Self-loathing. Vile. Like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders. The gay equivalent of a Jewish Nazi. The names and labels put on conservative gay and lesbian voters by their liberal counterparts range from bitter to extremely offensive. Conservative gay voters are often an enigma to left leaning voters who see themselves as supporting a strong pro-gay rights agenda through the Democratic Party. But many independent and Republican gays feel just as strongly about their conservative ideals for a smaller government and tighter fiscal policy as they do about their right to legally marry and adopt. Voting becomes a delicate balance of priorities.
“[Gays] don’t have the luxury of being a single issue voter,” said Jimmy LaSalvia, co-founder and executive director of GOProud, a three-year-old Washington, D.C. based organization for gay conservatives and their straight allies. LaSalvia, who can be found leading the charge of gay Republican voters at events like the Republican National Convention, looks like a GOP poster boy. His perfectly coiffed blonde hair, broad smile filled with straight white teeth, and crisp fitted suits exude confidence. The 41-year-old grew up in an Air Force family during the Cold War and came of age in South Dakota during President Ronald Regan’s administration. Ideals of a smaller federal government and strong free market system appeal to LaSalvia.
“The current tax code picks winners and losers, and gay people are often the losers,” said LaSalvia. “This election is more than anything about our economic crisis, more than can I get married.”
Just like any electorate group, not all gay and lesbian citizens vote the same way. But studies of national exit polls since the late 1980s, when sexual orientation was added as an identifier, show that 75 to 80 percent of gay, lesbian and bisexual voters choose Democratic candidates. According to exit polls conducted for the National Election Pool, a group of media organizations, this year, 76 percent of gay, lesbian and bisexuals voted for President Barack Obama.
Patrick Egan, assistant professor of politics and public policy at New York University, studies gay, lesbian and bisexual politics and issues. As voters, Egan said, gay, lesbian and bisexual citizens are incredibly cohesive. Unlike other constituencies that grow up with a racial or ethnic identity, gay voters are typically raised by straight parents, and create their separate identities as adults. Because the Democratic Party has a reputation of being more accepting of gay rights, gay voters often choose to vote Democrat, and identify with more liberal issues overall. “Gay people share liberal, political beliefs on a whole range of issues, many of which have nothing to do with gay rights,” Egan said, explaining that voters develop world views based on their political identity. “In order to vote for the other party you really have to care about other issues much more than gay rights,” he added.
And those who do choose to identify as Republican face some backlash within their own party. LaSalvia noted that during the 2012 election cycle, GOProud’s request to co-sponsor the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was denied, a move led by “the anti-gay for pay crowd,” LaSalvia said. “They exist to demonize gay people to raise money,” he said. But he insists that these people, like former presidential candidate and notoriously anti-gay politician Rick Santorum, are the exception, not the rule.
New York native and gay voter Ken Sanchez had no problem registering Republican. Gays don’t like being stereotyped, he said, and that applies to voting as well. The 35-year-old disagreed with Governor Mitt Romney’s stance on same-sex marriage as a presidential candidate, but that didn’t outweigh his ideals about a “smaller, leaner, more focused government,” he said, adding that most Democrats don’t agree with every single position in their party either.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say they would vote Republican if it were not for social issues,” Sanchez said. “We [Republicans] could have an extraordinary coalition of voters … if we weren’t wasting our time talking about social issues that are so private, so personal they have nothing to do with the political realm.”
“Most gay Republicans want the same things everyone else wants,” said Russell Goeller, a bisexual New Yorker. Goeller, a former Marine who is currently unemployed, is concerned about the economy and about having a way to put his teenage son through college. “If you’re not strong economically … all these social issues mean nothing,” he said. “With the way the Republican Party is constructed right now, you are voting against your own interest, but change sometimes also has to come from within,” he said.
Like Goeller, some conservative gay voters argue that gay rights will only occur through bipartisan agreement, not through a solely liberal Democratic push, and in fact, Republican legislators have helped pass gay-rights bills in states like New York. Similarly, conservative judges have supported the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
“There’s a conservative case to be made for marriage equality,” said Gregory Angelo, chairman of the New York State Log Cabin Republicans (LCR), a more than 30-year-old national organization for gay and lesbian Republicans. Many Republicans, like LCR, see their party as the party of Abraham Lincoln, one that has led the charge for equality. Arguments for freedom are ones that Republican voters can identify with, Angelo said. “As Dick Cheney said, freedom is freedom for everyone,” he continued. “Liberal arguments do not work on conservative legislators.”
But while gay Republican voters feel strongly about their conservative ideals, they do face criticism from gay friends.
“The conservative movement is more welcoming of the gay community than the gay community is of conservatives,” LaSalvia said, adding that he has received hate mail from liberal voters. “The media loves to put anti-gay people on TV. Not all straight conservatives are anti-gay bigots,” he said.
Sharone Tobias, a 23-year-old student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, tries to keep her identity as a registered Republican hidden from her gay friends and colleagues in LGBT organizations. “I’ve had potential dates turn me down for that reason,” said Tobias. Some friends, she added, said that they may not have befriended her had they initially known she was a Republican. Others stopped talking to her once they found out.
While the native Texan supported Romney because of his strong business background and his attitudes toward Israel and China, Tobias wasn’t able to vote as enthusiastically as she may have liked. “To some extent I voted for Romney with a heavy heart,” she said. Romney’s actions against accommodating gay adoption while he was governor of Massachusetts were an additional blow to Tobias. “That kind of hurt and that made it a lot more difficult for me to vote for him,” she said, explaining that she contemplated voting Libertarian but didn’t want to “throw away” her vote. But Tobias’s girlfriend, who Tobias noted is even more conservative than she is, voted for Obama because of Romney’s gay rights views.
Bill White, CEO of a New York strategic consulting firm and former president of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, made headlines in May when he wrote an open letter to Romney, pulling his support and financial contribution because of Romney’s statements against the legalization same-sex marriages. White, who married his partner last year, is a registered independent, and has voted for both Republican and Democratic candidates. He initially supported Romney because of the candidate’s fiscal policies, but was heartbroken when Romney responded negatively after Obama voiced support for same-sex marriage.
“So many people are upset with me talking about voting for Obama,” White said, explaining that he did not wish to become an activist or a one issue voter because of gay marriage. He said he understands that not all Republicans are out to dissolve his marriage, but he also couldn’t settle for a candidate whom he saw as “playing to the base” while vocally denying gay rights. “I get it but I’m not doing that anymore,” he said. “You have to have convictions. You have to have strength for those convictions.”
Despite the Republican Party’s shared identity with the religious right and anti-gay ideals, many conservative voters have faith that their party will change its policies to attract more mainstream voters. “Every day there is more and more support for LGBT Americans,” said Sanchez, explaining that more “out” gays means more voters having a gay friend or family member they want to support.
White agreed. “In another 50 years,” he said, “I see some of this stuff being a moot point.”