Growing up I was taught that Mormons were supposed to be a “peculiar people,” a phrase trotted off to convert social embarrassment into tribal pride. There were certainly many peculiar people in my home ward, and in all wards I’ve been in since, but during my lifetime, the Church has become less and less peculiar or unique, and more and more right-wing, conservative and pretend-Evangelical, seemingly trying to “pass” for a “legitimate” copy of these more popular denominations. While we are less peculiar, though, according to a recent survey by Nationscape, we are more queer, up to 1 in 4 among Gen Z Mormons (born after 1997). There were 3,881 self-identified Mormons who responded to this survey, across various demographics.
While 23% of Gen Z Mormons identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or other, and 19% of Millenial Mormons do, older Mormons are less likely to identify as such (94% of Boomers claim heterosexuality, 89% of Gen Xers like me also claim heterosexuality). From the data compiled in The Next Mormons by Jana Reiss and Benjamin Knoll, only 11% identified as LGBT. While many would point to the trend that Gen Zers self-identify as more sexually diverse than older generations, which points to the fact that there is less stigma around sexual orientation than before, another possible interpretation is that Gen Z Mormons are simply young enough that they have not yet (inevitably) left the Church due to its anti-LGBT teachings.
The second point is that Gen Z Mormons currently show more sexual diversity than older generations of Latter-day Saints because, frankly, some of them are statistically likely to leave the church but have not yet done so.https://www.sltrib.com/religion/2021/06/21/jana-riess-there-are-more/
There are some reasons to question the results of the survey. For one, there is a geographical disparity. Those not from the Western US had higher sexual diversity (35%) than those in the Western US (12%). That points to likely sampling errors. A different survey (Cooperate Congressional Study) pegs Mormon LGBTQ at 17% outside the Western US and 10% in the Western US. This geographical disparity could be related to social pressure in heavier Mormon areas to conform to binary gender identification and orientation.
It could also be related to a strongly conservative base in the Western US vs. other areas of the country. For example, in the Pennsylvania branch I grew up in, our ward was probably closer to 50/50 Democrats / Republicans with several of the “strong” ward families being very vocal Democrats. I was very surprised when I got to BYU to discover that the majority of Mormons in Utah were Republicans. While I’m not sure my experience was typical, there does seem to be less of a political focus and less conflation of party politics with the gospel (perhaps due to a higher percent of converts) in *many* (but not all) areas outside the Western US from what I have seen. This political climate (or apolitical climate, ideally) affects how willing young adults are to grapple with their own sexual orientation and gender identity. If they grow up in a climate that is hostile to non-binary identities and attractions, they are less likely to openly identify as such.
- Gen Z Mormons have similar results to all Gen Z respondents (regardless of religious affiliation), meaning, this is a generational thing, not influenced by religious affiliation.
- The definition of LGBTQ+ is becoming more expansive than in other, earlier studies which may increase self-identification with non-cishetero options in a survey. Gen Z respondents claimed “other” in 4% of results vs. 2% for Millenials, 1% for Gen X, and 0% for Boomers. This could be caused by several factors: 1) older respondents were more settled in their self-perception, 2) there are more socially acceptable options now than before (e.g. many Boomers may have seen sexual identity as binary–gay vs. straight–vs. on a spectrum including bisexual, pansexual, asexual, as well as orientations for those with non-cis gender identification or gender expression), and 3) a willingness to accept fluidity rather than having a fixed sexual orientation that needs to be identified and accepted.
- Younger people are more willing to claim non-cishetero identities on an anonymous survey than their older counterparts. Only 1% of Gen Z respondents said they would “rather not say” vs. 2-4% among older respondents.
- They haven’t yet left the Church (or quit self-identifying as Mormon), but many of them will. Median age for leaving the Church is 19, and Gen Z respondents were between 18 and 22. The Boomer numbers are so low because 1) the majority of LGBT Boomers have already left the Church by now (which is why the %s are lower for each successively older generation).
It’s not surprising that it’s harder for queer members to stay. The church has made a point for years of fighting same-sex marriage, condemning nontraditional families as “counterfeit,” and preventing church members who are in a same-sex relationship from attending the temple, holding certain callings or exercising the priesthood. While there have been important steps toward compassion and understanding in the past few years, that damage still runs deep.https://www.sltrib.com/religion/2021/06/21/jana-riess-there-are-more/
I will also add a few other theories out there about these results from some of the social media groups I am in and also some of my own guesses:
- A “cool” factor around non-cishetero sexual identity / immediately finding a supportive community (unlike in prior generations). I admit I don’t find this theory terribly compelling, but it’s one I’ve heard. Yes, the queer community is pretty great, but it’s not like you have to change your sexual orientation to be accepted by them.
- Not everyone is completely certain of their sexual orientation at age 18 (the youngest age for this survey).
- A strongly conservative Church culture forces those who feel they don’t fit into a crisis of identity in which they know the narrative doesn’t fit their situation, so they may feel more unsettled as they come of age.
- The more homophobic rhetoric we hear at Church, the more those who reject bigotry and ally with queer people may begin to question their own perceived sexuality.
- Subversive idea: God is deliberately sending more queer kids to Mormon families to teach our community the importance of accepting and loving them and the wrongness of rejecting our own. Hence the subtle shift from “mormonsandgays” to “mormonandgay.”
When I was growing up, I remember that the prevailing thought based on Kinsey was that 6% of the adult population was gay. I also remember thinking at the time that we couldn’t really know what the true percent was unless there was social acceptance of gay people on par with straight people, something we are starting to get closer to in society as a whole if not within the Church. So long as there is more acceptance in society than in the Church, the pressures will be to leave the Church, and often the families will follow.
Given these numbers, the Church is in even bigger trouble than previously thought when it comes to growth and retention. Given the trajectory for social acceptance of homosexuality in the US, the first step seems to be a version of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” When we quit making it a huge deal, it quits being a huge deal. The problem is that since the 80s, the Church has doubled down so much on “the family” and allied itself with other GOP-focused sects to the point of no return. For those who remain in the Church, there need to be some who will love those queer kids and accept them for who they are, and if it’s not their families, it needs to be their leaders and teachers.
What are your theories about these results?
- Do you think these percentages are accurate (23% of Gen Z Mormons are queer) or do you think they are really higher or lower? Explain why.
- Given these trends, what would you do differently if you were a decision-maker in the Church focused on member retention and membership growth?
- Do you think this spells doom for the Church or do you think the percentages that leave in young adulthood will remain roughly the same, just citing different reasons now?
 This is clearly at play given that 10% of Gen Z identify as “bisexual” vs. 4% of Millenials, and only 2% of Boomers and Gen X.
 Again, mostly a binary view of sexual orientation in my generation at that time; bisexuals just seems like super horny straights, straights who were too lazy to figure out how to relate to the opposite sex, or gays who weren’t ready to step all the way out of the closet yet.