In contrast to 2008, the recent presidential debates have barely mentioned LGBT issues. With only about 4 percent of Americans identifying as LGBT and with a historical pattern of voting Democratic three to one over Republican, the LGBT vote has not traditionally been seen as a priority for the GOP. But the traditional democratic lock on the LGBT vote may be changing. A 2012 poll by Harris Interactive and the Logo Channel found that although 67 percent of LGBT respondents will vote for President Obama next week, more than a fifth of LGBT respondents also said they would consider voting for Gov. Mitt Romney if he held the same positions on gay rights as President Obama. Does a break in the dominance of voting Democratic among the gay population mark a down grade in the importance of gay rights issues as vote winners? And if so, who deserves the gay vote in 2012?
Since the last election, President Obama has made clear his evolving views on same-sex marriage, six states have legalized same-sex unions, Don't Ask, Don't Tell was repealed and significant steps have been made in establishing DOMA unconstitutional. Attitudes too have shifted; half of all Americans now approve of same-sex marriage. This is not to suggest that the struggles of the LGBT population have all been addressed: but there is evidence that they are no longer at the forefront of voting decisions. The Harris/ Logo poll found that LGBT report the same concerns --unemployment, the economy and health care -- as the general population; only 6 percent ranked marriage equality as the most important issue. In '12, the LGBT vote looks set to be won by how we feel about the larger issues, and not by how we feel about the issues that specifically address our community.
In a tightly fought election, the ability to attract a group with high levels of voter turnout is a trump card. Dr. Kenneth Sherrill, political science professor at Hunter College, said the greater turnout among LGBT made the margin of victory in North Carolina in '08: "This is a group of reliable voters who turn out to vote more than most people do... and who are one of the handful of most Democratic groups in the electorate."
But this time around who deserves the gay vote? There are clear party differences in how the LGBT population is being courted. The Obama Pride website devoted to the LGBT community contrasts sharply with the complete lack of LGBT representation at the Republican National Convention. Simply put, the Obama campaign has invited the LGBT community to its party: Gov. Romney seems content with us waiting outside.
While the LGBT community vocalized their frustration in the early years of Obama's Presidency, over claims that he had not followed through on promises made during his campaign, he has now arguably done more for LGBT rights than any other president. In contrast, Gov. Romney has reversed the stance he held on same-sex marriage when running for Governor. Says Ben LaBolt, the Obama campaign's national press secretary,
Governor Romney went from promising to be to the left of Ted Kennedy on gay rights to working to enshrine discrimination into the Constitution by passing a federal marriage amendment, personally funding efforts to roll back equal rights for gays and lesbians in states, and making clear he would have kept Don't Ask, Don't Tell in place.
Perhaps more worrying, and a matter of character, is recent reports of Gov. Romney's participation in what would now be labeled a hate crime. Reports have circulated recently that while in high school Gov. Romney took part in (some say instigated) a hate crime against a student who he presumed was gay. So, even if you side with Gov. Romney's economic policies, his views on health care or international relations, surely as a member of the LGBT community you have to stop and think -- he may be cutting my taxes, but he fundamentally does not like me.
True, as gays and lesbians we are not solely concerned with LGBT issues; our lives are equally touched by the prevailing economic turmoil. But even in times of economic hardship we have a responsibility to support our LGBT community, to both reward those who continue to support us (Obama) and stop those who deride us (Romney). When voting on Tuesday make sure you vote with Pride.
Rob Stephenson is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. He is also an Associate Professor of Global Health at Emory University and an expert in HIV and sexual behavior among gay men.