A majority of millennials think that lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people face a significant amount of prejudice in America. Most young people—whether gay or straight, gender-conforming or otherwise—think it’s important to protect youth from bullying, and the larger LGBTQ community from discrimination in housing and employment.
At the same time, millennials are products of the world in which they live, and a surprising number of them say that “the increasing acceptance of homosexuality in our society is causing a deterioration of morality.”
That somewhat flummoxing finding is from the latest GenForward survey of 18-34-year-olds [PDF]. The project is led by Cathy Cohen, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. The first-of-its kind series gauges the views of a nationally representative sample of more than 1,750 young people, with big sub-samples of African- and Asian-American and Latinx respondents. (Technically, the oldest millennials are now in their late 30s, but the researchers use that term loosely.)
“The news is very positive in that millennials are generally supportive of a broad and expansive framework for rights and equality for the LGBT community,” said Cohen. “They believe that folks should be able to adopt. They should be able to serve in the military. And they shouldn’t face discrimination.”
The millennial generation is known for its racial and ethnic diversity—more than four in 10 identify as nonwhite. Other research suggests that they also tend to be more tolerant than earlier generations have been of people who hold identities and viewpoints that are different from their own. The latest GenForward survey found similar dynamics in younger people’s views of sexuality and gender. A majority of millennials across all ethnic groups think that transgender adults should be able to serve in the military, and that LGBTQ should be able to adopt kids. Majorities favor efforts to combat discrimination, want more funding for prevention and treatment of HIV, and think the United States should give safe haven to LGBTQ immigrants fleeing countries that criminalize their sexuality.
Across racial and ethnic lines, many millennials report that there’s “a lot” of discrimination in their own communities. That’s true of a majority of young Asian Americans (53 percent) and Latinxs (61 percent), a plurality of African Americans (43 percent), and 27 percent of white millennials.
When asked specifically about transgender people rather than people who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, larger shares of young people say that transgender individuals face “a lot” of discrimination in our society. A majority of young blacks (51 percent) said as much, as did pluralities of Latinxs (48 percent), whites (45 percent), and 30 percent of Asian Americans.
So younger Americans are more “woke” than older generations, which isn’t breaking news, but that’s not the whole story. The survey found a racial divide in millennials’ views of mainstream LGBTQ advocacy groups. When LGBTQ respondents were asked whether the issues queer people of color grapple with differ from the “issues being promoted” by the advocacy organizations, 52 percent of them said they were. Among millennials as a whole, 53 percent of African Americans and half of Latinxs agreed that the agendas of LGBTQ political groups don’t always reflect the lived experiences of minorities within the LGBTQ community, while a majority of white and Asian Americans in this cohort “believe that all LGBT individuals benefit when mainstream LGBT organizations fight for their basic rights,” according to the research.
Then there’s the finding that fully 40 percent of people aged 18–34 who identify as straight believe that “the increasing acceptance of homosexuality in our society is causing a deterioration of morality.” Even more incongruously, that view was shared by slightly more than one in five LGBTQ millennials. In May, Gallup phrased a question slightly differently, asking whether “gay or lesbian relations” is “morally acceptable,” and only 30 percent of the general population said no.
Cohen says this was both “the most surprising and also the most disturbing finding,” and offers a couple of possible explanations for what seems like a pretty striking disconnect. She notes that the morality question is a standard one for this kind of research and was the only place where the survey uses the term “homosexuality.” The rest of the study refers to variations of “the LGBT community.”
“I think one could argue that homosexuality has a different connotation for millennials,” says Cohen. “LGBT are a group that they’ve grown up around, they’re people who are part of their social networks and represent a community that they understand, while ‘homosexuality’ has been” stigmatized by society as a whole. “And the research tells us that individuals can have what seem to be very contradictory ideas, so they can believe in equal rights for LGBT folks, and also believe that homosexuality is a moral detriment.”
As for the 21 percent of LGBTQ millennials who answered in the affirmative, Cohen says, “They grow up in a homophobic culture. The idea that we are immune from taking in that homophobia and regurgitating it is naive. We should also keep in mind that eight in 10 disagree.”
Millennials’ views of gender, sexuality, and civil liberties provide a peek into the future of American society. The group now makes up the biggest generation in the US workforce, and, this year, are projected to become the largest group of eligible voters. By next year, they should surpass baby boomers as the largest living generation in the overall population. If you’re a fan of diversity and tolerance, the latest GenForward survey paints a hopeful picture—but it also shows that, when it comes to bias, the solution isn’t demographics alone.