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PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, POLITICS (oxfordre.com/politics). (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2020. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 09 July 2020

Summary and Keywords

Political parties are a core feature of the American political system, and partisan identification is a major determinant of both individual attitudes and political behavior. Since the beginning of the 21st century, the major political parties in the United States have become increasingly polarized, and partisan affect has intensified, with individuals more hostile toward the opposing party. This increased polarization and tendency to follow elite cues has also affected LGBT politics.

Among openly LGBT candidates for political office, almost all have run as Democrats. In June 2018 only 2.9% of openly LGBT elected officials in the country were affiliated with the Republican Party. Outreach to LGBT voters by Democratic candidates has increased over time; in contrast, Republican candidates have been generally hostile to LGBT people and issues. This growing gap in outreach is reflected in vote choice patterns. Since 1988, at least two-thirds of LGBT voters have supported the Democratic nominee for president. In the 2016 election, 78% of LGBT voters supported the Democratic nominee for president, Hillary Clinton, while only 14% supported Republican Donald Trump. In the 2018 midterm elections LGBT voters favored Democratic candidates by a margin of 82% to 17%. LGBT interest groups also tend to be affiliated with the Democratic Party, with the notable exception of the Log Cabin Republicans. Until the 1990s, most straight Americans were not interested in or aware of LGBT public policy issues, but today the members of both political parties reflect the increased partisan polarization of the country. Democrats are more likely to support same-sex relationships and marriage, laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination, transgender rights, and other supportive policies; Republicans, in contrast, are more opposed to those policies and support religious exemptions from antidiscrimination laws.

This increased sorting among the LGBT public reflects an increasingly salient national divide between the two major political parties, including their understandings of LGBT identity. Democrats have for several decades understood LGBT identity as permanent (that people are born that way) and thus deserving of maximum legal protection. In contrast, many more Republicans understand LGBT as a choice or as a result of one’s upbringing and environment and thus not a basis for claims for equal rights. This represents a shift over time; in 1977, only 13% of Americans believed that homosexuality was something that people were born with. As more Americans became familiar with the science demonstrating that being gay is genetic and not a “lifestyle choice,” a partisan split emerged. Scholarship suggests partisanship is likely driving acceptance of the science. Regardless of the cause of the partisan split on the nature vs. nurture debate on LGBT identity, that split is reflected in the increasingly large differences between representation of LGBT people in elected office, in party support for LGBT policies, and in LGBT partisanship.

Keywords: Political parties, polarization, openly LGBT candidates, openly LGBT elected officials, LGBT voters, LGBT politics, LGBT voter mobilization, Rainbow Wave, Log Cabin Republicans, Stonewall Democrats

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