The notion that the queer community tends, in general, to be more liberal than the population at large is one of those political truisms that many Americans take for granted. But how did they get that way? In a lecture on Monday, NYU Professor of Politics Patrick Egan ’92 argued that, contrary to popular beliefs that lesbians, gays and bisexuals adopt the liberal views of other gay people that they come into contact with, data actually suggest that LGBs (as he termed them) become liberal Democrats independent of involvement with the queer community.
The prevailing view of how LGBs become so politically distinctive is that, after people who are homosexual decide to identify themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, they reach out to the queer community as part of developing their identity. This process maps, in a general sense, onto the process known as “coming out.” Interacting with other LGBs provides them with a framework for thinking about not only sexual identity but other issues, especially politics.
This model depends heavily on the idea of acculturation, that people are most strongly influenced by the ideas of people they spend a considerable amount of time with. However, Egan believed that acculturation could not explain the patterns he saw in the political behavior of LGBs. There were two main problems that needed to be explained: first, LGBs often develop distinctively liberal views before connecting with the larger queer community, and second, they tend to hold liberal views on issues like the environment and the war in Iraq, issues which have little or no connection to gay rights issues.
The first alternate theory Egan proposed was one of selection. This theory proposed that homosexuals who grow up in a more tolerant environment (more religiously liberal, born to more educated parents, located in the North vs. the South) were more likely to choose to identify as lesbian or gay. Backgrounds such as these are more likely to be Democratic/liberal.
Interestingly, while the political affiliation of a person’s parents is supposed to be one of the strongest indicators of their own party affiliation, Egan found that among LGBs this pattern doesn’t hold. In fact, LGBs raised by Republicans tend to abandon the party, with 70% of Republican-raised gays and lesbians eventually becoming Democrats. By contrast, 93% of LGBs from Democratic families stay with the party. This points to, according to Egan, a “wholesale rejection of Republican views” and indicates that something besides background was accounting for the political profile of gays and lesbians.
The second theory that Egan put forth was one that he called “conversion”. The hypothesis suggests that the process of acquiring a gay identity comes along with a wholesale reevaluation of political views, a process that normally takes place before acculturation happens: that is, before someone has a chance to connect with the queer community at large. The conversion process suggests that LGBs are politically distinctive from the outset rather than gradually become more liberal over the course of contact with other gays or lesbians, and that LGBs throughout America would have a similar political profile regardless of local politics.
Egan’s data supported those very claims. He found that, regardless of the size of the queer population, LGBs showed consistent political views. In fact, the reverse of what conventional wisdom predicts seems to be true: as the gay population of a neighborhood increases, data suggests that the straight population becomes more heavily liberal. He also found that, rather than getting more liberal with time, as acculturation would suggest, LGBs actually behave like the rest of the population, and get more conservative as they get older, though they are always more likely to be liberal than the average straight American.
And there does seem to be a real connection between the process of coming out and the adoption of new, more liberal views. When asked about how their views related to their sexual identity, a large proportion of the respondents in Egan’s dataset said that when they were coming out they were less religious, more liberal, and more political.
Egan’s ideas draw upon his own pathbreaking research: for example, his is the only dataset in existence that includes political views, sexual identity, and sexual behavior. Asking about both sexual identity and behavior allowed Egan to single out respondents who actually identified as gay or lesbian, as opposed to people who may have had only same-sex partners but do not think of themselves as gay.
From his research Egan drew two interesting conclusions. One, highly relevant during election season, is that the gay community’s views on issues unrelated to gay rights suggests that even if the GOP were to completely change its policies on gay issues, gay voters would stay Democrats. Secondly, because there seems to be a fundamental connection between gay identity and political liberalism, LGBs will continue to be available for political participation and mobilization even as homosexuality becomes more mainstream.