Editors' Note: Guest blogger Andrew R. Flores is the Public Opinion Project Director at the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law and Ph.D Candidate at the University of California, Riverside. His current and ongoing research includes affect and public opinion, LGBT politics, and the translation of public opinion to policy. Co-author Kenneth Sherrill is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Hunter College, CUNY. A specialist in public opinion, voting, and elections, he has been studying the LGBT rights movement since 1972.
The LGBT community has been engaged in a passionate debate over the desirability of same-sex marriage for more than a generation. The classic 1989 exchange between Tom Stoddard and Paula Ettelbrick remains the archetypical encapsulation [pdf] of the two positions. On one hand, marriage was viewed as the surest route to equal protection of the laws for same-sex couples (Stoddard). On the other, marriage was viewed as a repressive patriarchal institution by many on the left (Ettelbrick). We have never known whether this debate ever resonated with everyday LGBT people or whether its interest was largely limited to intellectuals and movement activists.
As political scientists, we are familiar with the scholarly literature that depicts a chasm between leaders and followers in political organizations. Yet, surprisingly little has been written comparing leaders and followers in the LGBT rights movement. The Logo/Harris Presidential Poll, conducted in August of this year, gives us an opportunity to examine support for same-sex marriage among a representative cross-section of 1190 LGBT likely voters.
To begin, it's extraordinary to find that 85% of any group of people holds the same opinion on any issue - and 85% of the LGBT respondents support allowing same-sex couples to marry.
To put this into some context, the American National Election Studies' 2012 Evaluations of Government and Society Study finds that 41% of Latinos favor the DREAM Act and that 44% of African-Americans favor using race as a consideration for school admissions processes. Given the unusual consensus - agreement verging on unanimity - in the LGBT community on the desirability of marriage equality, we want to search for explanations for why about one in eight would oppose it. Are those opposed reviving the Ettelbrick argument against marriage?
LGBT people opposed to marriage equality are more likely to be Republicans and conservatives than those from the left.
Contrary to what we would have expected on the basis of the ongoing debates, opposition to same-sex marriage is not concentrated in the left of the LGBT community. Instead, just as partisanship and ideology divide the American public in general about the rights of gay people, they divide the LGBT community too. Only 20% of LGBT respondents self-identify as Republicans but 51% of LGBT people opposed to marriage equality are Republicans. Looking at it another way as in Figure 1, while only 9% of LGBT Democrats oppose marriage equality, 35% of LGBT Republicans oppose it.
Figure 1: Marriage Opinions by Partisanship
Figure 2: Marriage Opinion by Ideology
The same pattern holds when we look at ideology. Only 13% of LGBT respondents identify as conservative, but conservatives are most sharply divided when it comes to marriage equality. While only 4.7% of LGBT liberals oppose marriage equality, 43% of LGBT conservatives oppose it. Liberal and moderate LGBT people tend to be considerably uniform on the issue--if 85% is an impressive statistic, then 95% is a remarkable one. The pattern in Figure 2 remains consistent with Figure 1: the LGBT people who are most divided on marriage are conservative and Republican.
The partisan relationship remains the same regardless of region, gender, income, religiosity, race, and age. The relationship becomes all the more dramatic when we add region to the mix. We believe this is evidence that LGBT people look at marriage equality through lenses increasingly similar to their neighbors as they move to the right on the political spectrum. While Strong Democrats are uniform in their support for marriage equality wherever they live, LGBT Republicans in the Midwest are the most likely to oppose marriage equality than the other regions.
LGBT people opposed to marriage equality are less likely to hold liberal positions on other issues.
We can also see the conservative bent to LGBT marriage opponents in data on three other issues: abortion, immigrant rights, and the Affordable Care Act. Overall, the LGBT sample was more liberal than the cross-section. As we saw earlier, though, those LGBT people who were less liberal also were more likely to oppose marriage equality. A full 95% of the LGBT people who support the Affordable Care Act support marriage equality. Eighty-nine percent of those LGBT people who support allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States support marriage equality. Finally, among those who would be upset if Roe were overturned, 93% support marriage equality.
There are sizable differences between Republican LGBT people and LGBT people as a whole group. LGBT people including Republicans are more socially liberal. The left-hand column of Figure 3 shows this pattern with majorities of LGBT people holding liberal policy perspectives. Looking solely at LGBT Republicans on the right-hand column of Figure 3, however, indicates that they tend to be more conservative, except when it comes to abortion, where one-third of LGBT Republicans would be enthusiastic if Roe v. Wade were overturned.
Figure 3: LGBT (including LGBT Republicans) and LGBT Republican Issue Opinions
Those LGBT people who care less about LGBT rights are less likely to support marriage equality.
Finally, the Logo/Harris poll presented respondents with four LGBT-rights issues--anti-bullying legislation, laws against workplace discrimination, continuing to allow gays to serve openly in the military, and adoption by gay parents--and asked respondents if they would be more likely to support or oppose a candidate who supported each of these bills. Needless to say, most of the LGBT respondents cared greatly about LGBT rights. We found that 67.5 percent of LGBT respondents were more supportive of a candidate supporting all 4 issues. And those few LGBT people who cared the least about LGBT rights were those who were least likely to support marriage equality.
Who is debating marriage equality?
Most LGBT people care deeply about their rights, support liberal positions on a wide range of issues, and say they are Democrats. Very few are conservatives. And, despite that diversity, LGBT people overwhelmingly support marriage equality. The LGBT people who are most likely to oppose marriage equality are Republican conservatives who are least likely to support a politician with a record of supporting LGBT and who also don't support policies that seek to protect other vulnerable populations. There is a debate on marriage equality among LGBT people, but those arguing against same-sex marriage in the LOGO poll are unlikely allies of Paula Ettelbrick.
These valuable data remind us of how intertwined marriage equality is to broader commitments to social justice. The data also lead us to conclude that marriage equality is not a matter of serious debate among rank-and-file LGBT people. Perhaps experiences with Prop 8 and the various other anti-marriage-equality ballot initiatives have coalesced support for same-sex marriage in the LGBT community. Perhaps the debates over marriage equality were limited to the academic/journalistic complex and never filtered down to the LGBT person in the street. Perhaps LGBT people arrived at supporting marriage equality through different rationales--there are both liberal and conservative arguments for marriage. And, perhaps, successes on other LGBT rights issues have led LGBT people to focus on marriage equality as a reasonable goal as opposed to being the utopian vision of twenty-five years ago.
(Liberal vs conservative graphic via Bigstock)