Statistics are seldom simple — or, a queer survivor unpacks survival, visibility, and feeling safe to be out
Last week I posted this story in the Friday Five: 5.6% of American adults say they are LGBTQ. Over half identify as bisexual – The number of LGBTQ Americans coming out and claiming their identity just keeps growing. Digging beyond the headline, a lot of people focused on the generational chart (pictured above): Millennials (folks born between 1981 and 1996) are about four-and-a-half times more likely to identify as queer than Boomers (folks born between 1946-1964), while Gen-Z (folks born after 1996) are nearly eight times more likely than Boomers to identify as something other than heterosexual.
The story was published early in the week and I kept seeing various hot takes on the results. I was a little surprised at just how many people were willing to leap to the conclusion that younger people are only saying that they are queer to be cool.This ignores several facts that would disproportionately reduce the number of queer people in those less-young generations responding to this survey. Not the least of which is that many of them are literally not alive to respond. Twitter user @mike_i_guess sums up much of what I’d like to say on the matter, though I would use the term “contemporaries” rather than peers:
“The lack of boomer LGBTQ+ people isn’t because it’s ‘more popular now.’ Many were murdered by they peers, died from government inaction during the AIDS crisis, committed suicide due to lack of social supports, or have had to live in the closet due to their peers’ cruelty.”
I want to unpack that a bit. We don’t really have statistics on hate crimes before the passage of the federal Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990, and even then crimes against trans people (or those perceived to be trans) weren’t counted until the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2010 was signed into law. But queer people have been subject to bashings and murder for decades. The longer one lives, the more opportunities there are to fall victim to such crime.
It’s been known for a long time that queer people, particularly queer children and teens, are far more likely to attempt suicide than their straight contemporaries, and the statistical analysis is that the disparity is entirely due to the stress of homophobic abuse and related issues. Preliminary studies show a slight decrease in those numbers for teens and children since about 2012, as growing acceptance of queer adults in society has given more of them hope of a happy future.
Then there are health care issues. Numerous studies show that queer people are more likely to experience interruptions in health care coverage, are less likely to be forthcoming with their health care providers, and less likely to receive the same quality of health care as their straight contemporaries. It’s a complicated result of both systemic and direct homophobia. Lots of people operate under the mistaken notions that bigotry only exists in a small number of people who actively hate others because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, et cetera, but it’s a lot more subtle than that.
For instance, let’s talk about the bit about interruptions in health care coverage. For years in the U.S. one’s health insurance (if you have it) is provided by your employer. Most people don’t get to choose their coverage, they have to take what’s offered by their employer. Which means if you get laid off or otherwise lose your job, your health coverage goes away. Queer people are disproportionately likely to be let go when a Reduction In Force hits a workplace. They are also less likely to get promotions and more likely to earn less than their straight co-workers who received similar job performance reviews and have similar experience. This is not because most managers are actively homophobic. It is a combination of a lot of unconscious processes.
For example, if a queer person doesn’t feel safe being out in the workplace, they will police themselves constantly to make sure they don’t let telling details of their personal life slip. While straight co-workers will be sharing stories about things they did with the children over the weekend, or a project they worked on with their spouse, or even issues with an ex-spouse or in-laws they don’t get along with, the closeted co-worker remains mum. The closeted working can’t talk about their partner freely or in detail. So they limit themselves to very vague generalities are just politely comment on the other person’s remarks. This is perceived as being unfriendly. Not sharing personal details after another person shares some of theirs is considered anti-social. So the closeted queer employee is perceived as being less of a team player, aloof, and so forth. This has a deleterious effect on every aspect of employment, including as mentioned above an increased likelihood of being one of the people let go if there are lay-offs.
Even more dangerous is the tendency of some health care professionals not to take as seriously symptoms reported by a queer person. I have a very personal example of this. In the very early 1990s I had a series of weird health events. It took over a year for my doctor and two specialists to figure out what the underlying problem was. Before that diagnosis, I had a number of incidents that required me going to an emergency room.
One time, I had been unable to keep any food down. Soon I was running a fever and it reach the point that even trying to sip plain wanter sent me running to the bathroom and left me curled up with horrible pain in my stomach after I threw up the water. Eventually, Ray (my now late-husband) convinced me to let him take me to the hospital.
We had one bit of good luck. As we were checking in, a nurse who just happened to be coming to the front to give the admin person some information related to another patient, noticed how bad I looked. She asked a couple of questions, then pinched my forearm, before telling the admin person, “He’s extremely dehydrated and need to be put on an IV right away.”
I was whisked off, put on an IV, had my vitals taken. Not long after another nurse came in and drew a bunch of blood, asked questions, and finished filling out the admission form. Some time later the initial nurse dropped by to say her shift was ending, but before she left she wanted to see for herself if the fluids they were pumping into me were helping. My fever was down, I felt a lot better, and apparently I looked a lot better.
Then we just waited. I don’t know how long I laid there. Ray got very impatient and went to ask when someone was going to check on us. I think I was on my third unit of fluid at that point. A doctor showed up, asked a bunch of questions, checked a few things, and told us they were still waiting for a couple of the blood tests to come in. Some time after that the doctor reappeared, alone with a nurse who changed out the fluid bag again. The doctor explained that the blood tests were inconclusive, but he suspected I had a rare form of ulcer that his caused by a particular kind of infection of the stomach lining, so he was prescribing some pills that would help with that. He said that as soon as I was rehydrated enough that I had to go to the bathroom, I’d been discharged. I should keep taking the pills for the rest of the weekend (it was a Saturday night), and see my regular doctor on Monday.
I fell asleep on the drive home. And pretty much slept through all of Sunday. I was able to keep broth, plain water, and tea down, so I thought the pills were helping.
The next morning, I left a message with my boss saying I was sick and hoping to see my doctor that day. I had just hung up and was going to look up my doctor’s phone number when the doctor’s office called us. They’d gotten the information from the hospital and my regular doctor was not happy. They wanted me to come right away, bring all of the paperwork the hospital had given me, “And if you haven’t taken any of those pills today, don’t take any more!”
My doctor wasn’t just unhappy, he was royally pissed. The pills I had been given had nothing to do with ulcers or infections of any kind. They were tranquilizers. Among the notes from the ER doctor was the phrase, “Gay male patient claims he doesn’t have AIDS.” His diagnosis was that I was probably just overreacting to “unremarkable symptoms.”
My doctor wanted to know why I had gone to that hospital instead of one that was much closer to my home (where he happened to be a resident, and would have been called as soon as I was admitted, instead of him finding it out when they pulled faxes off the machine Monday morning). I explained that my employer had recently changed our insurance plan and there was exactly one ER in the city that was considered in network. He explained that the particular hospital I had gone to had a number of doctors like this one guy who 1) assumed every gay male patient was infected with the virus that causes AIDS, and 2) there isn’t anything you can do for AIDS patients, anyway, so don’t waste a lot of time on them.
The blood tests that came back before they admitted me clearly indicated that in addition to the fever and other symptoms I did have some kind of serious infection. But the medicine prescribed wouldn’t treat any infections. Tests results that had come back after they let me go gave my doctor a good guess as to what kind of infection I did have, and he prescribed something that actually would work against. Then my doctor walked me through the process of filing a formal complaint. Which he was also doing.
The upshot was that I received a partial refund from the hospital of my out-of-pocket for the ER visit. My doctor pried a letter out of my insurance company saying that the hospital close to my house would be covered as in-network. But just to be sure, my doctor also got a letter from that hospital saying that if my insurance billed me as out-of-network they would cover the cost of the difference in out-of-pocket.
The initial incident happened in the city of Seattle, which most people think of as an extremely liberal city where virtually no one is homophobic. I was lucky that I had as my primary physician a guy who was ready to fight for his patients. Who know what would have happened if I hadn’t had him in my corner? And the doctor who sent me home with tranquilizers was simply appalled that anyone would think that he had allowed any sort of prejudice guide his decision to lie to me about his diagnosis and send me home with medicine that would just make sure I was too sleepy to do anything for a few days.
I bet to this day he would swear that he doesn’t have a homophobic bone in his body. Homophobia isn’t limited to people scream slurs while they beat you.The takeaway: for many reasons queers are less likely to get consistent, quality health care. They are disproportionately less likely to experience good health care outcomes. Therefore, more likely to die younger than their straight contemporaries. And that doesn’t even include the hundreds of thousands of queer men in the U.S. who died starting in 1979 due to the AIDS epidemic (which is still ongoing, but the availability of multi-drug anti-viral cocktails beginning in the mid-1990s have met it is no long a death sentence, even though there is still no cure).
Then there is the phenomenon of people so deeply afraid of being outed that even on an anonymous survey they will not identify as anything other than straight. Any reasonably friendly out gay man who has ever logged into a hookup app, a gay chat site, or similar forum will have many stories of getting hit up on by men who are married to women (usually with kids), and desperately want to have sex with other men, but only if you can be discreet and guarantee that no one will ever know. If you can get them to talk about it, they will admit that they have wanted to have sex with other men since they were teens (or even earlier), but have always been afraid to be out, and they are convinced that their lives will end if their wife and family ever found out they were anything but 100 percent straight.
I remember one particularly heart-wrenching conversation with a guy who felt he was super lucky precisely because his first (and only) child was a son, so that his super conservative and religious parents and in-laws were all happy, and he was able to just stop having sex with his wife at all after the arrival of the first baby. And significantly, his wife was perfectly happy that he supposedly hadn’t been interested in sex at all for the next about 30 years (at the time I talked to him). He had been having lots and lots and lots of sex for all those years—it was just furtive, downlow sex with other men. And I have little doubt that if he happened to be surveyed by Gallup, that without hesitation he would describe himself as straight
Now while I have met a few younger men like him, the vast majority of these downlow closet cases I run into online now are middle aged or older.
It’s more accurate to conclude from Gallup’s generational information that younger people currently feel less fear to admit their orientation. We hope that, going forward, they will also experience fewer of the issues that have caused earlier generations of queers to die before their time.
Mostly I’ve ignored them. If someone I follow on social media makes a comment ridiculing one of those clickbait headlines I might re-blog it or click “Like.” I don’t have to read the articles or the commentary to know that rather than looking at the actual socio-economic forces at work, the article is just going to make a lame connection between some out of context statistics in a way that will make clueless people of a certain age nod and congratulate themselves on being a better, more mature person those “those darn kids!”
The one that broke me was soap. I kept seeing slightly outraged comments on Twitter about bar soap vs other kinds of soap that I didn’t quite understand. Clearly all these folks were commenting on some article or something that I hadn’t seen. Then I saw one comment tied the term millennials to soap, and I thought, “Oh, no! Now what?” So I had to go find the articles in question.
“Millennials Aren’t Buying Bar Soap and It’s Killing the Industry!” —it really isn’t any more ridiculous than the others, I suppose, but I found myself feeling a little outraged, too. The actual statistics buried in the article are this: sales of bar soap have been going down an average of 2.2 percent per year for the last five years or so, and the vast majority of bar soap that is still being sold is being purchased by people over the age of 60. But the other statistic buried right along in there: sales of soap overall have been increasing over the same period of time at a rate of 3% a year. And the same companies manufacture and sell body wash and liquid hand soap, so there actually isn’t any problem for the industry at all. But they tried to hide even that part by changing the time scale of how they described it.
Before I’d reached the point where the article undermines its own headline, I was already getting irritated because I’m under 60 and we buy bar soap regularly. And let’s be honest, it’s my husband, who is ten years younger than me who buys most of them because he prefers bars. I’m the older one who loves body wash and keeps multiple dispensers of liquid soap next to every faucet in the house. (Not because I believe the myth that soap bars harbor dangerous bacteria; it’s because I’m clumsy and drop bars all the time, and because I like having a choice of scents when I wash my hands or hair or whatever. The shower has four or five different scents of shampoo and matching conditioners and complimentary body washes because I’m a weirdo.)
So it’s ridiculous clickbait you can dismantle in a few minutes. I decided I’d already wasted enough time thinking about it and I should definitely not write a blog post about it. Then, this weekend, I couldn’t look at any social media stream (unless I used the filters that only showed me the tiny subset of those streams being written by people I know personally) without seeing all the backlash. There was a lot of backlash–joke after joke about how clueless Boomers are. Many were at least chuckle-worthy. But I kept seeing, again and again, jokes that mentioned specific ages. It was clear that a lot of the people posting them thought that the term Baby Boomer referred to anyone older than, say, mid-thirties.
That’s how I found myself typing out an explanation about the definition of the Baby Boom, the sociological arguments for why one of the definitions made more sense than others, the economic arguments why yet another definition was better, and so on. The fact is that the whole “generation” thing is a silly mess no matter how you look at it. And I was ranting about why these jokes were as intellectually-shallow to the situation as the original headlines and… and… and…
Of course the jokes are parodies. A parody is supposed to be even more ludicrous than the thing being parodied. Meanwhile, if I posted my mansplaining, I would be even more ridiculous, still!
But, there are a couple of things I do have to get off my chest. One of the academic definitions of the term, “Baby Boomer” puts both myself and my mother in the same generation. And it puts my father in the generation before the Baby Boom, yet he was only 10 months older than my mom. I know we’re a weird case. I was born six days before my father’s 18th birthday. My parents were both 17 years old when I was born. On the other hand, my dad was 34 when my youngest half-sister was born. Going strictly by the arbitrary dates some people use, then, dad was a Silent Generation man who married a two different Baby Boomers, sired another Baby Boomer, and sired a bunch of Gen X-ers.
If you, instead, use the dates on the info graphic I swiped from Price Consulting, well, we spread out a little more, with me landing smack in the middle of Generation Jones, my oldest sister almost getting in the same generation as me, and then the younger siblings all solidly in Generation X.
Any cut-off dates have to be arbitrary.
My childhood didn’t include any of the 1950s. That makes my culturally programmed expectations different than those of my parents’ generation, for instance. My childhood includes the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy. That gives me a slightly different impression of the world than my husband who was born after all three. I voted against Reagan—twice! And was close to tears the night he was re-elected. That gives me a different impression of the 80s than friends who were born while Bill Clinton was in the White House.
But, due to a variety of complications (including the fact that my father refused to sign financial aid applications) I didn’t go to university until I was in my mid-twenties. So friends I graduated from High School with came out of college practically debt-free, whereas I had student loans that added up to more than the assessed value (at the time) of my dad’s house or my grandparents’ house. Which means economically I have a bit more in common with the cliché Millennial than my own generation (whichever one you stick me in).
All of which is a really round-about way to get to this: the economy is f—ed up for almost everyone.
Maybe the stereotypical Boomer owns their own home, but not all of them by any means. And even the ones that do are finding themselves being buried under medical bills and the like, can’t afford to retire, and often are trying to help their own kids and grandkids keep their heads above water. Folks a bit younger than that are sandwiched between aging parents or other relatives whose failing health (and sometimes mental faculties) are throwing unexpected responsibilities on them while they’re still trying to get their own kids out of the nest. Folks a little younger still are stuck in jobs they hate, paying rent that keeps going up faster than their wages, trying to explain to their grandparents why they don’t feel the need to own (and try to pay upkeep, insurance, et al for) a car, trying not to be a burden on their parents who they see are spending a lot of time worrying about the grandparents, and don’t see how they’re ever going to get their heads above water to begin with.
And the clickbaiters have succeeded in getting us all making fun of each other. Meanwhile parasites like Donald Trump and Peter Thiel and Martin Shkreli are happily siphoning billions out of the pockets of middle and working class people of all ages, and into their off-shore tax-sheltered accounts.
Maybe we should find a way to unite against the actual enemy?