Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

The Conspiracy of Silence: Context and Voting on Gay Marriage Ballot Measures

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

The Conspiracy of Silence: Context and Voting on Gay Marriage Ballot Measures

Article excerpt


Gay marriage bans have received widespread support in the past decade in states across America. The authors evaluate the extent to which context mitigates or exacerbates support for gay rights. Their question is grounded in the debate over whether exposure to out-groups creates acceptance through contact or whether exposure induces hostility through threat. Using data from twelve marriage ban elections, the authors find conditional support for the threat hypothesis. While the presence of a gay population is unimportant to the majority of the population, evangelical Christians who live proximate to larger gay populations are more likely to support bans on gay marriage.


elections and voting behavior, GLBT politics and direct democracy

In 1978, Californians voted down Proposition 6, The Briggs Initiative, in a 58 percent no to 41 percent yes vote. The initiative would have required the firing of gay school teachers and officials and anyone who had openly pro-gay positions working in schools. The measure was the subject of an intense national campaign pitting gay rights opponent Anita Bryant and California State Senator John Briggs against local gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk. Milk biographer Randy Shilts recounts the famous speech given by Milk after the Gay Freedom Day Parade in June 1978:1

Gay people, we will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets. . . . We are coming out. We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions. We are coming out to tell the truths about gays, for I am tired of the conspiracy of silence, so I'm going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about it. You must come out. Come out to your parents, your relatives. I know that it is hard and that it will hurt them, but think of how they will hurt you in the voting booths. (Shilts 1982, 224)

Since the 1950s, leaders of the gay rights movement had argued that "one necessary precursor to equality was for gay men and lesbians to emerge from their closets" (Tadlock, Gordon, and Popp 2007, 193). The implicit argument in this call to arms is that voting behavior will be conditioned by social networks. In particular, interaction with groups seen as different will lead to feelings of understanding and ultimately to less reactionary views on policies affecting those groups. In the political science literature, this view is commonly called the intergroup contact hypothesis. In accordance with this hypothesis, contact with gays by the predominantly straight community should make them less likely to support policies viewed as restricting gay rights.

In contrast, a long research tradition in American politics involving racial and ethnic politics, dating back to Key (1949), has argued that the presence and proximity of large minority groups triggers increasing feelings of threat by dominant groups, which leads to an increased likelihood that members of majority groups will support antiminority policies precisely when they come into contact with the out-group. In accordance with this hypothesis, commonly termed the intergroup conflict or threat hypothesis, we would expect that straight voters who live in closer proximity to larger and/or apparent gay and lesbian communities will be more likely to support restrictive gay rights policies.

The American states offer a place ripe for investigation of the validity of intergroup contact and conflict theories around gay rights policies. The central reason for this is that policy issues often become matters of majority opinion in states as citizens are asked to vote on ballot initiatives, on referendums, and in ratification of constitutional amendments. In total, twenty-nine states have passed constitutional amendments banning gay marriage and another eleven states have passed statutes banning gay marriage. All of the constitutional amendments have been adopted since 1998. In contrast, only five states currently allow gay marriage-Massachusetts, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Connecticut; in each case, these laws were enacted by courts and legislatures. …

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