Lesbocalypse now? Elliot Page, and other trans men, take nothing away from cis lesbians
“Where have all the lesbians gone?”
This is the line of inquiry recently asserted by a spate of anti-trans commentators in the wake of Elliot Page’s coming out as a nonbinary trans man: that the number of cisgender lesbians is diminishing, being siphoned away as more trans men come out and transition. Each adds their own repellent flavor to the mix:
- Andrew Sullivan, asserting that “so many” lesbians “are now becoming men”, appears to believe that this population of women serves as role models characterized by an unusual capacity for commitment and aversion to hedonism, with their proper role being to care for gay men in times of sickness (apparently even lesbianism is no escape from having to perform labor for men).
- Katie Herzog, who previously described being a lesbian as “boring” in contrast to queer-identified people who literally drink blood, claims that “lesbian as a category itself” is “disappearing”, quotes a student who has only been able to confirm the existence of half a dozen lesbians in North America (“I have one other lesbian friend, and together we have collected reports of five other lesbians between the U.S. and Canada, of which three are in our generation”), and speculates that transitioning is “a fad, a form of social contagion”.
- Chadwick Moore, who feels that being nonbinary is a sign of immaturity and offers his opinion that it is improper for men to be seen crying, asserts that “Lesbian culture is going extinct and Page is only the most recent death knell”, and that transgender existence in general “is a massive and sinister gay conversion therapy program”.
- And the founders of the LGB Alliance, having already abandoned all shame with a transparently childish name reminiscent of the No Homers Club, claimed: “Is lesbianism going to become extinct? Yes. It’s deeply uncool. At school, in university, it is so uncommon, it is the bottom of the heap. Becoming trans is now considered the brave option.”
All of these missives give the appearance of discussing a real phenomenon and exploring its causes and its implications, in the same manner as one might write about melting permafrost or the disappearing middle class.
But conspicuously absent in each piece is anything to support the foundational claim that this is happening at all.
Before asking “where have all the lesbians gone?”, it seems none of these writers bothered to ask: Have all the lesbians gone?
Consider these surveys and their findings on how many women are lesbian — not lesbian or bisexual, not lesbian or queer, not lesbian or “other”, but specifically lesbian:
- The 2008 General Social Survey of adults in the United States found that 2.7% of women identified as lesbian.
- A 2009 YouGov/Equality and Human Rights Commission survey of adults in England, Wales, and Scotland found that 1.4% of women identified as lesbian.
- The 2006–2010 US National Survey of Family Growth found that 1.2% of women aged 18–44 identified as lesbian, and 0.8% reported being exclusively attracted to the same sex.
- A 2011 report by UCLA’s Williams Institute estimated that 1.1% of women in the United States are lesbian.
- The 2009–2012 United States NHANES survey found that 1.3% of women identified as lesbian.
- The 2013 United States NHIS survey found that 1.4% of women identified as lesbian.
- The 2011–2015 US National Survey of Family Growth found that 1.6% of women aged 18–44 identified as lesbian, and 1.1% reported being exclusively attracted to the same sex.
- In a 2015 YouGov poll of United States adults, 4% of women identified as lesbian, and 3% of women described their sexuality as “completely homosexual”.
- In a 2015 YouGov poll of British adults, 2% of women identified as lesbian and 1% of women described their sexuality as “completely homosexual”.
- In the 2015 Sexual Exploration in America survey, 1.5% of adult women in the United States identified as lesbian.
- In 2017, the UK’s Office for National Statistics estimated that 0.9% of women identify as lesbian.
- In 2018, the UK’s Office for National Statistics again estimated that 0.9% of women identify as lesbian.
- In a 2019 YouGov survey of adults in the UK, 2% of women identified as lesbian.
- In a 2019 YouGov survey of US adults, 2% of women identified as lesbian and 3% of women described their sexuality as “completely homosexual”.
Where have all the lesbians gone? Oh, I don’t know — wherever they’ve been since 2006?
There’s no more evidence to support the contention that lesbians are “facing extinction” now than there was in the heyday of the Iraq troop surge and the subprime bubble.
Yet Sullivan, Herzog, and Moore seek to whip up public concern over an issue they’ve conjured out of thin air. They point out numerous potential causes of something that isn’t actually happening, ultimately identifying trans people as the ones responsible for wiping out a population that stands undiminished. The Telegraph, an alleged newspaper, happily offered airtime to the wild claims of a fringe anti-trans group while making no effort to ascertain whether this was compatible with facts.
It’s as if this little club stood under a full moon on a cloudless night, fretting about where it went and inviting us all to a conversation on its disappearance, and concluding that it must have been stolen by trans people. They are spinning tales and sparking reams of heated discourse over completely fabricated events.
This itself is an important lesson: it is possible for entire debates, rife with conspiratorial accusations leveled at trans people, to take place over literally nothing. The word for this is hoax.
The decline of lesbians turns out to be no decline at all — they are a consistently robust share of the population.
And what of the second component of this argument, that the supposedly expanding population of trans men consists of those AFABs who would otherwise be cisgender lesbians? There is an air of unfalsifiability about this assertion: we don’t have a control group Earth where the entire phenomenon of transness has never existed, allowing us to compare whether there is a significant difference in the population of cisgender lesbians under the condition of transness existing.
However, we can look at the composition of the population of trans men on this Earth:
- In the 2011 US National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 25% of trans men identified as straight.
- In the 2015 US Trans Survey, 23% of trans men identified as straight.
- In the 2017 UK National LGBT Survey, 16% of trans men identified as heterosexual.
The population of trans men largely does not consist of AFABs who are exclusively attracted to women. The vast majority of trans men do not come from the population of AFABs attracted exclusively to women, they come from somewhere else. Even if cisgender lesbians had gone missing, this would not be the place to look for them.
But even this phrasing wrongly accepts the assumptions made by Sullivan, Herzog, and Moore. Trans men do not come from anywhere. They do not “come from” the population of cisgender lesbians, or of cisgender women generally, because they are not lesbians and they are not women.
This point would be clear in any other case:
- Suppose we were to hold forth on an equally nonexistent phenomenon: the recent proliferation of cisgender lesbians, sourced from a population of straight women now diminishing to nothingness.
- Of course this would invite the obvious reply that these lesbians are not simply wayward straight women. They did not “come from” anywhere — they are lesbian and were lesbian.
- Treating them as if they were lost or misplaced straight women requires disregarding that basic fact, and the question of “where have all the straight women gone” would be incoherent because these weren’t straight women anyway.
Those compelled to spurious soul-searching over Elliot Page seem unable to make that same connection in the case of trans men. This is not a loss from the population of cisgender lesbians, but a gain in the accuracy of data on sexual orientation and gender identity. They weren’t supposed to be miscategorized in the first place, and this is the appropriate correction to be made here.
Elliot Page and other trans men being cisgender lesbians is not actually an accessible option here — there is no endpoint where Page is a cisgender lesbian rather than a nonbinary trans man. The available endpoints are that Page is either an out nonbinary trans man or a closeted nonbinary trans man; in neither case is he a cisgender lesbian.
Most importantly, cis people aren’t actual stakeholders in any of this, and a trans person’s gender isn’t about them or for them.
This fretting over the kind of lives lived by women or those perceived to be women, as if wider society has a legitimate interest in their genders that should be taken into consideration, is tantamount to treating half the population as community property. It’s yet another attempt to cover for pure anti-trans hostility by treating it as an unintended and unfortunate necessity in the course of the legitimate aim of protecting women or children or lesbians from supposed threats that turn out never to exist.
But Elliot Page doesn’t belong to you and never did. Neither does any other trans person. I, a trans woman, am not a lost cis man — I was never that and I was never going to be that. And my existence as a trans person is not any kind of loss. The false life I lived was the loss, and I am the one who gets to determine that and mourn that — not some disinvested transphobe who simply prefers for the world to contain even more depressed twinks. ■