Millennials are either the gayest generation, or the most honest. A research report published last week by the Public Religion Research Institute states that 7 percent of millennials identify themselves as either gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, a percentage that is more than twice the share of older Americans who identifies as something other than heterosexual.
The results were tucked into a massive report that examined millennials’ attitudes toward everything from sex education and access to abortion to the idea that marriage is an outdated institution. As a whole, the survey paints the picture of a cohort that has fewer and fewer non-negotiable stances than previous generations. “The survey paints a picture of a generation that is less likely to apply black-and-white rules,” PRRI CEO Dr. Robert Jones wrote to International Business Times. “They have fewer moral objections.”
Reports on the size of the LGBT population have varied wildly ever since Alfred Kinsey published research in 1948 suggesting that 10 percent of men are homosexual. Kinsey’s research wound up being called into question years later, but the disparity between the percentage of millennials that identifies as LGBT and the percentage of older cohorts suggests that changes in society may finally be making people feel more comfortable in their own skin.
Changes in media have played a significant role. “There's been a very significant, almost seismic shift in how popular media depicts the LGBT community,” said Matt Kane, a program director at GLAAD, an LGBT media advocacy group. “If you compare it to where it was 15 years ago, it's pretty remarkable.”
In the nearly two decades that GLAAD has been tracking it, the number of LGBT characters depicted on television has gone from fewer than 10 to dozens today. Though not all media have kept up – Kane said Hollywood still releases films stocked with “shockingly retrograde” characters – TV shows on both network and cable channels have provided people with a sense of familiarity and comfort.
“I think that has had a very positive impact on the younger generation," Kane added. "They feel safer to identify who they are.”
As a generation, millennials have seen more institutional support for LGBT rights and causes than any previous generation. They came of age in an era of legalized gay marriage and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” in the era of gay-straight alliances being set up at schools across the country and a renewed policy focus on core LGBT youth issues like suicide and homelessness.
But the institutional support may be a symptom, rather than a cause. “I would say those things are a product of a greater level of acceptance,” said Gary Gates, the research director at UCLA’s Williams Institute.
Yet while acceptance as a whole has increased in the U.S., Gates says there are still pockets of the country, including the South, pockets of the Mountain States and the Midwest, where people do not feel safe. “In these highly stigmatized places, people are a lot less willing to admit they're LGBT in a survey,” he said.
“I think we have to be realistic about the levels of social acceptance,” Gates said. “Forty percent of Americans still think there's a problem with same-sex couples.”