Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Rights or Benefits? Explaining the Sexual Identity Gap in American Political Behavior

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Rights or Benefits? Explaining the Sexual Identity Gap in American Political Behavior

Article excerpt

Lesbians, gays, and bisexuals (LGBs) are far more likely than heterosexuals to support the Democratic Party and its candidates. But is this support due to the Democratic Party support for the civil rights agendas of historically disadvantaged groups, or is it based on other factors? In this article, we use the issue of same-sex marriage to attempt to explain the nature of the sexual identity gap. We demonstrate that a substantial portion of LGBs place a great deal of importance on winning healthcare and other employee benefits for their spouses, but that they are less concerned about having legally recognized marriages. Furthermore, we find that it is the goal of acquiring spousal benefits, not the right to marry, that influences the degree to which LGBs support the Democratic Party. We conclude that the sexual identity gap is generated more from LGB concerns about acquiring tangible economic benefits than from an interest in pursuing civil rights.

The lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) population has become an increasingly important force in American politics. Part of this influence has come from the groups political activism in support of a number of issues important to the LGB community (Rosenthal 1996; Altman 1994). LGBs can also play an important role in elections since they tend to give overwhelming support to the Democratic Party. LGBs are far more likely than heterosexuals to affiliate with the Democratic Party and to vote for Democratic candidates (Hertzog 1996; Edelman 1993). This sexual identity gap has been chronicled in political science research, but research addressing the factors that draw LGB voters to the Democratic Party at a much higher rate than the general population is lacking. Specifically, do LGBs support Democrats because of the party's traditional and continuing support for the civil rights agendas of historically disadvantaged groups, or are LGBs motivated to vote Democratic based on issues that are not directly linked to civil rights?

This question is a salient one for politicians, political parties, and the LGB movement, particularly with regard to the recent debate over same sex marriage. Until recently, LGB groups mostly limited their focus to issues concerning antisodomy laws, nondiscrimination, and hate crimes. But recent court decisions in Vermont and Massachusetts pushed the issue of same sex marriage onto the agenda for these groups (Egan and Sherrill 2005). Public backlash against this new focus on same sex marriage was clearly felt in the 2004 elections as 11 states passed constitutional amendments prohibiting same sex marriages. These electoral defeats led many in the LGB community to question whether the right to marry should be a fundamental priority for LGB groups, or whether these groups should be more focused on attaining the benefits of marriage without necessarily achieving the right to marry (through civil unions or other arrangements). At the heart of this debate is the question of whether LGBs are driven more by a concern for material benefits such as those granted to married couples, or are they seeking postmaterialist goals such as achieving the right to marry?

In this article, we address this question to attempt to explain the nature of the sexual identity gap. In our examination of survey data from the 2000 presidential election, we argue that the sexual identity gap is caused more from a struggle to obtain tangible economic benefits than because of a concern with civil rights. To examine these possibilities, we use a survey of LGB voters and complement that analysis with an examination of Voter News Service (VNS) exit polls. The survey of LGBs allows us to examine two different perspectives from which LGBs could view the debate over same-sex marriages. We find that a substantial portion of LGBs place a great deal of importance on winning healthcare and other employee benefits for their spouses, but that they place less importance on having legally recognized marriages. …

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