving behind is a crude, binary sense of gender itself. Unlike sex, it really is a spectrum. And it can be crushing for gender-non-confirming kids and adults to live up to stereotypes of their gender; and it can be horribly restrictive for everyone else. There will always be social and cultural group differences in the aggregate, for sure — more men, for example, will, on average, prefer watching sports than women. But a woman who loves football is absolutely no less a woman for it.

As a kid, my otherness didn’t have a name. I knew I was a boy — but the day each week that terrorized me the most in my high school was the day I was made to play rugby. I was small, pre-pubescent at that point, bookish, asthmatic, and physically awkward. Being tackled by a post-pubescent boy twice my size and finding my head pushed into knee-deep mud, mixed with my own blood, on a semi-regular basis was not exactly my idea of a pleasant afternoon. Neither was being outside in the cold, endless rain, my hands so frozen I couldn’t actually unbutton my own rugby shirt afterward, my lungs spasming with another asthma attack.

But the fear of this organized male violence was made much worse because it seemed to impugn my maleness. There were no varying, mixed or subtle models of masculinity in my childhood and adolescence that I could easily identify with. When in elementary school I was ingenuously asked by a girl “Are you sure you’re not a girl?” my response was an immediate no. But I knew what she was getting at. And it ate away at my self-esteem.

Similarly, at my grandparents one Christmas, my grandmother noticed me in a corner with a book and my younger brother, who was driving a toy truck up and down the carpet, crashing it into the walls. She said to my mother, looking at my brother, and in front of me, “Well at least you now have a real boy.” It cut deeply. I remember not pursuing English literature past the age of sixteen, even though I loved it — because studying history was somehow, in my mind, more masculine.

To deepen the self-inflicted wound, my dad was a near model of classic masculinity. He was a superb athlete who had competed for England as a middle-distance runner; he had been captain first of his high school rugby team and then of our town’s. He was taciturn and bloody-minded, threw his weight around in our house, fished in the North Sea, raised rabbits and chickens, and drove fast. He routinely knocked down parts of our little house whenever he felt bored to add extensions, which he rarely finished. His mates drank lots of beer, and it was clear he was much happier among them than with his own family. He even had a mid-life crisis, and bought a racy car and a leather jacket. It was as if he felt the need to act out a near-parody of “toxic masculinity.”

He wasn’t cruel to me, but he never came to any of the school plays I was in, or any of my debating contests. Too girly, I suppose. And of course I felt as if I had let him down. I remember with more than a little poignancy how he once gamely tried to teach me how to kick a soccer ball. And how utterly useless I was.

What he didn’t let himself experience to its fullest for a long time was another side of himself. He loved to draw and to paint. After his death a year ago, we found a letter that showed he had once been admitted to the Slade School of Fine Art in London, perhaps the finest such institution in the country, and a great honor. He never told us of this, and I don’t know why he turned down the place. Probably his need to earn money, but maybe also the price of gender-conformity. But as soon as he retired, and especially after he got divorced, he started painting again — and the results were spectacular. I cannot help but wonder what kind of life he might have had, if he had had the courage of his own, non-conforming desire, what great paintings he might have produced over time. 

When I came out to him, he suddenly bent down and sobbed. I was shocked and confused. My dad never cried. I asked him again and again why he was weeping, even as I was relieved he hadn’t thrown a punch. And after a while, he looked up and said something I will never forget: “I’m crying because of all you must have gone through growing up, and I never did anything to help you.” All that macho bravado dissolved instantly by a father’s love.

Later that day, my mother, with her usual blather-mouth said she thought he was crying because he realized that I had had the nerve to risk my career and future to be who I truly was, and he had never summoned up the courage to do the same. He was, she said, crying for himself. Not that he was gay, but that he loved art. A weight of gender expectations may well have prevented him from realizing his dream. 

I have thought of him a lot in the year now since his sudden, unexpected death. We couldn’t have a funeral under Covid lockdown. But when we do, we’re going to display as many of his paintings as we can. 

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(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. If you’re not subscribed and want to read the whole thing, and keep independent media thriving on Substack, subscribe now! This week’s offerings include: a long post about my deep concern over the Equality Act; a podcast debate with trans activist Mara Keisling; an array of reader responses to my column on the myth of a “majority-minority” America; some demoralizing news from Amnesty and the ACLU; two cool ads; a few throwbacks to the glory days of blogging; a long soothing timelapse; more window views; lots of recommended reading as always; and the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)

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New On The Dishcast: Mara Keisling

So this is a super-gay edition of The Weekly Dish!

Mara is a brilliant transgender rights activist and founding executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. I’m so grateful for her willingness to have a robust exchange of views on some issues, along with much agreement as well. Every few weeks, I hope to add another perspective to the debate over trans identity, a subject that has suffered from the mainstream media’s horror of open debate. Dana Beyer kicked the series off.

To listen to three excerpts from my conversation with Mara — on the tensions within the new Equality Act; on the conflation of sex and gender in public policy; and on the fairness of trans athletes competing with cis athletes — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here. That link also takes you to a bunch of reader commentary over last week’s episode with Michael Anton — a leading intellectual of Trumpism — and a response from Anton about his appearance. Here’s one reader:

I really enjoyed the episode, and Anton has the kind of perspective I never really hear in my bubble, so I found it fascinating. While I think he was wrong about virtually everything over the first half of the podcast, he did have some insightful criticisms of the left toward the end. Thank you for your effort to provide fans of the Dish with some much needed intellectual diversity.


The ‘Majority-Minority’ Myth: Your Thoughts

There was an amazing and classic Dishhead response to last week’s column. Few actual dissents, but many insights into the complexity of racial identity in America in 2020, from all races. This first reader is far more worried about the white-nationalist right than the woke left:

Do you really think that those concerned with a non-majority-white country take any solace in mixed marriages and off-spring? If their concern for “whiteness” is that important, the white person in a mixed marriage is considered a traitor to their race, and the offspring even worse. The only way out of this is if mixed marriages and offspring become so big that no one cares about what a smaller-and-smaller bunch of crackpot racists think. I see the younger generations making this a reality.

I do too. But I also don’t believe that those white Americans who really are white nationalists are as numerous as we have been led to believe.

Another reader suggests that it’s not a future “brown America” that most white people fear; it’s the fear of being branded as racist just because they’re white — click here to read that comment and my response, along with many other reader comments and stories. Rich pickings this week.


The Over-Reach Of The Equality Act

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Equality Act, which was passed by the House this week, is that it will not become law. For many, this will be baffling. The bill is designed, after all, to protect gay men, lesbians and transgender people from discrimination by expanding the reach of the recent, ground-breaking Bostock decision to a few areas it did not apply to. Who on earth could object?

(Read the whole post here.)


The View From Your Window Contest

Where do you think this view is located? Email your guess to contest@andrewsullivan.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a three-month sub if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you are new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!

The results for the last week’s view are coming in a separate email to subscribers later today.

Please send us the view from your own window (just remember to note the location, time of day, and include part of the window frame — and horizontal photos are preferred): dish@andrewsullivan.com. If we post your photo, we will send you a free six-month subscription or an extension to your current one.

See you next Friday.