By Matthew Hall, Research Fellow with CILIA-LGBTQI+ at the University of Surrey
The media, policymakers and marketing organisations all love their generational labels. Over the last decade all-to-familiar terms like ‘Boomer’, ‘Millennial’, ‘Gen X, and now ‘Zoomer’, have come into popular use, narrowly classifying vast groups of people who share their formative years during the same approximate socio-historical period.
Recently, the credibility and use of these classifications have been rightly scrutinised. This is largely due to their non-empirical origins in consumer marketing strategies, their use as a political smokescreen and their tendency to overstate intergenerational conflict and pit social groups against one another.
Sensationalist and provocative headlines such as “Why millennials’ distaste for Baby Boomers is justified”, “Our Weak, Fragile Millennials” and “Boomer v broke: why the young should be more angry with older generations” have become commonplace within a time when swathes of mainstream news outlets have become caught in a tide of propagating the so-called ‘Culture Wars’.
However, one equally relevant, yet often overlooked, concern is that these narratives tend to overstate shared generational experiences within each birth cohort. They disregard ways in which historically marginalised groups of people, such as those identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer or intersex (LGBTQI+), may share completely different generational experiences, marked by completely different formative historical, social and political developments.
Our research conducted over the last three and a half years, as part of the CILIA LGBTQI+ (Comparing Intersectional Life Course Inequalties amongst LGBTQI+ Citizens in Four European Countries) project, highlights just how poor these marketing classifications are for understanding LGBTQI+ lives. The project undertook extensive lifecourse interviews with 48 LBGTQI+ citizens within England from an array of ages, social and regional backgrounds, ethnic identities, and dis/abilities. The results suggest that whilst there are some distinctive generational differences between those identifying as LGBTQI+, these do not map neatly at all upon traditional frameworks.
Firstly, socio-historical developments are often used to define generational cohorts – for instance, a dramatic population spike and increase in living standards typically marks the Baby Boomer generation. However, for our respondents, these were set against more LGBTQI+-specific social, historical, and political developments.
For example, the Stonewall riots of 1969 and subsequent decriminalisation of homosexuality across Western countries during the late 1960s and early 70s, as well as the introduction of civil partnerships and equal marriage, appeared far more formative for generations of LGBTQI+ individuals. Likewise, less-progressive developments such as Section 28 – restricting any promotion of homosexuality as a ‘pretended family relationship’ by UK local authorities (including schools) from 1988 until 2000 (in Scotland) and 2003 (in England and Wales) – also featured heavily as important generational markers with longstanding legacies.
Meanwhile, other events more specific to transgender and queer individuals, such as the Gender Recognition Act (2004) in the UK, were equally formative for their queer generational identifications. Even ostensibly universal socio-historical developments, such as the information age and widespread digital literacy, can be experienced differently based on one’s position and needs within society. For example, fairly recent concerns about the impact of digital technologies on the dating economy for Millennials and Zoomers, appears to ignore many gay men and women’s reliance on technologies (and previously newspaper ‘personals’) for the best half of a century. Perhaps ‘Gay Boomers’ were just Millennials ahead of their time?
Secondly, our respondents’ queer generational identifications did not always correspond with neat and discrete birth cohorts, nor shared turning of adolescence, as has come to be expected of generational groupings. When discussing the introduction of civil partnerships in 2004, a gay trans male respondent, who had been working in the armed forces, puts it aptly: “[…] civil partnerships came in, and you were allowed to marry and get married quarters and all that sort of stuff […] So, there was definitely changes, and people were a bit more open about it. But that didn’t really affect me because I wasn’t same sex attracted, and I didn’t understand the gender thing then. Like I say, I didn’t understand it at that point, so…”.
Cases like these raise the question as to whether queer generational cohorts may be better framed by when individuals first become self-aware of their same-sex attraction, begin questioning their gender identity, ‘come out’ to others, begin identifying with a wider LGBTQI+ community or when they enter ‘queer spaces’ for the first time. A 50-year-old who has only recently begun to think about themselves in terms of sexual identity, for example, may share more formative experiences with much younger LGBTQI+ individuals than with their own peers. As such, queer generations could be understood as the mutual phasing between queer-specific socio-historical developments and a personal queer lifecourse.
Overall, despite more recent social change, many LGBTQI+ lives remain outside of what we might think of as normative generational experiences. It is important that pervasive and universalising narratives about generational difference do not further marginalise queer lives and render them invisible. How we effectively talk about generations should account for both the diversity of LGBTQI+ lives and varied experiences of social, historical and political developments.
King, A. and Hall, M.A. (forthcoming 2022) ‘Re-thinking Generations from a Queer Perspective: Insights and critical observations from the CILIA-LGBTQI+ Lives in England project’, in H. Kingstone and J. Bristow (Eds.) Studying Generations: multi-disciplinary perspectives, Bristol: Policy Press. The book is part of the Bristol Policy Press open access series.