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Friday, September 07, 2012

The Political Conventions Made a Sociologist Think...

Greetings PrawfsBlog community! Special thanks to Dan for inviting me back for my fourth go. I have always found this group of scholars and commentators particular stimulating, so I am honored and excited to be back.

A short introduction: My name is Ari Waldman. After two years teaching law in California, I am now a PhD candidate in Columbia University's Department of Sociology. My work is inherently interdisciplinary, as will many of my posts this month. My dissertation research falls under the broad topic of online social networks and how our digital selves actually behave online and create and respond to social norms when it comes to privacy, speech, and property on the Internet. I am also the Legal Editor at Towleroad, where I write a weekly LGBT Law column. But, more on all that later... 

Even though I dork out on electoral statistics and socio-political trends, priding myself on being an informed policy wonk, I didn't watch much of the conventions. But one comment from outgoing Congressman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) struck me as particularly pointed. While criticizing the Log Cabin Republicans, an organization of openly gay Republicans, Mr. Frank said: "For 20 years now I’ve heard how the Log Cabins are going to make Republicans better, but they’ve only gotten worse. I now understand why they call themselves Log Cabin: their role model is Uncle Tom.”

My rhetoric isn't as fiery as Mr. Franks. That's why he does what he does, and I do what I do. But, his comments, a concurrently ran piece on Mormon Democrats, and my theoretical interests in the concept of identity got me thinking: How can we explain the phenomenon of the gay Republican and other similarly hard-to-wrap-your-head-around concepts? Let's consider some evidence AFTER THE JUMP.

Averaging a series of surveys on political identity, I have concluded that about 29 percent of LGBT voters identify as Republican. Only 14 percent of Mormon voters identify as Democrats. There is quite a range for LGBT Republicans (14 to 38), so I took a weighted average; the range is much smaller for Mormon Democrats (9 to 18), so it's not surprising that the weighted average came out close to the standard mean.

One political scientist took similar data and equated percent identification with "hospitability," that is, Republicans must be more hospitable to gays than Democrats are to Mormons. He assessed policies ranging from gay rights to health care and foreign policy and concluded that there has to be something else going on, like a desire to change the party or the greater importance of the trend of toleration rather than a one-time snippet. Even if the Republican Party is becoming more tolerant, an objective assessment of policy positions and votes suggest that it cannot be a party where a gay person feels comfortable. The Democratic Party may not be perfect for Mormons, but it should be a far more welcoming place.

This study was riddled with problems -- from strange data to dubious assumptions --  as I am sure you can already see. I reference it only as a starting point; I don't want to dive into a critique for obvious reasons of space and interest. I would like to talk about one point in particular: Is it enough to identify (somehow) that a particular position on a given issue a "gay" position or the "Mormon" position? Do those identifications automatically translate into a "hospitability" calculation?

The answer to this question, which the above study did not address, is bound up with the concept of identity. There may be something called "gay values" that can be compared to a political party's votes to determine hospitability, but the effect of that measure has on a given voter depends on how central that gay identity is to his or her political identity.

If you are gay, but it means little to you as a political matter, you are much more inclined to align yourself with a party that mirrors your other values by, say, promising to slash the debt or create private sector jobs; if being gay is central to who you are, you are likely to value the obvious gay rights issues -- marriage, adoption, DOMA, Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and so on -- higher than, say, the economy or foreign policy.

A thick concept of identity is the discounting factor that many, but certainly not all, studies of minority political identifications miss. Many gay liberals tend to deride gay Republicans as closet cases, at best, or self-haters, at worst. That was Congressman Frank's point. But although it is well documented that the discrimination faced by gay persons contributes to significant low self esteem and although the Log Cabiners' rhetoric often has the sharp twang of self-hate, I think the phenomenon of the gay Republican cannot be explained by psychological damage alone.

Their political identity is not overtly gay. 

If you know any gay Republicans or read their public comments, the phrase "being gay is only a small part of who I am" comes up often. In one sense, it's true for all of us. I am gay, but I also have a chronic medical condition that requires me to have good health care. I'm also Jewish, white, middle class, a cyclist, and a crier at movies. It is coceivable that some of those personal needs and community ties could outweigh my political identity as a gay man. In my case, they don't. But, explaining phenomena like gay Republicans requires us to do more than match up "gay" issues (however defined, which, of course, is another issue with these studies) with votes. It requires us to develop a thick concept of identity that explains why some votes are more important than others.

Posted by Ari Ezra Waldman on September 7, 2012 at 09:44 AM | Permalink


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It's very simple: there are lots of gays who would rather continue to have to fight for their rights under a Republican regime than suffer miserably under the creeping socialism promised by the Democrats.

Posted by: Jimbino | Sep 7, 2012 10:41:32 AM

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