The science of sellouts: Why are LGBT conservatives like that?

Zinnia JonesThere’s a certain combination of personal and political identity that proves perpetually puzzling: queer and trans people who support conservative parties which broadly oppose and work against the rights and equality of queer and trans people. What motivates someone whose fundamental validity as a member of society is still contested to forsake that political concern and basic self-interest? What outcomes do they envision for themselves and their community as a result of these policies? Are they self-absorbed to the extent that they believe any negative impacts of these policies simply won’t affect them? As my wife and I have often wondered about a notorious YouTube conservative: if trans people were all sent off to camps tomorrow, does she believe she’d just get a Blaire White exception?

A recent study by Cravens (2019) helps to illuminate a number of factors present in the lives of LGBT people who subscribe to a conservative political ideology. Surveying 1,148 LGBT Americans via a Qualtrics panel, the study queried participants on aspects of their sexual and racial identity as well as their political attitudes. These included the degree of their consciousness of being a member of a sexual minority group, their experiences of discrimination and stigmatization or lack thereof on the basis of their sexuality, and their perception of the extent to which sexual minorities are accepted by society.

The study found a clear relationship between these factors and the likelihood of an LGBT person holding politically conservative views:

Model 1 in Table 1 shows the effects of sexual identity group consciousness, stigmatization, social acceptance, and efficacy on conservatism among LGBT people. As the table shows, Model 1 explains about one-quarter of the variation in the dependent variable (r 2 = .254). As expected, the coefficient estimates for LGBT group consciousness, efficacy, and perceived social acceptance all achieve statistical significance and in the expected directions. That is, LGBT group consciousness (β = −.161, p = .000) and political efficacy (β = −.064, p = .001) are negatively associated with conservatism at the 99% confidence level; while, perceived social acceptance of one’s sexual minority identity (β = .162, p = .000) is positively associated with ideological conservatism at the 99% confidence level.

That is: LGBT conservatives actually did not identify as closely with membership in the LGBT community as those who were politically liberal, and they believed that LGBT people currently receive greater acceptance in society. Similarly, LGBT conservatives were less likely to have experienced discrimination or stigmatization due to their identity:

First, coefficient estimates presented in Tables 1 and 2 suggest experience with sexual stigmatization is negatively associated with ideological conservatism, although only among whites in the sample.

Interestingly, older participants in this sample were found to be less likely to be conservative than younger respondents. This is hypothesized to be related to the perception that LGBT people are accepted by society:

In an extension of the social acceptance hypothesis, it may be that younger generations of white LGBT people are socialized in a time when white LGBT identity is viewed more positively. Although not universal, improved attitudes toward white LGBT people and identity, increasing political and social representation, and policy victories may affect how younger white LGBT people evaluate their position in society.

The findings of this study suggest that our guesses about the motivations and mindset of LGBT conservatives weren’t that far off. In a sense, these individuals do not regard their membership in the LGBT community as constituting a significant part of who they are – they do not identify strongly with other LGBT people. Being less likely to have experienced discrimination due to their identity, they may believe that such discrimination simply no longer occurs to a meaningful degree. And as they view society as already accepting of LGBT people, they may believe that policies proactively working toward LGBT equality are unnecessary or overreaching, akin to how some individuals disavow feminism under the belief that “women are already equal” in every way that matters.

Within this particular set of beliefs, LGBT conservatives do act according to their self-interest – it’s just that they don’t seem to believe much is at stake for themselves.

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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