A strong bipartisan majority of American voters -- including majorities of fundamentalist Christians and Republican primary voters -- would consider voting for a gay or lesbian candidate for state legislature or Congress, according to the findings of a new national educational research project released today by the Gay and Lesbian Victory Foundation.
"Voters of all stripes are clearly telling us that what matters to them is not their candidates' sexual orientation, but that their candidates have the right stand on the issues, strong political values and a refreshingly honest character," said Gay and Lesbian Victory Foundation Executive Director Brian K. Bond. "We are extremely hopeful about what this pioneering new research means for the prospects of leveling the playing field for great gay and lesbian candidates for office."
The research found that 77 percent of voters -- including 65 percent of Republicans, 85 percent of Democrats and 81 percent of independents -- would consider voting for a gay candidate for state legislature or Congress based on the candidate's stand on the issues. Furthermore, across a broad range of religious denominations, a majority of voters would consider supporting gay or lesbian state legislative or congressional candidates based on the issues -- including 64 percent of fundamentalist Christians, 81 percent of mainline Protestants and 87 percent of Catholics. In addition, 67 percent of voters would consider supporting a gay or lesbian presidential hopeful based on the candidate's stand on the issues.
The study also found surprisingly broad-based support for making it against the law to fire people from their jobs just because they are gay or lesbian. Specifically, 77 percent of voters -- including 67 percent of Republican primary voters, 70 percent of fundamentalist Christians, 73 percent of evangelical Christians, 80 percent of mainline Protestants and 78 percent of Catholics -- agreed that it should be illegal to fire people from their jobs just because of their sexual orientation. Currently, such job discrimination based on sexual orientation remains legal in 40 states, and it is not yet against federal law.
In the area of hate crimes, 75 percent of voters -- including 61 percent of Republican primary voters, 70 percent of fundamentalist Christians, 74 percent of evangelical Christians, 78 percent of mainline Protestants and 75 percent of Catholics -- agreed that crimes motivated by bias based on sexual orientation should be considered hate crimes. Current federal laws that protect Americans from other forms of bias crime do not yet prohibit violent hate crimes based on sexual orientation.
"We see that despite their differences voters are coming together around some very important issues," said Lynn Greer of Columbus, Ohio. Greer, the chair and founding board member of the Victory Foundation, noted that "It doesn't normally make headlines, but it is terribly important that we see these areas of common ground at this time when so many Americans are longing for an end to the bitter partisanship of the past. I am tremendously encouraged by the findings and the hopeful signs they bring not just for the gay and lesbian community, but for the entire country."
The findings are part of the most extensive educational public opinion study ever conducted about American voter attitudes toward gay and lesbian candidates for public office. The research was performed by The Feldman - more -Group, Inc., and sponsored by the Victory Foundation, a national public interest educational foundation dedicated to increasing the participation of gay and lesbian Americans in public life.
"What I found surprising was the level of agreement on certain issues from unexpected quarters," said pollster Diane Feldman, who conducted the research. "When you have a majority of Republican primary voters and people of a wide variety of religious beliefs -- including fundamentalist Christians -- agreeing that they would consider voting for gay candidates based on the issues, and overwhelmingly agreeing that it should be illegal to fire someone from a job just for being gay or lesbian, I think you've got some startling data here."
The comprehensive research project consisted of a national poll of 1,000 voters likely to participate in the 2000 elections, and was conducted March 29 to April 2, 1999. In addition, the project included focus group research from three markets: Madison, Wis.; Tucson, Ariz.; and Encino, Calif. There was also a 500-person poll in the Madison market. The national poll's overall margin of error was plus or minus 3.1 percent.
Among the other findings on issues of fairness for gay and lesbian Americans: 56 percent of voters said that gay and lesbian people should have the right to health care benefits for their partners; 55 percent said that gay service members should not be discharged from the military just for being honest about their orientation; and 56 percent of voters approve of gay candidates honestly acknowledging their sexual orientation.
"Voters value honesty, and they understand that good openly gay candidates are demonstrating that important political value," added Bond. "The study shows that gay and lesbian candidates who focus squarely on the issues are viable and can enjoy strong support across a very broad range of the American electorate."
According to Feldman, voters make few issue distinctions based on a candidate's sexual orientation, but they do make some other distinctions that can either benefit or work against gay candidates. The study revealed voters have extremely negative attitudes about typical politicians, who they see as relatively dishonest, overly partisan and unduly beholden to special interest groups. However, the national data confirmed that many voters see gay and lesbian candidates as different from typical politicians in certain ways. Voters generally felt that gay candidates are more likely to demonstrate strong political values.
Voters tended to feel that gay candidates will stand up for their beliefs (33 percent said that quality is more true for a gay candidate vs. 11 percent for a straight candidate); have the courage to stand up to attacks (29 percent vs. 16 percent); will stand up to special interests (24 percent vs. 17 percent); are less likely to use personal attacks in a campaign (32 percent vs. 19 percent); and will promote equal opportunity (34 percent vs. 17 percent).
On the flip side, those polled were less likely to identify with the gay candidate over the straight one. Forty percent felt that the straight candidate "understands my values," vs. 13 percent for the gay candidate. Also, 26 percent said that the straight candidate "cares about people like me," vs. 11 percent for the gay candidate.
"Certainly, many hurdles remain ahead for gay and lesbian candidates seeking to enter public life," said Bond. "We have a long way to go, but we must also remember that we have traveled far toward a fairer place for gay people in the electoral process."
Feldman noted that voters' preference for issue information over personal information is more pronounced in the case of gay candidates. The study, therefore, found that gay candidates are best served by advancing a clear set of issue priorities.
"Most voters will look beyond sexual orientation and evaluate candidates based on their issues and their qualifications," added Feldman. "Gay and lesbian candidates can overcome any reservations voters might have by advocating a clear set of issue priorities, by being honest about their orientation without dwelling on personal information and by demonstrating strong political values."
The educational research project was made possible by a generous donation from Andrew Reyes, who was recently chosen to chair the Mecklenberg County Democratic Party, based in Charlotte, N.C. Reyes is the first openly gay and the first Hispanic American selected to lead a county political party in North Carolina.
"As a gay person involved in public life, I felt it was very important to do my part to help us get a better sense of the public's attitudes toward the participation of gay and lesbian Americans in the civic affairs of our country," said Reyes. "The study's results are very encouraging for all Americans, gay and straight alike."
The Gay and Lesbian Victory Foundation is a national public interest and educational organization working to counter discrimination based on sexual orientation in the public sphere. The Victory Foundation sponsors professional educational research and conducts leadership trainings throughout the country to better prepare lesbian and gay community leaders to enter civic life and participate fully at the table of public policy.