The great flight from heterosexuality

Why so many young people, even straights, are calling themselves ‘queer’.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Identity Politics UK USA

For centuries people were ashamed to be gay. Now they’re ashamed to be straight. To the switched-on Gen Z’er there is no curse more twisted than heterosexuality. No blight more undesired than that most vanilla and normative of sexual identities. Straight – even the word is drab, literally meaning ‘to move uniformly in one direction only’. And so they hide their straightness. They’re getting into the straight closet. ‘I’m queer, I swear!’, they protest, convincing no one except their fellow blue-haired pansexual pretenders. Welcome to the great flight from heterosexuality.

More and more youths are identifying as LGBTQ. It’s especially crazy on campuses. A recent survey found that a whopping 38 per cent of students at Brown University in the US claim to be ‘not straight’. Just over a decade ago it was only 13 per cent. This weird 25 percentage-point hike in queerness is not down to the fact that more youths are happy to come out as homosexual. Indeed, homosexuals are a minority now among Brown’s LGBTQ student body: only 23 per cent of those ‘not straight’ students are old-fashioned gays and lesbians. The rest? They’re bisexual, pansexual, asexual, queer, questioning or ‘other’. ‘I’m not straight!’ is the defensive cry of every one of these pseudo-exotic neo-sexualities.

In youthful circles in the US, the number of young people swimming in the alphabet soup of LGBTQIA+ is soaring. In just four years, between 2017 and 2021, the proportion of American Gen Z’ers who say they are not heterosexual – perish the thought – rose from 10.5 per cent to 20.8 per cent. In Britain, too, there’s a ‘decreasing trend’, in the sober words of the Office for National Statistics, in people identifying as straight. In 2020, eight per cent of Brits aged 16 to 24 said they were something other than heterosexual, a sharp rise on the 4.1 per cent who said the same in 2016.

Either Alex Jones is right that there’s something in the water turning people ‘queer’ or there’s some serious social contagion going on here. You see it in the celebrity world, too. We’re a long way from the days of Tab Hunter and Rock Hudson. Now celebs dread being outed as straight, as yet another dreary pursuer of the opposite sex. Asked about his sexuality recently, famed woman-bedder Harry Styles clammed up. Why do we have to ‘label everything’, he asked? Model / actress Lily Rose Depp insists her sexuality is on a ‘vast spectrum’. She’s ‘sexually fluid’, apparently. ‘You could think peanut butter is your favourite food for 5,000 years and then be like, “I actually like burgers better”, you know?’, she says. I bet those Stonewall rioters would never have bothered if they had known we’d end up in a world where rich nepo babies compare dabbling with ‘queerness’ to going off peanut butter.

‘Can straight people be queer?’, asked a headline in Vice a few years back. The answer would seem to be yes. There’s no easier, more TikTok-pleasing way to sex up your identity these days than by adding a sprinkle of queer. Author and screenwriter Laurie Penny – 36, privileged, married to a bloke – calls herself genderqueer. ‘My whole life, the whole of heterosexuality has felt to me like a school sports game I’ve been reluctantly made to play’, she says. It’s such a drag being hetero! Others – Demi Lovato, Emma Corrin – adopt they / them pronouns and flirt with the Q-word and get headlines and retweets as a result. The word ‘queer’ has become a ‘linguistic catchall’, says a columnist for the New York Times, so much so that even ‘people who consider themselves straight, but reject heteronormativity, might… call themselves queer’.

That’s what is really going on here. ‘Queer’ has become the way you signal your lofty, esoteric rejection of the monotonous lifestyle of mass society. ‘Heteronormativity’, academics and activists call it, because God knows they love their syllables, but what they really mean is ‘normies’: that vast throng of humanity that tends to be straight, and to desire marriage, and to want to commit and reproduce. Queerness is now a form of moral distinction; it’s social preening masquerading as a sexuality. Hence its popularity among privileged Ivy League students, upper-middle-class thespians, and the Oxford grads who make up what passes – hilariously – for ‘the left’ these days. ‘I’m not like you’, says the performative queerness of these prosperous layers of society.

The delicious irony is that where these queer disruptors of heteronormativity fancy themselves as impacable rebels, in truth they’re following the cues of the cultural elite. Alex Jones is wrong, of course: there’s nothing in the water. There’s something in the culture, though. Namely, a fashionable disdain for everything ‘straight’, which is to say everything mainstream, mass, ‘middle of the road’. From popular culture to the business world, the hollow exoticism of queerness is now elevated above the apparently bland existence of the married-with-children masses. I mean, even the London Institute of Banking and Finance encourages the use of ‘non-heteronormative language in [the] workplace’. Queerness is neoliberalism with pink hair.

As to the idea that the rise of queerness is good for gay people and gay rights – nothing could be further from the truth. It isn’t only the unloved heterosexual identity that the new class of queer agitators define themselves against – it’s the apparently archaic homosexual identity, too. Hence the sidelining of gays and lesbians by queer-play straights at Brown. Hence the spread of queerness coincides with the rise of transgenderism which has led to new and horrendous forms of medical intervention into the lives of young gay men and women. That we have both trendy queer experimentation and the state-sanctioned mutilation of teenage gays and lesbians tells us all we need to know. In the eyes of the new establishment’s haughty queer crusaders, homosexuality, with its antiquated attachment to biology and sex, is as iffy as heterosexuality.

There’s nothing to celebrate in the new cult of queer. It is ideological narcissism. It represents a retreat from the social into the dead end of the self. As one Queer Studies academic describes it, queerness is an ‘exhilarating personal experiment, performed on ourselves by ourselves’. Sounds awful. Progressive politics was once about minority groups fighting for their right to play an equal role in society alongside the ‘normies’. Now it’s about privileged elites standing above society and looking down their pierced noses at the ‘normies’. Queer is the costume class rule now wears.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Identity Politics UK USA


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