Since I work in elections, sometimes on issues that involve gay people, I've seen a lot of polling about what the heterosexual electorate thinks about gay people. Yesterday at the NGLTF Creating Change conference, I got to hear a political scientist talk about political attitudes held by gay people. It was a pleasant turnabout.
For starters, Kenneth Sherrill of Hunter College answered a question I've had ever since seeing exit polls last November which seemed to show that, though gay people voted for Obama by a large margin (70-27), in 2004 Kerry did somewhat better with the gay vote (77-23). That didn't seem right in a year of unparalleled progressive voter mobilization. The professor agrees. He believes that exit poll conclusion is an artifact of the small size of the LGB sample in such a survey. In small samples, and gay samples are almost all small, any error introduced by random chance looks a lot bigger than it is. Sherrill's best guess, based on a lifetime of studying gay political attitudes, is that Obama got about 75-8 percent of the LGB vote which added up to close to 4 percent of total voters nationwide. (Nobody, but nobody, has invested in understanding the political postures of transsexuals, hence Sherrill drops the "T" out of the "LGBT" locution.)
Last April, Sherrill and co-authors Patrick J. Egan of New York University and Murray S. Edelman of Rutgers, published a study of gay political attitudes. You can download it here. They derived their findings from survey responses of a representative sample of 768 LGB U.S. residents. That's actually a pretty large sample. They state "the 'margin of error' (as typically reported by public opinion surveys) associated with our sample size ... is +/- 3.5 points."
I'm not going to go over all the numbers, but some of the conclusions they draw are interesting:
- Among men who self-identify in the LGB population, about one third are bisexual. There are just as many women as men who identify in the population, but two thirds of the women say they are bisexual rather than lesbian.
- Other than being somewhat poorer, slightly more likely to have higher educational attainment, and somewhat more likely to claim a mixed race heritage, LGB people are much like the national norms. And we're getting more so over time.
- Many LGB people do not feel their LGB identity has much to do with their political opinions or sense of themselves. Nor do they think what happens to other LGB people much affects them. The exceptions to these attitudes are those with college degrees and the 18-24 age group. Bisexuals, especially men, are less likely to think their non-conforming sexual orientation affects their attitudes.
- Nonetheless, LGB people are politically different. Over 80 percent are Democrats; over 60 percent say they are liberal. In 2007, nearly 80 percent of LGB people wanted the U.S. out of Iraq within 12 months. Support for some path to legalization for undocumented immigrants ran around 60 percent.
- LGB people are at least as civic-minded as other people on measures like willingness to serve on juries. But we are much more likely to be "very interested" in politics; 32 percent claim this as opposed 22 percent of all citizens.
- Where we really stand out though is in our willingness to take political action: we contact government officials (23 percent vs. 15 percent of all citizens), attend protests or rallies (11 vs. 4), write letters to editors (6 vs. 4), and contribute to campaigns (14 vs. 10).
So these political scientists asked, how did we move so far from the U.S. norm?
They believe that the "coming out" experience -- the need to work through personal identity, often in opposition to social, familial, and religious assumptions -- leads to profound political differences. Ordinarily conservative (and liberal) political orientations are passed down in families; but LGB people usually spend at least some of their lives somewhat disconnected from their families of origin. After coming out, and often uprooting themselves geographically, LGB people report becoming more interested in politics, feeling closer to persons of other races, and less religious than before. All these characteristics correlate with liberalism in U.S. society.
Yup -- we're different.