Newsweek has a pretty striking headline: Nearly 40 Percent of U.S. Gen Zs, 30 Percent of Young Christians Identify as LGBTQ, Poll Shows. It’s a story that baits social media shares with promises of rapidly changing norms. But readers who care to dig past the headline will find more questions than answers. Until we have more data, there’s a lot of reasons to take this poll with a huge grain of salt.
First up, yes, societal ideas around sex and gender are changing, with more young people identifying as LGBTQ today than in years past. The most recent Gallup poll found that around 5.6 percent of all U.S. adults are “not heterosexual or straight,” while 7.6 declined to answer and five percent had “no opinion” on their sexual identity. That makes getting exact numbers on how many Americans identify as LGBTQ a little tricky, but Gallup estimates around one in six young Americans (18-23) are gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans — a little over 16 percent. That’s fairly consistent with other, similar polls in recent years.
So how did this poll come up with 40 percent of Gen Z? Well, there are a few answers.
The poll was conducted by a partnership between Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University and Foundations of Freedom. The former was cofounded by George Barna, the researcher who was associated with Christian research outfit the Barna Group until 2009. The Foundations of Freedom is a nonprofit that promotes conservative values.
They talked to 600 respondents for this poll, and asked them to select an answer to the question “Thinking about your commitments, would you describe yourself as…”
The six responses allowed are a little odd. Among millennials, “searching for purpose in your life,” was the most popular, with 75 percent selecting it. “Believe all religious faiths are of equal value” was nearly as popular, with 74 percent.
“An American patriot” (55 percent), “Often feel anxious, depressed or unsafe” (54 percent) and “Deeply committed to practicing your faith (52 percent) came next. “Prefer socialism to capitalism” came near the bottom with 48 percent and “LGBTQ” was last, with 30 percent. Gen Zers had a similar breakdown, though 39 percent selected “LGBTQ.”
This is a strange way to determine how many young people think of themselves as LGBTQ. Barna himself told Newsweek that he attributes the massive discrepancy in his count of how many young Americans are LGBTQ with most other studies to Millennial and Gen Z malaise. Young Americans are lonely and in search of meaning, and identifying as gay gives them a sense of purpose. This is a group that doesn’t have a reason to get out of bed in the morning,” Barna said. “Therefore, the LGBTQ identity gives them comfort.”
This is pure speculation that has a number of problems. Why was this overpowering sense of hopelessness that motivated respondents to pretend to be gay present in this survey but not in other, similar polls? If it was true that 20 percent of young Americans are cosplaying as LGBTQ for clout, wouldn’t that have popped up in other notable studies? (Plus, Barna’s theory flies in the face of a lot of studies that say far from feeling like they “don’t have a reason to get out of bed in the morning,” most young Americans are feeling good about the future.)
The numbers on LGBTQ Americans are difficult to quantify, and even more difficult when you mix in religion — a notoriously difficult field to poll. Last year, Gallup found that around half of LGBTQ Americans are either “moderately or highly” religious, which Gallup measured in terms of things like religious service attendance and how important they consider religion in their day-to-day lives. But even that metric is shifting quickly.
Most studies agree that the number of people who identify as LGBTQ in the U.S. is growing, and this number definitely includes Christians. It would be hugely valuable for church leaders to have solid data on just how many people sitting in the pews on Sunday morning are LGBTQ. But until more and better studies are conducted, this poll doesn’t really give it to them.