Queering the Vote
By Samuel Clowes HunekeJanuary 27, 2019
Most Americans would think this completely natural. After all, the Republican Party has remained deeply homophobic in the face of the increasingly broad social acceptance of LGBT Americans. Its 2016 party platform was, according the gay organization Log Cabin Republicans, “the most anti-L.G.B.T. platform in the party’s 162-year history.” Only weeks before Americans went to the polls this year, Donald Trump’s administration announced a new effort to define trans people out of existence. The Democratic Party, in contrast, has been a consistent, if sometimes lackluster, advocate for LGBT rights. Barack Obama shepherded through the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, was the first sitting president to back marriage equality, and tried to ensure trans rights in schools.
But what gets lost in this assessment of queer American voting habits is just how unique they are. In virtually no other country have LGBT groups and leftist parties forged such a durable or fruitful alliance. In many other Western countries, right-wing and virulently homophobic parties enjoy considerable support among gay voters.
Last October, homophobic populist Jair Bolsonaro won Brazil’s presidency. The president-elect has a habit of threatening violence against queer people. In 2011, for example, he told Playboy that he “would be incapable of loving a homosexual son […] I would prefer my son to die in an accident.” In the United States, such a candidate could count on a vanishing margin of support from queer people. In Brazil, Bolsonaro enjoyed vocal support from LGBT Brazilians, eventually winning 29 percent of the LGBT vote. His main competitor: only 57 percent. When asked by news outlets how they could support a man who had not even made a pretense of respecting queer rights, LGBT voters responded that they were fed up with the ruling Workers’ Party and that they believed Bolsonaro’s homophobia was only an act.
There is a similar story in France. The far-right National Front has benefited from an astonishing surge in popularity under Marine Le Pen, the more polished daughter of its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen. And while her party has called for abolishing marriage equality — a remarkably contentious issue in a country often seen by Americans as a beacon of progressivism — a significant slice of Le Pen’s support comes from LGBT voters, who are drawn to her racist views. In 2015, a poll showed that Le Pen enjoyed the support of 26 percent of Paris’s homo- and bisexual voters but only 16 percent of its straight voters. Regional elections that same year showed 38 percent of gay male couples giving their votes to the National Front. The party received only 29 percent of straight couples’ votes. The notion that a far-right, homophobic party could enjoy a greater margin of support among gay people than straight people is likely unthinkable to most Americans. A poll before the May 2017 presidential election in France suggested that this support is persistent: 45 percent of gay men aged 18–29 voted for Le Pen.
Polling in Germany shows a more muddled picture complicated by the rise of the far-right, homophobic party Alternative for Germany (AfD) and typically low levels of LGBT support for the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). One 2016 survey showed that while 33 percent of gay men and lesbians in Berlin supported the centrist Green Party, the AfD’s support was higher than that of Angela Merkel’s CDU. Another poll from the same year put the AfD’s support at 17 percent. In stark contrast, a poll in 2017 showed only 2.7 percent support for the AfD among LGBT voters. In almost all of these polls, the CDU enjoyed single-digit support.
This polling (of which there is relatively little outside of a handful of countries) paints a fascinating picture. While LGBT voters were less likely than the typical American to support the Republican Party by an average of 28 percent over the last four elections, LGBT voters in other countries were less likely to support the conservative (or in some cases far-right) party by an average of only seven percent. And when you look only at gay men, the results are even more striking. In other countries, gay men were, on average, more likely than the general electorate to support the conservative or far-right party.
Based on these figures, it seems clear that LGBT voters in the United States are uniquely inclined to vote for the center-left. But why is that? Why do LGBT voters so consistently align with the Democratic Party in such overwhelming numbers, when they do not opt in any distinctive way for the center-left, progressive, or pro-gay parties in other countries?
One possible explanation is that the American two-party system encourages this kind of division of electoral labor. The Democratic Party is increasingly a tent of minorities. Black, Latinx, Asian-American, and LGBT voters all identify with the center-left party in large numbers, while the white, heterosexual majority remains more evenly split between the two parties (as a group, white people typically favor the Republican Party by single digits).
Countries such as the United Kingdom with three principal parties seem to confirm this hypothesis. The Liberal Democrats, which combines elements of classical liberalism and contemporary social progressivism, enjoys higher-than-average levels of support from LGBT voters. In the United Kingdom, the Conservative and Labour parties both enjoy 26 percent of the LGBT vote, according to a 2015 poll. The centrist Liberal Democrats won 19 percent. In 2010, the center party had taken 40 percent of the LGBT vote.
But the difference between multi-party and two-party systems is surely not the only explanation for gay political equivocation in other countries. After all, the run-off presidential elections in France and Brazil featured only two candidates: the far-right politicians in each of those cases received a substantial fraction of the gay vote. In Australia, there is evidence that gay men tend to vote for the Liberal and Labour Parties in roughly the same proportions as do the straight electorate: gay Australians seemingly do not let their sexuality affect their vote.
Clearly, something more is going on here. The first clue as to what that might be is in the different kinds of polls and what they suggest. Some polls — such as the one showing 82 percent support for the Democratic Party in November — are of the entire LGBT spectrum, that is they include voters who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans. These tend to show LGBT voters opting for conservative and far-right parties at lower rates than the general electorate. Those that only poll gay men, as noted above, reveal a very different picture. It seems that gay men in other countries are far more likely to support right-wing parties than are LBT, and even sometimes straight, voters. That makes a certain degree of sense, as Michael Segalov wrote in The Independent in 2017. Gay men have begun to “throw those with less status under the bus to cling onto their new found privilege.” Endowed with the right to marry and no longer encumbered by sodomy laws or employment blacklists, gay men have begun to vote more like men, full stop. Lesbians and trans individuals, who still face considerable prejudice and even legal barriers, have more to gain by supporting left-wing parties and more to lose should the right triumph.
While I have not found polls only of gay male voters in the United States, even if 100 percent of lesbians, bisexual women, and trans voters supported the Democratic Party, around 60 percent of gay men would have still voted for the Democrats in 2018 (assuming at least 45 percent of the LGBT electorate are gay men). That means American gay men are considerably more progressive (in voting habits, at least) than their compatriots in other countries. The next question becomes, why have gay men in the United States not started voting in larger numbers for conservative politicians?
To understand why they have not defected to the Republican Party, one has to go back to the 1980s, which witnessed the birth of both the contemporary gay rights movement and modern conservatism.
The American gay rights movement, which had seen a string of political successes in the mid-1970s, began to face blowback from the religious right late in that decade. Anita Bryant, a singer-turned-fanatic, led her so-called Save Our Children campaign in Miami-Dade County in 1977 to overturn a municipal ordinance banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Bryant won her fight, inspiring conservatives in other parts of the country to campaign against similar measures. Bryant’s successes heralded the rise of the homophobic, Christian right.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan, the B-list actor and former governor of California, rode the country’s religious revival to the White House. The next year, doctors began to diagnose gay men in New York and San Francisco with rare conditions, such as the skin cancer Kaposi’s sarcoma, that a healthy human immune system could normally fight off. Even as gay men’s immune systems failed and they began to die in large numbers, no one could tell them what was afflicting them. Doctors had not yet created the term AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) to describe the disease or HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) to label its cause.
Meanwhile the Reagan administration, peddling a new small-government conservatism, slashed the budgets of the CDC and NIH, hamstringing their efforts to respond to AIDS. And despite pleas from gay men across the country, the government did little to spread awareness about the disease or arrest its advance. The government censored the Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, from providing detailed information about the plague. Infamously, Reagan himself first mentioned AIDS in public only in 1985. In no other developed country did conservatives so wantonly and cruelly ignore the disease’s spread.
Today, Reagan, his administration, and the GOP are reviled among American LGBT people for having killed gay men through willful neglect. The uproar that presidential candidate Hillary Clinton faced after she misattributed AIDS activism to former first lady Nancy Reagan is a sign of how potent this history remains, even 30 years later.
Conservatives’ malicious negligence meant that gay people had to organize themselves. A slew of groups sprung up in cities around the country to combat HIV’s spread. These organizations, most famous among them the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (better known as ACT UP), employed confrontational tactics to goad the government into responding to the epidemic, to raise public awareness, and to spread information about the disease. It is true that ACT UP chapters appeared other countries, including France and England. There is some evidence that AIDS activism in other countries blunts right-wing appeal among older gay voters: in France, for instance, Marine Le Pen only received 20 percent support from gay men 50 and older.
At the same time, the American gay marriage crusade began in those years. The Human Rights Campaign, today the behemoth among US gay rights groups, got its start in 1980. It now boasts over three million members and supporters and an annual budget of more than $40 million. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), another heavyweight among the gay political organizations, was founded in 1985 to counteract homophobic coverage of the AIDS crisis. These organizations attempted to bring the gay cause into the mainstream by pursuing policies such as marriage equality and the right to serve in the military. GLAAD famously convinced the New York Times’s editorial board to begin using the word “gay” instead of “homosexual” in 1987. These organizations have done the decades-long spadework of forging a political alliance between the center-left and queer people. Other countries simply do not have the same kind of large, influential queer groups.
And while the Republican Party busily cemented its status as the party of death in the 1980s, the Democrats were slowly warming to the cause of gay rights. Bill Clinton campaigned in 1992 on the promise of banishing discrimination on the basis of sexual identity from the military. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was the compromise born of that promise.
So by the time the new millennium rolled around, LGBT voters were likely to have a slight preference for the center-left. Neither of the two major parties had endorsed marriage equality, but at least Democrats weren’t supported by rabid religious zealots, whose leaders have compared homosexuality to, among other things, “demonic possession.” Politicians such as Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who compared homosexuality to incest, haven’t help matters for conservatives.
And then came the 2004 presidential election. It is a largely forgotten curiosity of history that George W. Bush won reelection thanks to the issue of marriage equality. Republicans placed gay marriage bans on the ballots of key swing states, hoping to drive conservative voters to the polls. It worked, and Bush won reelection. But what Republicans hadn’t reckoned with was that gay marriage would become a national conversation in a way it had not been before. When conservatives put Proposition 8 on the ballot in California, they overreached, lighting the fuse that led to the first major federal lawsuit for marriage equality, Hollingsworth v. Perry, and the Supreme Court’s rulings in United States v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges.
By this point, the Democratic Party had fully embraced the entire panoply of gay priorities. President Barack Obama came out of the (political) closet in May 2012 in support of gay marriage and politicians like Hillary Clinton had to perform verbal gymnastics to explain why they had opposed marriage equality in the past when they now so enthusiastically advocated it. When the US Supreme Court handed down its Obergefell decision granting marriage equality across the country, the White House lit up in rainbow colors. Over the last 10 years, Democratic politicians have done a remarkable job signaling to LGBT voters that the party’s priorities are their priorities. 2018’s so-called “Rainbow Wave” of over 400 LGBT candidates running for office, mostly as Democrats, is merely the latest and deepest iteration of that alliance.
And Democrats have been handsomely rewarded for it. As the New York Times pointed out in 2012, LGBT votes helped carry Obama to a second term: he and Mitt Romney won roughly equal shares of the straight vote (with Romney winning heterosexuals by slight margins in swing states Ohio and Florida). But LGBT voters flocked to the Democratic side in massive numbers.
Yet Democratic initiative alone did not transform queer citizens into one of the Democratic Party’s most reliable constituencies. The Republican Party has so far proved incapable of performing the kind of LGBT-friendly rebranding that far-right parties in other countries have undertaken in recent decades. These parties, including the National Front, Sweden’s Democrats Party, the Dutch Party for Freedom, the Alternative for Germany, and Austria’s Freedom Party, have all softened their language on gay issues, advanced the careers of gay politicians, and actively courted LGBT voters by painting their Islamophobia as a bulwark protecting queer people from supposedly homophobic Muslims. In the 2017 election, the Alternative for Germany nominated an openly lesbian woman, Alice Weidel, as its candidate for chancellor, even while calling for an end to gay marriage. These efforts all fall under the convenient label of “pinkwashing,” a portmanteau of pink (standing for LGBT priorities) and whitewashing: these politicians employ pro-gay rhetoric to justify their racism and xenophobia.
Of course, those who paid any attention to the 2016 American presidential election will remember candidate Trump’s supposed outreach to the LGBT community. There was Milo Yiannopoulos, the gay troll who called Trump “Daddy.” There was the group “Twinks for Trump.” Trump even declared in the wake of the Orlando massacre, “Ask yourself, who is really the friend of women and the LGBT community, Donald Trump with his actions, or Hillary Clinton with her words? Clinton wants to allow radical Islamic terrorists to pour into our country — they enslave women, and murder gays.” It was a play straight out of the European far-right’s pinkwashing handbook.
But one election cycle’s worth of lip service to gay voters was not enough to persuade them to defect to the dark side. In November 2016, even as Trump won the Electoral College, 78 percent of LGBT voters chose Hillary Clinton. And it has come as a surprise to no one — save Caitlyn Jenner — that the Trump administration has pursued vehemently anti-trans and homophobic policies while in office. The administration has denied visas to the same-sex partners of foreign diplomats, rescinded federal protections for trans students, attempted to bar trans people from military service, and supported homophobic laws camouflaged as protections for religious liberty.
For the time being, the United States is a country apart on gay politics. The center-left has successfully wed its own interests to those of the LGBT electorate (an electorate, it is worth pointing out, that is growing as more people feel comfortable identifying as LGBT). The Republicans have proved incapable of offering even the barest olive branch toward gay voters, many of whom can still remember when Republicans and conservatives such as Reverend Jerry Falwell crowed, “AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals.”
But neither gay people nor Democrats should feel satisfied with this state of affairs. If anything, gay politics in other countries prove that LGBT people — especially gay men — are not inherently progressive voters. Give them the chance and they will vote for xenophobia, for racism, and for misogyny. Democrats (and progressive parties in other countries, for that matter) cannot and must not take the gay vote for granted. At the same time, queer voters need to be increasingly savvy in order to parse how right-wing parties pair homophobic policy with homo-friendly rhetoric. There are gay politicians who oppose gay rights — just as there are female politicians who oppose women’s rights and Black politicians who oppose civil rights.
For now, LGBT people remain part of the Democratic coalition’s bedrock. It will be the ongoing work of queer people and the left alike to make sure it remains that way.
Samuel Huneke is a historian of modern Europe and a PhD Candidate at Stanford University. He is currently at work on a book, tentatively titled Germany’s Gay Revolutions, which examines homosexuality and politics in Germany during the Cold War.
Feature image by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann. Banner image by jglsongs.
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