Researchers Find More Gen Z Mormons Identify As Queer Than Previous Generations
One in five Generation Z members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual — or any other sexual orientation besides heterosexual. The survey did not ask about gender identity. That’s according to analysis of the Nationscape Data Set, a national survey conducted ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
Jana Riess and Benjamin Knoll analyzed the data for Religion News Service. Riess is an independent researcher and columnist for RNS; Knoll teaches political science at Centre College in Kentucky.
They discussed their findings with KUER.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: What surprised you most about this survey data?
Jana Riess: Well, considering that our 2016 data from The Next Mormons project is only five years old, this is a big shift. We were looking at millennials and older — and millennials had a 10% sexual diversity rate, about 90% heterosexual. We're looking at almost twice that for Generation Z. That's something that makes you definitely stand up and take notice. This is only one piece of data, and we want to be careful that when we're making big conclusions, that we're triangulating data from multiple points. But still, these were some eye-popping numbers, I think, for both of us.
CB: Benjamin, how confident are you that these numbers are an accurate reflection of Gen Z Latter-day Saints?
Benjamin Knoll: The bottom line is that public opinion surveys are very rarely 100% accurate representations of what the population at large thinks. We're always relying on samples which are imperfect. But for this particular survey, the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape survey, this is one of the largest public opinion surveys of Americans ever fielded and includes nearly 4,000 Latter-day Saints in the United States. This is also one of the largest surveys of Latter-day Saints ever done. So while I wouldn't be 100% confident that this is perfect down to the last decimal point — in the statistics business we say we are 95% confident that the findings we see here are within a couple of percentage points from what the true population factors are.
CB: Jana, what has made it possible for Gen Z Mormons to be more open about sexual identities that aren't strictly heterosexual?
JR: Generation Z is growing up in a different culture than the one that I grew up in as Generation X and one that is certainly more open to sexual diversity. It's certainly not the case that everyone is welcome and everyone is treated openly and equally if they are sexual minorities, but it is certainly more the case than it was 20, 30 [or] 40 years ago.
CB: Jana, you predict that the percentage of queer Gen Z Mormons will not necessarily stay this high and will likely go down as time goes on. Why is that?
JR: Basically because this is going to become a self-selecting pool. In our research in The Next Mormons we found this — other people have found this — that LGBT individuals are more likely to drop out of organized religion. Also, some heterosexuals may be switching into the religion, which would then change the ratio even more. So what we will see, I think, is that 23% [LGBTQ] will probably be the high of sexual diversity for Generation Z going forward in Mormonism, but there will be a winnowing as people who do not conform to the ideal or the standard of the Church are often going to leave the Church.
BK: Just to follow up on that, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it defines members as those who are on the membership rolls. Social scientists and survey researchers instead rely on self-reported data. So that sometimes gives slightly different interpretations and results of what Latter-day Saints think in the American public.
CB: As more and more young people in the LDS Church identify as LGBTQ — essentially not heterosexual — what does that mean for how the Church may handle sexuality?
JR: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has really staked a claim to its core identity that is related to a particular version of the heterosexual nuclear family. It would take an awful lot of change for that to shift. It's hard to imagine the Church abandoning that, but on the other hand, the Church also made enormous shifts in the past — with polygamy being disavowed in the 19th century, with the change in offering temple blessings and priesthood to members of African descent, for example. The Church has changed in the past. It certainly could change in the future, but it would be a very major change.
CB: What would it mean for this generation and for future ones if the Church continues its policies that oppose same sex relationships?
JR: It would be difficult for the Church to hold on to its youngest adult members if it also wants to continue being very hardline about sexual orientation. The Church, for example, no longer insists that sexual orientation is chosen and has instead adopted a fairly agnostic point of view in saying we don't know what accounts for sexual diversity. That's a change that has happened. I don't know that small, incremental changes will really be enough to hold on to the youngest members of Generation Z, many of whom are feeling ostracized or perhaps that there isn't a place for them in the LDS Church. Hopefully that will change and they will feel more welcome.