It shouldn’t be a revelation. Not all gays or lesbians are in romantic relationships, or even trying to find romantic partners. Neither are all bisexuals or transsexuals or people of other sexual or gender minorities. But if you were to read the scholarly research on sexual and gender minorities (SGM), that might come as a surprise. Social scientists are obsessed with the romantic relationships, marriages, and families of SGM people who are partnered.
Maybe that should not be so unexpected, since popular writings and conversations also seem to be dominated by the concerns of only one subset of SGM people — those who are partnered. Matrimania, it seems, is hardly the exclusive domain of heterosexuals and the people who write about them.
And yet, as of 2017, more than half – 56% — of LGBT Americans had always been single. They had never been married to a partner of any gender, and had never lived with a partner, either.
In what I consider to be a breakthrough moment, an important article in the prestigious Journal of Marriage and Family acknowledged that single SGM people exist and that their family ties have been almost entirely ignored. Every 10 years, the journal publishes decade-in-review articles, which are often highly influential. The February 2020 issue featured “Sexual- and Gender-Minority Families: A 2010 to 2020 Decade in Review,” by sociology professor Corinne Reczek of the Ohio State University.
Although I am not going to focus on this here, Reczek also included asexuals in her review and noted that they have been neglected, too. (Even Word is clueless about the existence of asexuals – it insists on inserting that little squiggly red underline, its way of scolding me for misspelling a word or using a word that doesn’t exist.)
The article briefly reviewed the very few relevant studies that included single SGM people. As was true of most of the early work on single people more generally (those whose sexual or gender identity was unspecified and who were discussed as if they were all hetero), single people were of no interest in their own right. They were just comparison groups included to demonstrate the supposed awesomeness of married or partnered people. The studies are also flawed in ways I have explained and mocked repeatedly, and those egregious shortcomings are not acknowledged.
One of the main goals of the review article, beyond pointing out the neglect of single SGM people, was to encourage scholars to pay more attention to them in the future. Professor Reczek suggested a few questions for researchers to address:
“How do single SGM people conceive of their intergenerational relationships, and how does being single shape disclosure, identity maintenance, and family relationships?”
“How do single SGM people conceive of the prospect of intimate relationships, and do friends become more important as sources of social support when not in an intimate relationship?”
“How do single SGM parents negotiate their SGM identity and find social support and cope with strain in both SGM and cisgender heterosexual communities?”
I would be delighted if the researchers who take up this call end up discovering that not only are there SGM people who are single, there are even some who are single at heart. They have been telling me their stories and I can’t wait to share them.