Respectability Politics and Straight Support for LGB Rights

Published date01 December 2022
Date01 December 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
© 2021 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211035834
In mass democracies, marginalized communities must
typically find ways to appeal to majority opinion to secure
their rights. One common strategy is respectability poli-
tics, whereby groups portray themselves as adhering to
mainstream norms of “proper” behavior. The hope is that
dominant groups will then come to perceive similarities
with marginalized people and view them as deserving of
equal rights (Harris 2014; Higginbotham 1993; Kennedy
2015; Strolovitch and Crowder 2018). As such, move-
ments representing stigmatized groups frequently choose
to highlight their most respectable members and empha-
size how they exemplify dominant values (see, for exam-
ple, Fackler 2016; Miller 2004; Sharpless 2016).
This has certainly been the strategy adopted by the
lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ)
movement over the past several decades.1 To try and win
support from straight Americans, advocacy groups con-
sciously portrayed LGBTQ people as adhering to domi-
nant heteronormative values. While respectability can
take many forms, the movement has particularly focused
on relationship norms of exclusivity and monogamy
(Beam 2018; Hindman 2019; Hunter 2017; Levit 2010;
Moscowitz 2013; Pascar 2018; Woodly 2015). Activists
sought to “drive home the message that gay people are
essentially just like everybody else” by emphasizing
how their relationships fit “traditional American values”
of “stability, commitment, and family” (Carpenter 2012,
188, 193). Communication memos encouraged the use
of words like “long-term, lifelong, stable, permanent” to
portray same-gender relationships as similar to straight
ones (Freedom to Marry 2010; Harrison and Michelson
2017b). And groups scoured the country for “perfect
plaintiffs” and media figureheads whose relationships
exemplified these norms (Godsoe 2015; O’Neill 2018;
Robinson and Frost 2018).
This approach has had non-trivial costs for the LGBTQ
community. It sidelined those members who would not or
could not present themselves in respectable ways (Cohen
1997; Murib 2018), casting “other forms of gay identity
(not being part of a monogamous, married, child-rearing
couple) to the margins” (Moscowitz 2013, 133, italics in
original). It further stigmatized those whose relation-
ships were deemed less than proper, as declaring one
segment of the community respectable implicitly casts
judgment on others (Cohen 1999). And the interests of
1035834PRQXXX10.1177/10659129211035834Political Research QuarterlyJones
1University of Delaware, Newark, USA
Corresponding Author:
Philip Edward Jones, Department of Political Science and International
Relations, University of Delaware, 347 Smith Hall, Newark, DE
19716, USA.
Respectability Politics and Straight
Support for LGB Rights
Philip Edward Jones1
Marginalized groups frequently adopt a respectability politics strategy, presenting themselves as adhering to
dominant norms to gain public support. The LGBTQ movement, for example, has consciously portrayed same-
gender relationships as exemplifying heteronormative values to win over straight Americans. But how effective
is this strategy? Two survey experiments show that presenting LGB people as adhering to, or violating, norms of
monogamy and exclusivity has null to minimal effects on straight respondents’ views of them or support for their
rights. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the effects are moderated by (1) respondents’ political predispositions;
or (2) the race, ethnicity, or gender of the LGB people being highlighted. Emphasizing the respectability of same-
gender relationships is not as effective as the movement has assumed. More broadly, these results call into question
the assumption that highlighting “respectable” members of marginalized groups is an effective way to change public
respectability politics, LGB rights, public opinion
2022, Vol. 75(4) 935–949

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