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date: 19 October 2019

Summary and Keywords

While many landmark policies affecting LGBT rights have been determined by legislatures and courts, voters have also often played a more direct role in LGBT politics through direct democracy institutions, such as the initiative and referendum. For example, in 2008 California voters approved Proposition 8, barring same-sex marriage in the state and setting the stage for a key federal court decision in Hollingsworth v. Perry (2013). This followed on the heels of 31 ballot measures to ban same-sex marriage in the previous decade. Direct democracy has also been employed frequently to consider a range of other important issues relevant to the LGBT community, including bans on same-sex couple adoptions, nondiscrimination policies, education policies, and employment benefits. Further, as issues addressing transgender right have emerged on the political landscape, local referendums have addressed public accommodation discrimination, including so-called “bathroom bills,” like the high-profile Houston referendum in 2014.

Most of these prominent direct democracy contests have resulted in negative outcomes for the LGBT community, spurring concerns about subjecting the rights of marginalized groups to a popular vote. However, some ballot measures, such as Washington’s 2012 vote to legalize same-sex marriage, have expanded or protected LGBT rights. Yet the effects of direct democracy institutions extend beyond the direct policy outcomes of elections and have been shown to shape the decision-making of elected officials as well. Still, studies of both the direct and indirect effects of direct democracy on LGBT rights reveal mixed results that are contingent upon public attitudes and how the issues are framed. When the public is supportive of LGBT rights and views them through a civil right frame, direct democracy has been used to expand and protect these rights. However, when the public views the LGBT community more negatively and views the issues through a morality or safety lens, LGBT rights are put at risk by direct democracy. As such, direct democracy institutions function as a double-edged sword for the LGBT community, simultaneously offering an opportunity to elevate LGBT rights issues onto the public agenda with a civil rights frame and posing a threat to the community when these issues are viewed in a more hostile manner.

Keywords: direct democracy, ballot initiatives, policy representation, same-sex marriage, nondiscrimination policy, LGBT rights

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