By Sarah Emily Baum
By many accounts, it would seem like the fight for LGBTQ+ equality in the United States has been successful. Same-sex marriage was legalized in 2015. LGBTQ+ people are stars of stage, screen, and sports; occupy public office; and head multi-billion dollar companies. World Pride in New York City drew in millions of people from across the globe, and queer issues were a talking point at the 2019 Democratic primary debates — even if the delivery was a bit fumbled.
Yet LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. still lack many federal civil rights protections and face disproportionate rates of homelessness, mental illness, and bullying while hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people are on the uptick. Around the world, while some countries are moving to protect LGBTQ+ people — others have issued increasingly hateful laws against them. Since Donald Trump was inaugurated in 2016, his administration has appointed anti-LGBTQ+ justices to the Supreme Court; erased resources for the LGBTQ+ community off federal websites; rolled back Obama-era protections for trans students; released a memo dictating that gender be defined as a “biological, immutable condition determined by a person’s genitalia at birth;” made it easier to discriminate against trans people seeking healthcare; and sought to implement a trans military ban.
Such attacks may be permeating into a greater cultural consciousness: In June, the LGBTQ+ advocacy organization GLAAD released its yearly Accelerating Acceptance survey which polled 2,000 people aged 18-34. While 80 percent of cisgender, heterosexual respondents said they support the community, fewer than ever said they considered themselves to be allies, and for the second year in a row, “acceptance” among the youngest people polled by GLAAD went down.
“It concerns me,” 12-year-old Rebekah Bruesehoff, a transgender activist from New Jersey, who testified in support of her home state's LGBTQ+-inclusive curriculum bill and has spoken at events across the country, including at 2019 World Pride, told MTV News. “Really, it scares me. I don't like to think about things getting worse for trans youth who already struggle so much.”
This survey has dominated the national conversation — from the USA TODAY headline which read, “The young are regarded as the most tolerant generation. That's why results of this LGBTQ+ survey are ‘alarming’” to the Time Magazine article which declared “Young Americans Are Increasingly 'Uncomfortable' With LGBTQ Community, GLAAD Study Shows.” But many activists, including Rebekah, say these pieces aren’t telling the whole story about young America’s views of the LGBTQ+ community.
“I see so much love, acceptance, and visibility, it's almost hard to believe we could be getting less tolerant,” Rebekah said. “But the hate and setbacks of the past few years clearly can't be underestimated.”
Community organizer and LGBTQ+ rights activist Erin Bailey said she was “shocked” by the results of GLAAD’s survey. The 19-year-old Columbus, Ohio, native is the founder of Columbus Pride, the LGBTQ+ pride parade which marches in the hometown of Vice President Mike Pence following the years he spent advocating for homophobic and transphobic policies.
“People I know as well as strangers have reached out to me telling me about how they used to be closed-minded and anti-LGBTQ+ but have since changed their thinking,” said Bailey, who attends the Herron School of Art and Design in Indianapolis. “Personally, I’ve seen an increase in support for the LGBTQ+ community from the younger demographics.”
Erin and Rebekah aren’t alone — young people across the nation are echoing the claims that while surveys and reports might show a decline in acceptance of LGBTQ+ people, they still have hope.
Sage G. Dolan-Sandrino, an 18-year-old student and activist from Washington, D.C., feels that not only acceptance of LGBTQ+ people among her peers, but also the population of LGBTQ+ youth itself is growing. She referenced a 2016 survey by J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group which found that less than half of those surveyed between the ages of 13 to 20 years old identified as “exclusively heterosexual.” She believes Generation Z is “the most diverse, queer and intersectional generation yet.”
“With every intersectional identity we occupy comes an inherent level of political fluidity, [and] different political and cultural identities that expand our ideas of community,” Sage told MTV News. “The majority of us inhabit the complex intersectional identity that cause us to be more understanding. And that forces us to work together to create new systems of language, education, healthcare, and career systems that are accessible to and understanding of our identities.”
As with many historic movements, such as the Vietnam War protests and the March For Our Lives, youth activists are integral to pushing for change. Sameer Jha, a 17-year-old non-binary activist from California, is on the frontlines of the fight for LGBTQ+ acceptance among students as a member of GLSEN’s National Student Council and as the founder of The Empathy Alliance. Their non-profit works toward “educating the educators” on ways to create more inclusive classrooms for queer students, the Alliance’s website says.
“I feel like things are changing for LGBTQ+ youth in a huge way,” the Stanford University student said. “Visibility and accessibility used to be huge restrictions for queer youth, especially in conservative areas, but now we are able to break through the silence and confront the harsh realities of homophobia and transphobia.”
Though they acknowledge the harmful impact of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric in the media as well as the rollback of LGBTQ+ protections under the Trump administration. Sameer, like Sage, feels that their generation has boosted queer visibility and acceptance. They cite celebrities like 20-year-old Lil Nas X and activists like 19-year-old Emma Gonzalez as positive examples of LGBTQ+ representation and say that no matter how statistics capture the current climate, it’s worth holding onto the belief that, largely, their peers are getting things right.
“Growing up, queer and trans issues were completely stigmatized (especially in my South Asian community), but these past few years after I came out I've received nothing but love from other youth,” they added. “The work is hard, but the gains we're making are incredible.”