Memory  /  Argument

Who's Afraid of Social Contagion?

Our ideas about sexuality and gender have changed before, and now they’re changing again.

Earlier this year Gallup published some incredible statistics, showing that gen Z is our queerest generation yet, with nearly 20 percent identifying somewhere under the broad LGBTQIA+ umbrella. (Some two-thirds of this group—13 percent of gen Z—identify as bisexual; about 2 percent of zoomers identify as trans.) When I was first coming out in the early 1990s, by contrast, “1 in 10” was a common gay slogan. How did we get here, with such wide differences in identification between generations? Are there actually more queer people now, or just more out queer people? Or are those the wrong questions to ask?

Conservatives have been pushing two related theories to explain this uptick. First, there’s the “social contagion” theory, which holds that in a world drowning in representations of heterosexuality and cisgenderness, meeting a single trans person, reading a book with a bisexual character in it, or encountering nonbinary pronouns on TikTok can totally destabilize the identity of an otherwise “normal” child. It’s amazing how fragile heterosexuality and cisness are in this formulation—almost like they’re socially manufactured identities, backed by huge amounts of ideological infrastructure, peer pressure, media recruitment, and social policing. Well, I guess conservatives aren’t wrong about everything.

Another theory, sometimes offered in tandem with the contagion idea and sometimes in slight opposition to it, is the “snowflake” theory: the idea that zoomers are confused, or pretending, or signaling solidarity, or just want attention, and thus their “identities”—pansexual, ace (as in asexual), genderflux, enby, and so on—aren’t even “real.” In part, this is just another version of the contagion fear. But there’s something else going on, something a little more interesting, which—in a roundabout way—can help to explain why I think we are asking some of the wrong questions about this uptick in queer identification. This particular queerphobic explanation adds additional requirements to clear the bar of “queerness”: it has to last this long or you have to be attracted to this many people of the same sex, or you have to felt this way from birth.

In other words, this is an argument about what it means to be queer: what factors matter in terms of defining sexuality and gender, and who gets to decide. In some ways, this is a discussion humanity is always having, and these ideas are constantly shifting over time.