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What will the midterms look like now that more than 7 percent of Americans identify as LGBT?

A wave of anti-LGBT bills may motivate political activism

Participants with the Alliance for GLBTQ Youth march at the annual Miami Beach Gay Pride Parade in Florida in 2017. (Lynne Sladky/AP)
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Last week, Gallup reported that a record 7.1 percent of the U.S. population identifies as LGBT, or otherwise does not identify as heterosexual. It finds the number in older generations holding steady, while the biggest increase is among Generation Z (people born from 1997 through 2003). One in five people in this group now identify as LGBT. Given that LGBT voters were among those who helped decide the 2020 election for President Biden, what does this news mean for LGBT political power?

Republicans might actually benefit from this increase, especially if social acceptance is the reason more people are willing to identify themselves as LGBT. Social acceptance may lead a greater proportion of LGBT voters to feel cautious about social change and support more conservative policies.

But recent Republican-led legislative attacks on LGBT people are more likely to translate into increased political attention and activism among the LGBT group that favors Democrats. Because Gen Z is where this group is growing, LGBT interest groups and political parties may wish to increase youth get-out-the-vote efforts if they want the increased LGBT population to influence the 2022 election.

Social acceptance may increase support for Republican candidates

Gallup speculates the increase in LGBT identification reflects a shift in acceptance among the general population. That is, more LGBT people feel comfortable identifying as such because they feel accepted by society. It is true that attitudes toward LGBT people have improved since the 1970s; however, attitudes toward transgender people are not as positive as attitudes toward the other three groups in the acronym. Attitudes are also mixed about specific policies like bathroom access for transgender people and religious exemptions to civil rights laws — for instance, whether a bakery can refuse to supply a cake for a same-sex wedding.

If LGBT people do indeed feel more accepted, what does that mean for how LGBT Americans will vote in the 2022 midterms? Here’s what my research found.

From Nov. 4-14, 2016, I surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,100 LGBT people, recruited through Qualtrics Inc., who maintains a panel of LGBT Americans. Although not a random sample, I established survey quotas for race and ethnicity, gender, and sexuality based on two random samples of LGBT Americans. I asked respondents what party they identified with, along with their opinions about the role of government, how incomes should be distributed, and other policies. I also asked whether they felt society was accepting of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

In analyzing the responses, I found perceptions of acceptance are associated with more conservative political attitudes about such things as inequality and gun rights, even after controlling for other factors associated with conservative attitudes, like age, urban residency, and religion. In other words, feeling accepted can translate into a political preference to keep society the same. Why? Because when you feel accepted, you have less incentive to see change. This finding is consistent with the LGBT voters’ increase in support for President Donald Trump from 2016 to 2020.

As more LGBT people feel accepted and willing to come out, some will be more willing to support Republican candidates. However, that increase will most likely be limited to those LGBT people protected from discrimination on other grounds or insulated from acutely feeling discrimination because they are financially secure and/or White.

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However, increased anti-LGBT legislation will likely mobilize new voters

According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), 2021 saw the largest number of anti-transgender bills ever introduced or enacted in state legislatures. It is feared 2022 will surpass those milestones, and the Movement Advancement Project (MAP) is already tracking hundreds of anti-LGBT bills in state legislatures, most filed within the past two months. This year, South Dakota enacted a law targeting transgender student-athletes and the Florida legislature advanced a bill to ban the mention of sexual orientation or gender identity in schools, nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” among other measures.

In another analysis of the same LGBT survey respondents, I found that when LGBT people experience discrimination, they become more likely to vote in both primary and general elections and attempt to persuade others to vote. While some LGBT people may feel social acceptance, others likely do not. This will motivate them to engage politically by voting in favor of candidates who support LGBT rights throughout the midterm cycle.

The Supreme Court handed conservatives a narrow religious freedom victory in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia.

Young LGBT people won’t necessarily vote without organization

In many parts of the country, some proportion of LGBT people are still treated poorly by police or encounter other difficulties with public policy. Historically, this has pushed some into political activism. Openly LGBT people continue to be one of the most politically active constituencies in American politics. As in previous elections, in 2020, a larger proportion of LGBT-identifying voters said they went to the polls than was assumed to be their share of the population at the time.

Young people traditionally have the lowest turnout rates of any age group. Since the biggest growth in LGBT identifiers is among Gen Z, the increase that Gallup found may not affect the 2022 election. While younger people have voted in record numbers since 2018, those ages 18 to 24 represented only a small percentage of the electorate in 2020. Some evidence suggests that young LGBT people are more politically active than their non-LGBT peers. But if the growing proportion of LGBT Gen Zers are to vote in the midterms, they will need organizational help from interest groups and political parties.

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Not all LGBT people are politically liberal. Nor do they all vote Democratic, although the vast majority do. Even if major metropolitan areas are likely to go for Democrats, LGBT people also inhabit rural districts. As the number of people who identify as LGBT increases in these areas, they could become an important political constituency.

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R.G. Cravens (@actualdrcravens) is an assistant professor of political science at California Polytechnic State University and a public fellow in LGBTQ rights at the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington, D.C.