Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people are steadily advancing on the path of political incorporation trod by many other groups—be they ethnic, racial, religious, or other minorities—in American history. The shift is one from marginalization to assimilation, and from powerlessness to influence.
And as is often the case when changing laws and mores cause a group to lose its outsider status, anxiety has arisen in some quarters about a loss of distinctiveness among LGBTs—in particular, that gay people will lose the strong liberal-progressive bent that has defined their politics since the birth of the modern American gay movement over half a century ago.
Gay historian Timothy Stewart-Winter celebrates the marriage victory, but fears that moving into the mainstream will “blind some of us to the struggles of others.” Gay marriage is great, writes Jordan Alexander Stein, but he laments that it “is not the queer revolution we hoped for.” My colleague here at NYU, Lisa Duggan, has long been even more critical, deriding the movement for marriage equality as a symptom of a decidedly unradical “homonormativity.” Indeed, more than a few prominent marriage equality advocates–including Andrew Sullivan, Jonathan Rauch, and Ted Olson–have claimed that the demand for access to the institution demonstrates the appeal of traditional, conservative values to many gays and lesbians.
To some extent, the decline of a distinctive gay politics and culture is inevitable, just like the decline of, say, the distinctive German-American and Irish-American political cultures that occurred as these groups faced less discrimination and achieved assimilation. But my research—which draws upon relatively new data available from representative sample surveys of the lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) population—suggests that gay people will remain firmly in the liberal Democratic camp for quite a long time to come.
First and foremost, LGBs hold very liberal views on an entire range of policies that on their face have little to do with gay rights. The figure below displays data from the 2012 American National Election Studies (ANES) survey, which now regularly asks its respondents if they are lesbian, gay or bisexual.* The chart shows that LGBs are much more liberal than the general population: they support federal spending on the environment, gun control, immigration reform, Obamacare, and raising taxes on those with high incomes. Gay rights could disappear off the national agenda tomorrow, and gay people as a whole would hold attitudes on other issues giving them every reason to vote like liberal Democrats. Huge shifts in a conservative direction—on some issues, 15 percentage points or more—would have to occur for LGBs to look like straight people politically.
To understand if attitudes like these will persist over time, it’s helpful to know where they come from. My work has identified two distinct processes that create and reinforce LGBs’ distinctively liberal political identity. The first is selection. Although our best guess is that innate sexual orientation varies at random in the population, the share of the population identifying as lesbian, gay or bisexual is not random. For example, survey data show that gay people are more likely to have been raised by mothers with a college education than straight people. They are less likely to have grown up in rural areas or in deeply religious families, and they have fewer siblings. The reason for this variation is obvious: these circumstances of upbringing are less traditional and more tolerant, and thus make it easier for those whose sexual orientation is not heterosexual to “come out” and identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual. And because these kinds of upbringings involve families and communities that are more liberal on average, children raised in these circumstances are more likely to grow up with liberal political values. In short, by the time many LGBs come out, they are already liberal due to their background and upbringing.
The second mechanism contributing to LGBs’ liberalism is what might be termed a political conversion experience. Through exposure to political messages from gay leaders and organizations as well as an identification with other outsiders, many LGBs’ political attitudes change in a liberal direction as they establish their gay identity. In a representative sample survey of the LGB population I conducted in 2007 with Murray Edelman and Kenneth Sherrill, respondents recalled becoming more politically liberal, less religious, and “closer to people of other races” during the period in which they evolved to fully identifying as lesbian, gay or bisexual. All of these shifts, of course, are associated with progressive politics and support for issues espoused by the Democratic Party.
So for LGB politics to become decidedly more conservative after marriage equality, these two processes—selection and conversion—would need to be somehow substantially altered. Both disruptions are possible, but if they take place they will do so slowly. For example, huge variation remains on attitudes toward gays and gay rights among religious denominations in the United States, a most of these differnces are aligned with where these sects stand generally on the liberal-conservative spectrum. As long as these and other circumstances affecting LGBs’ upbringing remain in place, the mechanism of selection will continue to forge a distinctively liberal gay political identity.
As for the conversion process, which will persist in part as long as gays continue to experience themselves as outsiders, ask any legally married gay couple this question: where do you feel comfortable holding your spouse’s hand in public? Even better, ask them this in Massachusetts, where gay marriage has been legal for 11 years now. Lesbians and gays there would be hard pressed to identify more than a few city blocks—even in the state’s liberal enclaves like Cambridge or Northampton—where they could undertake such a casual display of affection without thinking twice about whether they were safe from verbal abuse or violence. More than a decade ago, the state’s law changed for the better—and now the nation’s has, too. But without even more fundamental shifts in the deep-seated stigma experienced by LGBTs in the United States, the processes that have made gay people among the most reliably liberal groups in American politics will sustain themselves in the foreseeable future.
*Unfortunately, like most surveys, the ANES does not interview enough respondents to obtain a meaningful representative sample of transgender Americans. A first-of-its-kind survey of this population is currently being led by Ilan Meyer at UCLA’s Williams Institute.