My book project, “Coming out to vote: The political construction of sexuality and gender identity,” traces the formation of LGBT collective identities and group boundaries in the American party system and examines their effects on political mobilization. I develop a theory of “constitutive mobilization” that argues activists and party actors construct and contest collective identities and group boundaries, placing party institutions as key sites where identities become entrenched sources for political mobilization. I center the intersecting politics of sexuality, gender, and race to explain which identities and group boundaries are represented by parties and which are not. I argue that these dynamics of group and identity formation have been overlooked in existing literature that identifies groups as central to the organization of political parties but treats them as pre-existing, pre-political entities. By turning the lens to constitutive mobilization, I demonstrate how groups and identities form endogenously through party institutions and do not exist as pre-political entities.
In the first part of the book, I use qualitative methods and materials to trace interactions between activists and political party actors from the 1970s to 2000. Using archival records, newspapers, party platforms, and campaign materials, I demonstrate how activist-party interactions constituted civil rights, civil libertarian, and queer liberation identities and groups boundaries. I find that civil rights and civil libertarian identities had distinct linkages to Democratic and Republican partisanship but power asymmetries between LGBT people and dominant society shaped which received representation in the party system. I also find that neither party represents the liberation identity, leading to a lack of representation for intersectionally marginalized subgroups within the LGBT community.
In the second part of the book, I use original survey questions from the 2020 Collaborative Multiracial Post-Election Survey, a multi-racial and nationally representative sample that includes an oversample of LGBT people (n = 2,000). In the survey, I measured whether LGBT people identify with liberation, civil rights, or civil libertarian collective identities and explore them as determinants of partisanship, ideology, and policy support. I leverage the CMPS’s large, multi-racial sample to center the intersecting politics of sexuality, race, and gender in the analysis.
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 collective identities and group boundaries 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 political structure that gives meaning to collective identities by calling them into being as categories of political identification and mobilization. Group boundaries crystallize in relation to those identities. These findings demonstrate why political scientists must consider the constitutive role of parties when explaining “the things that parties do” in American politics.