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.
Take the concept of being “transgender.” In 1996 groundbreaking trans author and activist Leslie Feinberg wrote Transgender Warriors, one of the first mainstream books written by a trans person looking at trans history. The book’s original subtitle was “Making History From Joan of Arc to RuPaul.” Today there’s pretty firm agreement that RuPaul Charles, the star and creator of RuPaul’s Drag Race, is not transgender. So did Feinberg make a terrible mistake? No, obviously not. What it means to be transgender has shifted over the last twenty-five years, from an umbrella term uniting people who exhibit gender-crossing or gender-confounding behaviors to an umbrella term uniting people who have gender-crossing or gender-confounding identities.
That’s just a change within living memory. The further back you go, the more radically different American ideas about sex, sexuality, and gender become. This is the reason I study history: not out of some fetishization of the past, but because studying the past frees me from the tyranny of the present. Because it is the air we breathe, the present always seems natural, correct, and inevitable. But when I look back two hundred years, I see a world—and a queer community—vastly different from our own.
It is because of this history that I don’t find the queerness of gen Z surprising—nor the explosion of new identities around gender and sexuality, nor the growing anti-trans alliance between some supposed radical feminists and some actual Christian fascists. We are in a moment of great change, but it’s not unprecedented. In fact, I think we’re going through a Great Reorganization of Sexuality and Gender—the second Great Reorganization the United States has experienced. To understand what’s happening now, we need to go back to the late 1800s, where we’ll find not only an instructive parallel to what we are experiencing today, but also the roots of our very ideas of what it means to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
As for the idea of social contagion? Conservatives have it half right: humans are social creatures, and having more (and more diverse) role models for sexuality and gender identity of course enables more young people to understand their queer self. But conservatives are blind to the fact that these identities have shifted radically around them, making space for more ways to be queer and thus, making space for more people under the queer umbrella. Instead of being groomed into these categories, young people are redefining the categories to fit their experiences—thanks in large part, as this history shows, to the internet.
The nineteenth-century understanding of sexuality in America was very different than today’s. It was a world almost entirely segregated by gender: Victorian men spent all their time with other men, and women with other women. Great love between people of the same sex was celebrated in literature and life (though it was often coded as intense friendship). It wasn’t seen as strange that Abraham Lincoln would share a bed with his male best friend for four years. Dating was rare, and marriage had a much stronger economic dimension. Men and women were considered opposites in body, mind, and soul, with few points of commonality between them.
To these Victorians, neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality would have made much sense. To understand “heterosexuality,” you have to be able to imagine a normative sexual state that men and women could both experience. But to Victorians, the desires of men and women were nothing alike, which is why even in 1901 “heterosexuality” was still being defined as an “abnormal or perverted appetite toward the opposite sex.” A shared diseased condition made sense—men and women could both have the same crazy—but not a shared normal.
Among Victorians, people that we today would call “gender-normative homosexuals” often didn’t see themselves as all that different from anyone else. They too spent all their time with people of the same sex, wrote love poetry to people of the same sex, and shared beds with people of the same sex. They may have done things in those beds that they knew not to say out loud, or they may have loudly proclaimed the things they did. But in either case, what they did in bed did not separate them from the larger mass of men or women. Such behavior didn’t yet matter in the same way it does today, because sexuality was not understood as a standalone identity separate from gender, meaning that who you slept with was just one part of your larger ability to be a proper Victorian man or woman (which also had racial, religious, and economic dimensions).
Even having sex with someone of the same sex didn’t necessarily mark you as a different kind of person, if you were otherwise properly gendered. Victorian women were thought to be pliable. Because they were believed to have little sexual desire of their own, they could easily accidentally end up having the wrong kind of sex. In 1892 there was a famous case where a young woman named Alice Mitchell murdered her girlfriend Freda; in explaining this to their readership, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper weighed in to say that “the relations between the two girls are by no means as uncommon as is supposed. . . . [it is] an effect brought about in any large community of girls, no matter where.”
Victorian men, on the other hand, were expected to be hypersexual, and if that sometimes led them to having sex with other men, or children, or sheep—well it wasn’t great, but it didn’t make them different. In 1896 a famous boxer named Young Griffo pleaded guilty to raping a twelve-year-old boy in the boxing gym he owned on Coney Island. At his sentencing, he was given a slap on the wrist by a judge who proclaimed that Griffo was “one of the best professional boxers in the world” but also “careless and full of animal life . . . without sufficient self control to restrain” himself. In the eyes of the law, Griffo was so manly, he couldn’t stop his sexual desires from crossing the bounds of propriety.
In fact, the entire legal category of “sodomy” in the nineteenth century had little to do with what we think of as “homosexuality.” The important part of a sodomy charge was sexual violence other than penile-vaginal rape, which is why bestiality, child sexual abuse, heterosexual anal sex, and homosexual oral sex were all sometimes charged as sodomy. It was also pretty rare: in 1880, according to gay legal historian William N. Eskridge, Jr., there were only sixty-three people incarcerated on sodomy charges in the entire country.
So, if spending all your time with someone of the same sex, sharing a bed with them, writing love poetry to them, and having sex with them did not necessarily get you defined as queer, what did?
Well, these things were all seen as part of your gender, and that is where queerness lived in the nineteenth century: in the “inversion” of gender. Think about it this way: the homosocial Victorian world, divided up between men and women, made gender-normative homosexuals pretty invisible. But at the same time, it made people who were gender-variant stand out all the more. In our modern terms, this group included people we would call transgender, intersex, effeminate gay men, butch lesbian women, and others, but by the late nineteenth century, people who flagrantly violated the conventions of gender were unified together under the word “invert,” an idea that combines and collapses our notions of being trans, being gay, and being intersex into a single identity.
In other words, this was a “third sex” model for understanding queerness. Inverts were thought to be different not just in their desires or personalities, but in their very bodies. So-called “born female” inverts were thought to have bodies more like men, and vice versa. Even those nineteenth-century queer people who today we would look back on as not intersex and not trans understood their queerness as residing in their bodies and as having to do with their gender. In a very real way, it’s appropriate to discuss all queer people in the nineteenth century through a trans lens, because that’s how their world defined them—even if we wouldn’t define them that way today.
By the early twentieth century, our modern LGBT categories had slowly supplanted Victorian ideas of inversion. Sexuality began to be understood as a standalone identity, not directly connected to our bodies or our genders. In fact, thanks to Freud and his compatriots, all personality would soon be seen as developed in our minds and by our experiences.
This was what we might call the first Great Reorganization of Sexuality and Gender, but it didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was part of a much broader reorganization of society over the course of the 1800s, as the United States went from being a country where about 6 percent of people lived in cities to one where 40 percent of people lived in cities. (Today it’s 80 percent.)
City life enabled a radical new form of heterosociality—social interaction between people of different genders. Millions of people were able to leave the communities they came from and explore their desires and ideas in busy, anonymous, transient cities full of other people, some like them and some incredibly different. People who were normally gendered but attracted to people of the same sex—a group that had gone unnamed before—found each other in greater and greater numbers and began to recognize themselves as communities with shared identities. Soon, doctors, politicians, lawyers, and others began to notice them as well, and the category of the “invert” was broken down into people who were normally gendered but desired people of the same sex (homosexuals); people who desired to have bodies that were differently sexed (transsexuals); and people who already had bodies that were differently sexed (intersex people).
This was a long and messy transition; it wasn’t until the 1930s, for instance, that a group called the Committee for the Study of Sex Variants firmly declared that after rigorous research, they could find no evidence of consistent physical differences in the bodies of homosexual or trans people (though they didn’t quite use those terms). That was a full fifty years after the first definitions of homosexuality appeared. If you’ve ever wondered why homosexuals seem to appear out of the woodwork in the late 1800s, this is why: it’s not because they were closeted before but because they didn’t exist. At least, not as homosexuals.
Critically, in this new schema of LGBT identity, queerness was essentially invisible. An invert was deviant in both body and behavior, but a homosexual’s strangeness did not necessarily show on the surface, and this internal, bogeyman quality of sexuality—what we would eventually come to call identity—became a constituent part of the idea of “the homosexual.” Thus, this is also the moment where “codes” for sexuality—Polari, Oscar Wilde’s green carnations—gain significant traction as ways of signifying what was now recognized as potentially hidden.
At the same time, city life was changing the relationships between men and women. The Victorian practice of keeping the sexes separated just didn’t work well in urban places, where men and women increasingly shared streets, schools, trolleys, and theaters. Dating and casual cross-gender socialization became more common, while the homosocial behaviors of the nineteenth century began to disappear, as city dwellers pushed for more mixed sex socializing, more compassionate and sexual marriages, and more women in the public sphere. Suddenly, any lingering sign of homosociality began to be seen as an indicator of hidden homosexuality, as did any sign of gender inversion.
As a result, in order to prove they were not homosexuals, newly defined straight people had to start acting differently: avoiding places were inverts went, avoiding too much time with people of the same sex, avoiding physical affection, and so on. This is one of the origin points of modern homophobia, and in turn, this change in “straight” behavior led to further demonization of homosociality and gender transgression—which in turn became further proof that the only people acting in homosocial or gender transgressing ways were indeed homosexuals.
By the 1940s and ’50s, these ideas were firmly entrenched in American minds, thanks to World War II (which acted as an accelerant for spreading these ideas throughout the country) and to Alfred Kinsey (who published his groundbreaking reports on men’s and women’s sexuality in 1948 and 1953, respectively).
These ideas became the lens through which the first generation of gay historians looked when determining who was queer in the past. I love many of these books, and they did critical work developing the field out of almost nothing, but if you look closely, you’ll see that they often subsume what we would call trans experiences under the label “gay.” For example, here’s how the critically important early queer history Gay New York describes Jennie June, an invert who wrote a memoir called Autobiography of an Androgyne in 1899:
Adopting a woman’s name not only announced a man’s gay identity . . . [it] marked his transition from the straight world to the gay. . . . ‘Ralph Werther,’ (a part-time fairy who later wrote about his experiences) was as careful to hide his straight life from his Bowery associates as he was his gay life from his university colleagues . . . he went by ‘Jennie June.’
Compare that to what Jennie June wrote about herself: “Your author is really a woman whom Nature disguised as a man.” Today no historian would describe Jennie June as a gay man without heavy caveats, but this was the state of the field when Gay New York was published in 1994—and part of the reason why so many people today think trans identities are somehow newfangled.
Bisexual identities were also often subsumed into gay ones, as any expression of heterosexual desire in a historical queer figure began to be discounted over the revelation of their “hidden homosexuality.” In 1999, for instance, Lillian Faderman wrote To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America—A History, which reconstructed the queer lives of many historical figures, including those who had relationships with men and women, but was marketed under the label “lesbian.”
A similar thing happened with living people. Bisexuality was discounted as temporary, a phase or, a sign of being afraid of coming out, while trans-ness was often imagined as an extreme form of homosexuality. Take the fantastic 1995 film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. The conceit of the film is that Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and John Leguizamo are three gay male drag queens, traveling across the country. But in behavior, they seem more like trans women. They never dress in male attire, and at the end, when a woman says to Swayze’s character “I love you Miss Vida Boheme,” she replies “I’ve waited my whole life to hear those words said to that name.” The three leads are trans women in all but label.
Overall, what this history shows is that while the early twentieth century created our concepts of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, there was heavy emphasis on the lesbian and gay parts, while the bisexual and trans parts were often discounted, ignored, or misinterpreted.
Still, this new organization of sexuality and gender held true for most of the twentieth century, until around about the 1990s, when a second Great Reorganization of Sexuality and Gender began—this time thanks to the internet. The advent of online communication in the late twentieth century has many parallels to the advent of urbanization in the late nineteenth, even down to the numbers: In 1995 the Pew Research Center asked about internet usage for the first time, finding that about 14 percent of Americans had access; by 2014 that number was over 80 percent—the same as the percentage of Americans who live in cities today. Like urbanization, the exploding internet allowed new communities to develop around aspects of desire and gender that were previously ignored or underexplored. It provided new role models for new ways of living. It allowed a wide range of people, particularly young people, to at least partially escape unsupportive families and restrictive home communities. Like urbanization, the internet changed our understanding of what it means to be queer.
What was different this time around had to do with authorities. In the nineteenth century, changes in thinking about sexuality and gender were filtered through so-called experts (sexologists, doctors, lawyers, priests, journalists, politicians, etc.), who named and defined them for the greater public. In large part, their definitions were based on factors that were observable from the outside—what straight people could easily quantify about queer people: binary sexual object choice, and identification with one of the two straight genders. That people within these groupings might experience their sexual object choice or gender in incredibly different ways didn’t matter to these experts. They weren’t interested in who the people they studied were, they were interested in who they weren’t: not straight, not cis.
Today, by contrast, the internet has not only allowed new queer communities to form—it has also empowered queer people to spread their own ideas about sexuality and gender, based on their internal feelings and experiences, their own self-conceptions: what we call identity. These new identities track commonalities and solidarities across different lines, making space for things like change over time, nonbinary gender, and attractions that don’t follow orientation. When we talk about gen Z’s uptick in queer identification, we’re not just seeing more people coming out, we’re also seeing new ways to be out—new ways to be queer.
Think about it this way. Only a few decades ago, all of the following people could have been classified as bisexual: a person who has relationships with men and women, without experiencing sexual attraction to either; a person who is sexually oriented towards women, but enjoys sex with men he has emotional connections to, or in group settings, or while on drugs; a person who is sexually oriented to both men and women equally, throughout their life; a person who is only attracted to nonbinary/queer/androgynous presenting individuals, regardless of their quote-unquote biological sex; a person who experienced attraction to men and women equally in their adolescence, but as an adult only feels attraction to men. Bisexual isn’t necessarily a wrong label for any of these people, but it also doesn’t capture the differences and commonalities between them—and I know that for sure, because the list comprises people I dated in my twenties.
The other major difference between the first and second Great Reorganization of Sexuality and Gender has to do with medical care. Advances in medicine have opened new avenues for gender and sex. Not only are we more capable of creating or preventing puberty and altering existing sex characteristics; we are also becoming increasingly aware of the heterodox bodies that already make up humanity. A young trans person today may never live a public life as anything other than the gender they know themselves to be; a cisgender adult athlete may, after winning a race, be forced into chromosomal testing that “reveals” them to be intersex. The gulf between chromosomal sex, physical sex at birth, physical sex in adulthood, gender identity, and gender presentation has never been wider, and this gulf causes problems for a system of sexuality and gender identity that rests on binary sex and binary sexual object choice—the paradigm of LGBT identity that dominated the twentieth century.
Simply put, these ideas are not capable of describing this moment. If you are a cis man, attracted to a trans woman, does that make you straight? Bi? Does your sexual orientation change depending on the current state of her body? Does your attraction to her change? Is your orientation different if you are only attracted to trans women, and not cis women, or if you’re attracted to cis and trans women? Twentieth-century notions of LGBT identity cannot answer these questions adequately, because they were not developed to understand the experiences of queer people; they were developed to segment straight cis people off from the rest of us.
After decades of change on a smaller scale, we are experiencing an epistemic change, a change in the base meaning of sex, sexuality, and gender. This is why it’s bringing together people who would otherwise seem to have no common alliance. But when you think about trans-negative “feminists” and conservative Christian fascists, what do they have in common? They both see the world through a reductive framework built on binary sex, and they both tend to spend most of their lives following rules determined by genitalia: men with penises here, women with vaginas there. Of course they are clinging to each other. Their ideas of “good” and “bad” are different, but their assumptions about what is “natural” and “real” are the same.
I recently wrote a book about a prison for women located in Greenwich Village in New York City for most of the twentieth century. While doing research, I came across the story of two young lovers in the late 1940s, a seventeen-year-old Black girl from Georgia named Renee and a twenty-four-year-old, racially ambiguous but white-presenting woman from Vermont named Bernice. Renee and Bernice’s social worker, Nannie, was worried that the two were dating. In her notes, Nannie wrote repeatedly about the importance of figuring out if the two were “bodily normal.” Did they have their periods? Were they physiologically feminine? If they did not have inverted bodies, Nannie reasoned, everything would be fine; neither of them was really queer, it was simply a mistake they had made, and it would pass quickly if suppressed. It was—to use a modern turn of phrase—just social contagion.
Taken out of context, Nannie’s ideas about these two girls seem laughable. Indeed, when she confronted the two of them, they laughed at her—and then informed her, with “great precision,” that they were homosexuals and that their relationship was none of her damn business. But Nannie’s ideas weren’t ridiculous, exactly; they were just dated. Nannie was older than these two girls; her education in queerness was theoretical, learned in a social work classroom, and almost identical to nineteenth-century ideas of “inversion”—even though this was 1949. It takes a long time for ideas to spread and change, but it almost always starts with younger people—the ones who have never known a world in which those older ideas made sense. Renee and Bernice were the future of what it meant to be queer; Nannie was the past.
When I read that Gallup poll about how queer gen Z is, I thought of Renee and Bernice. Decades ago, I first started researching queer history because I wanted a mirror—a chance to see myself reflected back at me, so I would feel less isolated and weird as a queer kid in the suburbs in the 1980s. But I found something so much more exciting. History isn’t a mirror. It’s a window, and through it I can see the long past leading us right to this moment. I can see where we are now, and how we got queer.
I can’t predict what’s going to happen from here, at least not exactly. I think things will get worse, for a while; I think we are headed toward a crack-up, some kind of major confrontation between old world and new. And underneath it all, no matter what, the internet will keep humming, keep connecting us—keep changing us. I don’t think ideas about being LGBT will go away, but I do think they’ll adapt; we’ll add terms, maybe ditch some too; we’ll start to see sexuality and gender as multidimensional aspects of our lives, not simple and permanent binaries (at least, not for everyone). New ways of thinking will take hold, and the time before those new ideas will seem stupid, ridiculous, backward, and laughable.
And then one day, it’ll happen again: a new way of living will sweep in, and what it means to be queer will change anew. Gen Z will seem as old and stuck in their ways as boomers do now. Change is inevitable, and we must learn to live with it. Even more, we must fight for the freedom to do so. At every step of this history, our ideas have changed because queer people—often young, often poor, often marginalized—have refused to distort their lives to fit the whims of the powerful and conservative. If this is contagion, I’m happy to be infected.
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