Congress is currently considering the Equality Act, which, if passed into law, would make amendments to existing civil rights laws, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Opportunity Act, to explicitly include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected characteristics and prohibit discrimination in public spaces/federally funded programs based on sex. The proposed Equality Act, which is challenged to become law in the current political climate, has its roots in the 1970s, introduced in the immediate aftermath of the Stonewall Rebellion when LGBTQ+ customers of the
Stonewall Inn finally snapped and fought back after ongoing and persistent harassment from New York police. Much has changed for LGBTQ+ people in America since the 1970s. Now that many members of the LGBTQ+ population can live a life that is not predominantly shaped by bias, discrimination, or violence, it can be harder to see the entire acronym as representative of a unified set of interests. Marketers must realize that, as societal stigmatization continues to erode and as political battles for civil rights become less definitive of the LGBTQ+ population, individuals within the LGBTQ+ population have distinct identities that they expect to see authentically represented in advertising.
As discussed in “Representing Fifty Shades on Gay,” the first of this Pride series on Cultural Leadership in LGBTQ+ Marketing, in recent years there has been a notable shift away from the sexual binary of gay or straight that was embraced when the “Dream Market” was launched as a socio-political effort to gain social legitimacy in the marketplace. As marketers wrestle with how to authentically represent the diversity within the LGBTQ+ population, they should begin by recognizing and understanding these significant generational differences in LGBTQ+ identity and expression termed “Genderation.” Over the past decade, growing societal acceptance of gender as a fluid construct has been acclaimed as a “gender revolution,” a “cultural metamorphosis,” and a “post-gender society.” U.S. society has shifted into an identity revolution that blurs the borders of sexuality and gender, especially among younger individuals. People are no longer confining themselves to the classification of the bodies they were born with or society’s rules for what those bodies can and cannot do. Young Thug, a slim rapper prone to wearing dresses, states that he feels “there’s no such thing as gender” in a new commercial for Calvin Klein. The Oxford English Dictionary recently included Mx as a neutral replacement for titles like Mr. and Mrs. The video game “The Sims” has begun allowing players to create same-sex relationships and lifted gender restrictions on characters’ clothing and hairstyles. In 2015, 81% of Gen-Z members reported that they don’t care about other people’s sexual orientation, 88% say people are exploring their sexuality more than in the past, and 81% do not think gender defines a person as much as it used to.
For its first ten years, Facebook limited its billions of users to identify as either male or female. In 2014, the ubiquitous social network, which is somewhat of a social census, responded to the demands of younger users to reconstitute gender categories beyond the oppressive binary. Facebook allowed users to select a custom gender identity beyond the dichotomous labels “male” and “female” and offered a list of 58 gender options (from which the user could select up to 10). The following year, the company announced that it had modified the custom gender option after receiving feedback that some individuals found it difficult to express their sex with the pre-populated list of 58 choices. It now offers a free-form field where users can enter any term they want to describe their gender identity and can still include up to 10 labels. The same year, OkCupid’s online dating platform users could choose from 22 potential options for gender identity and an additional 20 for sexual orientation, including “asexual, bisexual, demisexual, gay, homoflexible, heteroflexible, lesbian, pansexual, queer, questioning, sapiosexual, straight.” In practice, OkCupid users could splice their gender/sexual identity among 440 potential combinations and require the same level of specificity for their matches.
Within this maze of binary and fluid identities, marketers struggle to identify traditionally defined marketing segments. The imperatives of marketing, which need to target homogeneous groups of consumers based on identifiable characteristics, mean that it can be hard to bring queer insights into marketing practice. Socially-minded marketers who wish to embrace today’s rapidly evolving LGBTQ+ consumer marketplace must begin by realizing that the identity explosion that has hit the headlines in popular press tends to be far more prevalent with the millennial and Gen-Z population than older LGBTQ+ generations. Marketers in the process of attempting to understand sexual and gender diversity may feel caught in the crossfire. Attempts to be inclusive for Gen-Z and Millennials can lead to cumbersome lists and over-dissection for Gen-X and Boomers; attempts to be efficient and binary for Gen-X and Boomers can lead to reductionist language, which leaves some Gen-Z and Millennials individuals feeling misunderstood, excluded, marginalized, or invisible. A rejection of traditional labels and push for new terminology by younger generations may lead to a type of super-consumer custom-made identity that leaves marketers with very little upon which to build a marketplace!
Genderation and LGBTQ+ Identity
Among the progressing generations, more LGBTQ+ people are choosing to identify as “fluid” rather than “binary” (meaning gay or lesbian) as members of Gen-Z are far more likely than older generations to be “plurisexual” or attracted to more than one sex (Ipsos 2021). Younger people are also moving away from a binary representation of gender, a significant shift from previous generations. According to a 2020 study by the Pew Research Center, 59% of Gen-Zers and 50% of Millennials, compared with 40% of Xers, 37% of Baby Boomers, and roughly 32% of the Silent Generation, say forms or online profiles should include options other than “man” and “woman (Guttman 2017). Despite this, marketers must balance this with recognizing that sexual and gender binaries continue to have social meaning for many LGBTQ+ people, as it structures many economic, social, and political opportunities and can give meaning to personal identities.
Younger generations also tend to weave together their sexual and gender identities in a manner that cannot be captured by the L for Lesbian, the G for Gay, the B for Bisexual, or the T for Transgender. It was younger LGBTQ+-identified generations’ rejection of the binary thinking of previous generations on both sexual and gender identity that led to the reappropriation of the term “queer.” Queer is used as an umbrella term to represent individuals who express their sexual identities and gender identities as anything other than “heterosexual” or “binary.” However, many older members of the LGBTQ+ population struggle to embrace the term “queer,” given its history as a pejorative term. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), America’s leading LGBTQ+ rights organization, aware that its main donor base comprises those aging members of the LGBTQ+ community, did not transition from LGBT to LGBTQ (the HRC still can’t go as far as “+”) until 2016 – after Facebook, OkCupid, and Tinder had embraced identity fluidity. The organization’s decision to adopt the term was driven by predominant use by youth who refer to their sexual orientation as “queer” and their gender identity as “genderqueer” while others use personal descriptions of more fluid identities (HRC 2016). When announcing its adoption of the term, the HRC was careful to acknowledge the sentiments of older members of the community who are its donor base. It stated that “‘Queer’ is a word with a complicated modern history – both used in a defiant chant originated by LGBTQ+ rights activists more than a quarter-century ago to confront bigotry and hijacked by hate-mongers doubling down on discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Genderation and LGBTQ+ Identity Expression
While the adoption of “Queer” is an attempt to bundle all identities that are neither heterosexual nor cis-gender with one sweeping, though troubled, term, during the past several years, there has also been a simultaneous proliferation of names used to describe variances in sexual orientation and gender identity. As an identity label, queer is often seen as a “non-label”; queer is fluid and changing, and therefore hard to define. Many of these labels are newer creations (e.g., pansexual, androgyne, genderqueer), and some are unique to specific cultures (e.g., two-spirit in Native American traditions, fa’afafine in Samoa, hijra in South Asia).
As illustrated by the options on Facebook and OkCupid, younger generations appear to simultaneously embrace a micro-dissection of their queer gender/sexual identities expressed as distinct markers or labels in a multi-dimensional queer space. These terms provide expressions of their gender and sexual identities and are continuously changing and expanding.
This creates a “Genderation” gap with older LGBTQ+ individuals, who formed their LGBTQ+ identity in an era of social stigmatization and limited opportunities for identity exploration and expression. Developing an LGBTQ+ identity in the America of the Stonewall riots rather than the America of the Stonewall National monument leads to very different LGBTQ+ identities that are relatively stable over time. Most Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers continue to see their world as primarily two binary choices on two dimensions—male or female/ straight or gay with bi-sexual considered a “phase.” A fifty-year-old woman who came out during the second-wave feminism movement (and, at some point in her life, may have owned a Subaru) is likely to have chosen between gay or lesbian to label her sexual orientation (even if she wishes there were better-sounding labels!) Despite the multitude of categories and labels available to her today, she will likely continue to treat gender labels as a binary choice of female or male (meaning trans in this case). Most likely, she will express her sexual and gender identity through clothing, mannerisms, personal style, and other means of codification rather than by adopting a specific gender and sexuality label.
Today’s marketers must recognize that “Genderation” is a strong, and sometimes divisive, force within the LGBTQ+ population. They will need to commit to doing the work involved in understanding the complexity of the intergenerational identities within the new LGBTQ+ marketplace. They must understand the diversity of values, perspectives, and expression linked to the Genderation of LGBTQ+ identity within the LGBTQ+ population if they are to authentically represent these consumers in the marketplace and identify meaningful consumer segments.
The first step in the process is to recognize that Genderation exists and has clear implications for LGBTQ+ marketing. The second step is to understand why Genderation exists which will be addressed next in this LGBTQ+ Pride series on Cultural Leadership in LGBTQ+ Marketing.