How Lesbian and Gay People Came Out as Democrats

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Aleena Khan, covers the new article by Andrew Proctor, Wake Forest University, “Coming out to Vote: The Construction of a Lesbian and Gay Electoral Constituency in the United States”.

In the United States lesbians and gay men are known as a predominantly Democratic voting bloc – but were they always? It was only until the 1940s that lesbian and gay activists began organizing and deciding how, if at all, to politically mobilize. Prior to this, the group was virtually politically invisible and demobilized. After they began to organize, however, their partisanship was shaped over the next few decades. Andrew Proctor, political scientist, argues in his recent APSR article, that lesbians and gay men did not enter the political arena with fixed interests and partisanship. Rather, interactive processes within and between activists and party leaders led to the formation of the lesbian and gay Democratic voting bloc.

Proctor develops a theory of “constitutive group mobilization” to explain how lesbian and gay people formed their Democratic identity. Rather than advocacy by parties or a greater inclination to identify as lesbian or gay because of one’s Democratic background, Proctor’s theory of constitutive group mobilization proposes that the interactions between lesbian and gay activists and party leaders ultimately led to the construction of the lesbian and gay Democratic constituency or voting bloc. His theory traces how activists and party leaders leveraged their positions within advocacy organizations and parties to “contest and construct” identities and group boundaries. Given that partisanship is a type of collective identity – a group that shares common interests, experiences, and goals – its boundaries are contested and debated when groups or activists attempt to seek recognition from parties. In other words, party leaders must decide whether and to what extent other groups share the interests, identity, and goals of the party. However, parties also function as representatives of groups or constituencies. Therefore, parties must also sometimes expand (or solidify) their boundaries to capture (or reject) the vote of a constituency. Proctor argues that these interactive processes within and between activists and party leaders ultimately led to the formation of the lesbian and gay Democratic voting bloc. Constitutive group mobilization theory identifies these processes as “internal contestation among activists, external contestation between party actors and activists, and feedback and institutionalization.”

Using archival material from several sources including the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force at Cornell University, the Log Cabin Republican collection at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, the GALE Sexuality and Gender online archive, and articles from the Washington Blade, Proctor examines how a lesbian and gay electoral constituency formed and mobilized over time. In particular, Proctor focuses on the period between 1972 and 1984 as a case study, exploring how the group solidified their boundaries, identities, and constituency in a party.

According to historical accounts, between the 1940s and 1960s, lesbians and gay men had only just begun to organize, but their identities were not politically pre-formed as a group or aligned with a party. Rather, activists belonged to one of three camps: liberation, civil libertarian, or civil rights. The liberationists’ political strategy was to “come out” and increase visibility, while civil rights activists focused on mobilizing through local lesbian and gay partisan organization, linking their Democratic partisanship to a civil rights agenda (though one that excluded bisexual and transgender people). Civil libertarians, primarily Republican activists, prioritized individual rights and privacy instead of countering group-based discrimination. Proctor argues that these camps demonstrate internal contestation among lesbian and gay activists.

By 1980, according to Proctor’s findings, activists coordinated a national campaign, the National Convention Project, to identify and mobilize lesbian and gay voters, without a particular appeal to the Democratic or Republican parties. Since lesbians and gay men did not appeal to a specific party or candidate, party leaders could appeal to them in ways that aligned with their campaigns’ ideologies, if at all. Both Republican and Democratic candidates varied in their support for gay civil rights, leading to bipartisan mobilization of lesbian and gay voters. However, activists did elect over 70 openly lesbian and gay delegates to the Democratic party’s convention, which pushed Democratic leaders to include protections for sexual orientation in their civil rights platform. Activists also attempted to win over lesbian and gay Republican supporters due to the growing threat from the Christian Right, who opposed the idea of homosexual couples. Despite these efforts, the Republican Party allied with the Christian Right, allowing them to win the general election. The Republican party, as a result, became increasingly defined by its rejection of gay men and lesbians.

“Instead of viewing groups as “bounded entities with pre-political policy interests,” Proctor encourages scholars to explore how groups and political parties can shape each other.” The Republican Party’s success led to the formation of the National Association of Gay and Lesbian Democratic Clubs (NAGLDC) to pressure the Democratic Party. Proctor argues that these events demonstrate that the gay-Democratic alliance was an outcome of dynamics in the two-party system, rather than pre-formed views. He explains that the institutionalization process of gay and lesbian people occurred through the NAGLDC, which worked to include lesbian and gay people as a civil rights group, thereby linking them with other marginalized groups in the Democratic Party. Ultimately, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairmen recognized them as crucial to the party’s success in the 1982 midterm election, further institutionalizing gay and lesbian people as a civil rights group. Though they found initial success, Ronald Reagan’s election in 1984 led Democratic Party leaders to exclude lesbians and gays and declare them a “special interest” group rather than a civil rights group. While the Republican Party became known as a party of straight people, the Democratic Party became “out of touch with the straight majority.”

Proctor concludes that the dynamics of the two-party system and interactions between activists and party leaders ultimately led to the gay-Democratic alliance. Instead of viewing groups as “bounded entities with pre-political policy interests,” Proctor encourages scholars to explore how groups and political parties can shape each other.

  • Aleena Khan is a PhD student in American Politics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests include political identity, political behavior, political communication, and political psychology. Aleena’s research involves investigating Americans’ perceptions of anti-Americanism and the consequences of those perceptions for Americans’ policy preferences toward outgroups, particularly Muslims. Outside of her studies, Aleena works to promote a positive department culture and support her fellow graduate students as part of her departments’ graduate student association and she is also involved in her local community, Urbana-Champaign, where she currently serves as a youth mentor.
  • Proctor, Andrew. 2022. “Coming out to Vote: The Construction of a Lesbian and Gay Electoral Constituency in the United States.American Political Science Review, 2021, 1–14.
  • About the APSA Public Scholarship Program.