Book Project

My book project, “Coming out to vote: The political construction of sexuality and gender identity,” draws on theories of constitutive representation, political behavior, and public policy to trace the formation of LGBT collective identities and group boundaries in the two-party system since the 1970s. I explain these dynamics with a theory of “constitutive mobilization,” which argues that activists and parties contest and construct collective identities and group boundaries, which in turn shapes political behavior and attitudes among LGBT people. The project centers how the intersecting politics of sexuality, gender, and race explain which identities and group boundaries become represented in the party system and which do not. In addition, I conduct analysis of survey data to explore how these institutional dynamics map onto LGBT people’s attitudes, using original data from the 2020 Collaborative Multi-Racial Post-Election Survey and a survey of LGBT Americans in 2023. I use the LGBT case to illustrate how these processes constituted sexuality and gender identity as categories of identification and mobilization.   

My theory conceptualizes representation as a process in which political constituencies are “called into being” as collectives with a shared aim. This process unfolds through the interaction between activists, who construct collective identities and group boundaries of the constituencies they represent, and party actors who can provide recognition, legitimacy, and visibility to those constructions. When party actors recognize a constituency, they engage in what I call “affirming representation.” Party actors, however, can also ignore, delegitimize, and oppose a mobilized political constituency, which I call “disaffirming representation.” These representation dynamics produce identity-building feedbacks that constitute political groups and their boundaries in the party system. Thus, party institutions do not just reflect pre-political interests and groups; they actively create them through constitutive representation and this process is shaped by power. When less powerful groups seek inclusion in the party system, party actors can construct and represent those groups in ways that are at odds with their self-understandings. This disjuncture establishes relations of power that shape fields of collective action.

The first part of the book, which draws on my dissertation research, uses archival records, newspapers, party platforms, and campaign materials to trace activist-party interactions that construct LGBT people as civil rights, civil libertarian, and liberationist political constituencies. I begin by examining what I refer to as “internal contestation” or processes in which activists contest who they are and what they want politically with other LGBT people. This analysis reveals that these constituency constructions emerged within the community itself and are longstanding ways in which LGBT people have understood their marginalization in relation to the state. I also show that these constituency constructions are shaped by the intersecting politics of sexuality, gender, and race. The liberation collective identity is intersectional, meaning that LGBT people’s marginalization is shaped through intersecting systems of racism, sexism, and heterosexism. As a result, it is often linked to minor party candidates or outside the system politics. The civil rights collective identity on the other hand constructs LGBT people as a minority group that is similar to but distinct from other marginalized groups, which I conceptualize as a coalitional identity. This identity is linked to Democratic partisanship. Finally, I classify the civil libertarian identity as an oppositional identity because activists did not view their marginalization as linked to other groups and relied on the community’s diversity to contest its construction as a discrete group and against alignment with one political party. This identity is linked to the Republican Party.

Next, I examine what I refer to as “external contestation” or the processes in which activists contest who they are and what they want with dominant society. Political parties are key institutions for this contestation because they organize groups who are competing for access to power and influence in politics. The structure of these organizations and the rules of the game are often, though not explicitly, controlled by dominant society. While contemporary politics and partisan alignments suggest a natural relationship between the Democratic Party and LGBT people, I demonstrate that the crystallization of a civil rights political constituency was the result of historical contingencies, not pre-political partisan interests. LGBT activists were willing to align with either political party, if it provided legitimacy and recognition to their concerns. This part of the project shows that a civil libertarian collective identity, which constructs LGBT people’s marginalization as a problem rooted in the violation of civil liberties and individual rights, did not institutionalize in the party system because of power dynamics, not its absence among LGBT people. In 1980, for example, when Republican presidential candidate John Anderson courted lesbian and gay voters by constructing their agenda around the right to privacy and individual rights, he commanded support that rivaled his Democratic opponents. This is because he engaged in affirming representation that legitimized activists’ self-understandings of LGBT people and their politics. On the other hand, Jimmy Carter refused to recognize and legitimate LGBT people as a civil rights constituency. These differences in representation importantly shaped LGBT political behavior in the 1980 election. I examine similar dynamics of external contestation from the 1970s to the 2000s.

While the first part of the book examines constitutive mobilization using a historical institutional approach, the second part uses original survey data to explore the consequences of constitutive mobilization among LGBT people today. I do this by developing survey questions that measure whether LGBT people think of themselves as members of a civil rights, civil libertarian, or liberation constituency. I find that LGBT people are most likely to identify with the civil rights or civil libertarian collective identity across two surveys, including the nationally representative Collaborative Multi-racial Post-Election Survey (CMPS) fielded in 2020 and the Coming Out to Vote (COTV) survey fielded in February 2023. My results show that liberationists prefer outside political parties and candidates and have more negative attitudes about electoral politics. They are less supportive of “rights based” public policies and policies that target advantaged subgroups within the LGBT community. I also find that civil rights and civil libertarian identifiers are more likely to feel connected to the Democratic and Republican parties, vote for major party candidates, and have favorable attitudes about electoral politics. Civil rights and civil libertarian identifiers are more likely to prefer policy that benefits advantaged subgroups. These findings demonstrate alignment between elite-level dynamics of group and identity formation and mass attitudes among LGBT people.