My book project, “Coming out to vote: The political construction of sexuality and gender identity,” traces the formation and mobilization of an LGBT political constituency in the United States and explores the political consequences of those processes using original survey data. Contemporary research on political parties identifies interest groups as the building blocks of the party system but treats groups as pre-existing, pre-political entities. I argue, however, that the party system – as a set of political institutions – plays an important and under-appreciated role in constituting the boundaries and self-understandings of who political constituencies are and what they want from the political system. I develop a general theory of “constitutive group mobilization” to explain how representation dynamics in the party system constitute sexuality and gender identity as categories of identification and mobilization.
In the first part of the book, I trace interactions between advocacy organizations and political party actors from the 1970s to 2000. Using archival records, newspapers, party platforms, and campaign materials, I trace how activist-party interactions constituted civil rights, civil libertarian, and queer liberation self-understandings of who LGBT people were and what they wanted from the political system. I pay particular attention to the ways in which power dynamics between LGBT activists and straight party actors shape the construction of sexuality and gender identity in the party system. I also identify how these patterns intersect with racial and gendered dynamics to shape constituency formation.
In the second part, I use original survey questions from the 2020 Collaborative Multiracial Post-Election Survey (n = 20,000), a multiracial and nationally representative sample that includes an oversample of LGBT people, to measure LGBT people’s attitudes about queer liberation, civil rights, and civil libertarian self-understandings of sexuality and gender identity. I then explore them as determinants of partisanship, ideology, and policy support.
This project contributes to our understanding of the American two-party system, political identities and behavior, and LGBT politics. I show that the development of constituency self-understandings are an outcome of constituting dynamics in the party system. In the context of LGBT politics, power dynamics between LGBT and cisgender, straight party actors shaped how LGBT people came to understand themselves as a collective with a shared aim. In so doing, the party system is a constituting social structure that gives meaning to sexuality and gender identity by calling them into being as categories of political identification and mobilization. This demonstrates why research must consider the constitutive role of parties when explaining “the things that parties do” in American politics.