Transgender People, “Gay Conversion,” and “Lesbian Extinction”: What the Data Show

photo taken by the author, marching in the San Francisco LGBTQ+ Pride parade two years ago, wherein lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, & other folks all supported & celebrated one another

A few days ago (on Christmas, in fact), The Telegraph ran a piece with the provocative title: “Lesbians facing ‘extinction’ as transgenderism becomes pervasive, campaigners warn.” The premise — which has been increasingly touted by anti-trans groups over the last few years — is that nowadays, young kids who are “really lesbian” are instead coming out as transgender and transitioning to male, thereby decimating the lesbian population.

This assertion bears resemblance to another claim favored by these same groups, namely, that when children and teens are allowed to socially transition, it’s actually a form of “gay conversion therapy.” According to this argument, sans transition these kids would have grown up to be gay men and lesbian women, but now they will instead turn out to be “straight” (i.e., heterosexual trans people).

Before addressing the veracity of these claims, it is useful to ask why anti-trans groups (many of whom are also anti-gay/lesbian) are making them. It turns out that conservative Christian activists have explicitly promoted a separate the T from the LGB tactic as part of a “divide and conquer” approach to undermining LGBTQ+ rights more generally. With the exception of rare splinter groups, this strategy has had little impact within LGBTQ+ communities, who largely see through it. However, these appeals can cause confusion or consternation among the queer-unaware straight majority, who may be misled into thinking that being “pro-trans” is tantamount to being “anti-gay” — such sentiments are precisely what these anti-trans groups are striving to elicit.

Both the “gay conversion” and “lesbian extinction” claims rest upon an old theory historically known as sexual inversion, which imagined “homosexual” and “transgender” as merely different outcomes for the same “type” of person (i.e., “males-with-feminized-brains” or “females-with-masculinized-brains”). While variants of sexual inversion theory were favored by many psychologists and sexologists throughout much of the twentieth century, most researchers and health professionals nowadays no longer believe it to be true. Today, the consensus view recognizes that gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation are all separable traits that may not all align within any given person (American Psychological Association, 2015; Coleman et al., 2011; Hidalgo et al., 2013). In other words, people are gay because of their sexual orientation, and transgender because of their gender identity — this explains why transgender people also vary in their sexual orientations just as the cisgender majority does (see below).

While the field as a whole has since moved on, there remain a few researchers who still adhere to the sexual inversion model, and they continue to cite past research studies (often centered around a belief in 80% desistance) that they feel support it. Thus, as with most forms of science denialism, anti-trans groups can point to a handful of articles and authorities that seem to support their claims, even though they are not representative of the current scientific consensus.

But what if we take a different tack? If the sexual inversion model were true, then we should expect that, as the transgender population increases, we should see a reciprocal decrease in LGB populations. So let’s take a look at how LGBTQ+ prevalence has changed over the years.

In 2011, the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy (at the UCLA School of Law) published a report entitled How many people are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender?, which estimated that 3.5% of adults in the U.S. identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and an estimated 0.3% identified as transgender. Then in 2016, the Williams Institute published How Many Adults Identify as Transgender in the United States?, which estimated that 0.6% of adults in the U.S. identified as transgender — in other words, a 0.3% increase in those 5 years.

According to sexual inversion theory (and the “gay conversion” and “lesbian extinction” claims), we should expect a corresponding 0.3% decrease in the LGB population over those same five years. So did that happen?

Um, no. In a 2017 article in the American Journal of Public Health, Gary Gates (who was an author on both previously mentioned Williams Institute reports) summarized recent demographic trends within LGBTQ+ communities. As shown in the Table below (from that paper), between 2012 and 2016, the number of U.S. adults identifying as LGBT increased by 0.6% according to Gallup Daily Tracking — this exceeds the 0.3% increase in the trans population during roughly the same time period. Even more striking, the General Social Survey (which does not include trans people) reported a 1.7% increase in the LGB population over these same years! Whichever numbers you use, the LGB population is clearly going up, not down.

In that same 2017 article, Gates stated that, “Reduced social stigma and accompanying advancements in legal equality are contributing to marked changes in the demographic composition of the visible LGBT community. Most notably, it is growing, and the growth is most pronounced among young people, women, and racial and ethnic minorities” (emphasis mine). So wow, the number of queer women has been steadily increasing (not decreasing) over the last decade — that sounds like the exact opposite of a “lesbian extinction,” doesn’t it?

Finally, both the “gay conversion” and “lesbian extinction” claims presume that the existence (and increasing numbers) of transgender people contribute to gay and lesbian erasure. This ignores the fact that, according to the 2012 Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, roughly three-quarters of U.S. transgender people identify as non-heterosexual, with 23% explicitly identifying as gay or lesbian. This number is about an order of magnitude higher than the percentage of the cisgender population that identifies as lesbian and gay. Given this, if the transgender population continues to rise (which it may, for reasons I explain in that link), then there will likely be even more LGB people as a result of it!

I’m sure that anti-trans individuals and groups will come up with caveats, anecdotes, or ad hoc workarounds (e.g., by citing other outdated and disproved theories) in their attempts to salvage their “gay conversion” and “lesbian extinction” narratives — sadly, this is the way of science denialism. Despite their inevitable whataboutisms, all of the LGBTQ+ prevalence data solidly refutes these claims.

writes about gender, sexuality, social justice, & science. author of Whipping Girl, Excluded, Outspoken, & the unusually queer novel 99 Erics. juliaserano.com

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