The Evolving Strategies of LGBTQ Political Campaigns

The following was written for an undergraduate course at the University of Kansas called “LGBT Perspectives.”  In this paper, I will call the campaigns of LGBTQ individuals who are running for office “LGBTQ campaigns,” though their campaigns are not necessarily characterized by the fact that the candidate falls along this spectrum. I shall simply use this terminology as means for simpler identification.

Within the last decade, an increasing number of people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer/questioning (LGBTQ) competed for political office on the local, state and national levels. Political candidates who are open about their sexuality must frame their identities in unique ways within the context of their campaigns because of the controversy surrounding their sexual orientation. From the particular platform each candidate runs on to how they identify themselves on the right to left wing spectrum, persons associated with LGBTQ campaigns must decide how to frame their character. Even the organizations and target audiences that candidates associate themselves with allude to the relative success of their campaigns and surely how they act if elected.

The large-scale changes that can occur should LGBTQ-identified candidates be elected to public office more frequently have the potential to open the minds of Americans who are too often turned off because of a misplaced ideology. By understanding how LGBTQ candidates choose to brand themselves, the American public will be able to focus on a candidate’s policies over his or her sexual orientation or gender identity.

The specific policy issues that LGBTQ candidates focus on during the course of their campaigns provide insight into the populations they represent. Haider-Markel identifies the difference between descriptive and substantive representation and its importance to policy within state legislatures.

“…[I]f an elected official clearly belongs to or identifies with a particular ethnic, racial, or religious group, it can be argued that the group has achieved descriptive representation” (Haider-Markel).

If the official then pursues the policy interests of the group to which he or she identifies, the group achieves substantive representation. The distinction between these two is important to understand why candidates choose to advocate for particular issues.

121106_tammy_baldwin_ap_605In 1998, Representative Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) became the first openly gay non-incumbent elected to Congress. By focusing on policies particularly relevant to her constituency – progressive collegiate youth – she has been able to succeed in serving her state and has enacted legislation that has helped elevate Wisconsin to one of the nation’s most progressive states (Paulken). Similarly, Lawrence Robinson, an openly gay candidate for the Phoenix City Council was defeated by more conservative candidate in 2013. Robinson clearly stood for policies that aligned with his particular identity as he helped write an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance that was approved by the city council early in 2013 (Gullickson). Two other gay candidates failed their bids in recent Phoenix City Council races, which evidences that even in a moderate state like Arizona, those who support policies that favor the LGBT community do not hold much power.

In contrast with LGBTQ candidates who advocate for policies that support people with similar nonconforming identities, Hawaii State Representative Jo Jordan recently made history when she voted against a marriage equality bill (Ford). Jordan, who is openly lesbian, is the first known openly gay lawmaker to vote against marriage equality. Though 75 percent of her constituents support marriage equality, Jordan stated that she felt she had to represent the entire state (Ford). Whether the policies these candidates advocate for relate to how they identify or are simply a consequence of their party affiliation remains to be explored.

How far right or left a candidate falls on the political spectrum is usually determined by his or her values, character and policies. Policymakers and lobbyists often assume that all LGBTQ individuals are left-leaning, but this is not always true. While pro-LGBTQ policies are primarily advocated for by Democrats and progressives, the sexual orientation of the candidates themselves is not determined by this particular affinity for inclusion.This is further evidenced as “a 2007 Gallup poll reveals that 81 percent of liberals would support a homosexual for president, 57 percent of moderates and only 36 percent of conservatives” (Haider-Markel). Thus, a candidate may choose to affiliate with a particular party based not on ideological similarities, but on whether the electorate is more likely to vote for the person.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 1.42.29 PMFor example, openly gay Democratic House candidate Carl Sciortino Jr.,  a member of the Massachusetts House, is campaigning to fill an empty House seat. Instead of leaning as a moderate, as many other LGBTQ candidates have done in the past, Sciortino directly targets the progressive left (Taylor). Similarly, recently elected Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney is as an excellent example of an LGBT candidate who is participating in the “mainstream”. Maloney chose to portray his opponent – incumbent Nan Hayworth – as a right-wing extremist and himself as a common-sense moderate. In November 2012, Maloney became first openly gay candidate elected to represent New York in Congress (Bolcer).

Eaklor suggests that descriptive substantiation is the first step to progress for all LGBTQ Americans and praises all openly such people in politics, asserting that “between 1997 and 2003 the number of openly GLBT people in office nearly doubled, from 124 to 245” (Eaklor). These statistics are a positive sign for those within this community, whether or not the candidates support specific legislation that pertains to issues of importance to the LGBT community.

The reasons why candidates choose to identify with a particular party or to advocate for certain legislation should not singularly be determined by their own sexuality, but by their character, constituents and lived experiences.

Candidates must then decide how to frame their identities within the context of a particular party and campaign. Branding provides a feature that sets a candidate apart from all others. For example, in being open about her sexuality, Representative Baldwin is the progressive voice of Wisconsin youth. This did not come about naturally, but was a byproduct of the work of communications managers and campaign strategists within her campaign. Her identity shaped how voters saw her, just as the voter’s needs shaped how her campaign strategists and the media chose to portray her. “Clearly, there are LGBT individuals who choose not to run because of real or perceived barriers…” (Haider-Markel).

Golebiowska explored how openly gay candidates perceived the role of stereotypical beliefs in the campaign process. The study also examines how stereotypical rhetoric “varied with the ‘liberalness’ of the district in which the candidates competed, the timing of the candidates’ sexual-orientation disclosure, and the success or failure of their electoral efforts” (Golebiowska). How openly LGBTQ candidates choose to brand themselves is not based solely on how likely they are to be elected, but on the region in which they run and they barriers they might face.

Target audiences and interest groups define how candidates brand themselves and the the platform of issues they run on. Though states such as Texas or Ohio are predominantly seen as conservative, local elections seem to prove otherwise. Annise Parker, the city comptroller for Houston, chose not to conceal her identity as a lesbian “but did not champion gay issues either, focusing instead on municipal concerns like crime, the city budget and drainage. This formula led her to win citywide elections first as an at-large City Council member, then as the controller and, now, as the mayor” (McKinley). Similarly, Congressman Maloney utilized endorsements from the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund to more clearly define his policy priorities (Bolcer). The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund has been a contributing factor to the success of multiple LGBTQ-identified political candidates in the 2012 election. Numerous candidates who were either LGBTQ or aligned with pro-equality policies were endorsed by the organization (Dison). People who support pro-LGBTQ policies – and are thus members of this interest group – could then use these endorsements to make informed decisions.

No candidate illustrates the importance of interest groups better than Representative Baldwin. As previously stated, she has supported policies that adhere to the concerns of her constituency. Higher education funding, lower taxes for students and support for the middle class have given Baldwin a leg up in elections against more moderate candidates (Paulken). By aligning herself with a highly involved electorate, Baldwin made a strategic decision that works to her benefit and the benefit of the people she represents.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 1.45.01 PMIn many ways, a candidate’s value is not seen through his or her character or ideals, but is solely based on sexual orientation. Candidates must thus reevaluate what it means to be a politician in the United States – is someone elected because of who they are perceived to be or because of how they will govern? All openly gay, lesbian and bisexual members of Congress are Democrats, which speaks to both the conservatism of the Republican electorate and the policy decisions that LGBTQ politicians choose to stand behind (Peters). As the numbers of LGBTQ-identified people in Congress increases, “there is a sense among these newcomers that they are forcing some of their colleagues to rethink gay rights and homosexuality” (Peters). Putting a human face on issues of gay rights in Congress helps it become more relatable in the same way that the LGBTQ movement in general been able to grow and thrive. Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island maintains that, “[i]t’s becoming — ever so slowly — more than a novelty to be a gay member of Congress” (Peters). Valelly further emphasizes the political struggles that the LGBTQ community has had to endure because of conventional sexual pressures over the past 60 years (Valelly).

“In seeking to substitute a different, overtly inclusive sexuality regime, LGBT citizens and their straight allies have initiated far-reaching changes in public policy, regulation of the workplace, and the institution of marriage” (Valelly).

How a candidate is seen by his or her constituents and then how that person is able to fit into the existing political landscape clearly reveals that the current system is severely limiting to any nonconforming candidates. If they do not fit into the ideals of their party, they will not be elected and change cannot hope to be made.

Ultimately, candidates who identify as LGBTQ use their platform, party affiliation, branding and associated interest groups to succeed in elections. The specific aspects of their personality that candidates choose to highlight reveal the political in which they choose to run. From Wisconsin Representative Tammy Baldwin to Phoenix City Comptroller Annise Parker, LGBTQ individuals are running for political office and winning. Despite some setbacks, this community continues to thrive in the political system in both liberal and conservative regions around the United States.

Until descriptive representation transforms into more substantive forms of representation, candidates may still struggle against more conservative ideals that prevent people from perceiving a candidates inherent value through his or her character. In conclusion, because sexuality is so often politicized and tied to personality over behavior, large strides for the LGBTQ community – besides the legalization of same-sex marriage – may be awhile off. In the meantime, many politicians and advocates will continue to stand up for policies and programs that are inclusive of LGBTQ persons.

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