Gay rights as a classic case of subconstituency politics

1996_regIn this blog entry, Ben Bishin, author of Tyranny of the Minority shows how gay rights issues result from the interplay of intense groups.

The last few months have seen an increased interest in the civil rights of members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered community. Most recently, this question has centered around President Obama’s unfulfilled promise to eliminate the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy that allows only closeted members of this community to serve in the armed forces. Other similar questions of civil rights are seen in the discussion of states granting rights to marriage and civil unions.

One reason that civil rights for gays is of such interest is because political conditions seem ripe for change. Polls demonstrate that the public is increasingly supportive of granting the gay community equal rights as, for instance, a June CBS poll shows that only about a third of citizens think that gays deserve “no legal recognition” of their partnership status. Similarly, a May USA Today/Gallup poll shows that over 69% think that gays should be allowed to serve openly in the military. Moreover, the last three years have seen a dramatic shift from a federal government unified in Republican hands to one of unified Democratic control.

Despite these major shifts, progress has been slow at best. The federal prohibition of same sex marriage (DOMA) remains the law of the land. Most of the states where gay marriage has been allowed, it has been initiated by the rulings of state courts which have implicitly granted these rights by striking down laws that ban gay unions. President Obama’s very limited order providing spousal benefits to same sex employees of the federal government represents perhaps the only tangible progress on this score. When taken in combination, the absence of change despite strong popular support and Democratic control of the federal government have left many wondering: what will it take for members of this community to gain equal rights?

Some, like UC Irvine professor Charles Anthony Smith, suggest that the gay community is captured by the Democrats and thus they don’t have to provide policy because the community has no alternative as Republicans are worse on the issue than are Democrats (i.e., Smith 2007). The case of gay rights strikes me, however, as a classic case of subconstituency politics—where political outcomes are dominated not by the public’s will (i.e., majority opinion) as classic democratic theory suggests, but rather result from the interplay of intense groups. Politicians acquiesce to, and work for, the preferences of subconstituencies because they provide them disproportionate resources (e.g., votes, contributions, manpower, endorsements). By offering bundles of positions across issues, politicians develop platforms of positions designed to appeal to members of these intense groups.

Historically, the LGBT movement has been disadvantaged by subconstituency politics; while they are passionate about their cause, and very active, they are opposed by an equally intense group, (i.e., fundamentalist Christians) that exists in larger numbers across a wider range of political jurisdictions (e.g. counties, congressional districts, states, etc.). While the size of the LGBT community varies dramatically across these jurisdictions, the fundamentalist community is always larger. In the congressional district representing San Francisco (CA 9), which has the largest adult gay population of any district in the country, for instance, the community of people identifying as fundamentalist Christians is about 2 points larger—a fact that provides their staunchest opponents a tremendous advantage because they are not opposed in those jurisdictions where the LGBT community is small or not vocal. In short, in most places, Republican politicians tend to be opposed to such policy while the Democrats are split, depending on the nature of their districts.

Understanding how these groups are distributed is central to describing political outcomes on this issue because, in places where one group is not represented, politicians have no incentive to reflect the views of the LGBT population. Both Democrats and Republicans will advocate the preferences of the intense group—in this case fundamentalist Christians. In contrast, in places where both fundamentalist and LGBT groups are active, politicians of different parties have the incentive to take opposing positions on the issue. Democrats tend to support gay rights in these districts while Republicans tend to oppose them. Consequently the distribution of groups across states and districts helps to explain why and where we are most likely to see advances in, and higher levels of support for, gay rights.

It also suggests however, that in order for gay rights to be recognized, confederate groups who strongly support gay rights may be needed to pressure politicians in areas where gay populations are small or inactive (or simply not vocal). Fortunately, other groups, especially the young and the well educated, see this civil rights issue as an important question of basic fairness. To the extent that politicians can bring these groups together, when these factions are combined, they provide a more potent alliance of groups. The challenge to those who advocate equal rights is figuring out how to bring these groups together toward their common goal.

Ben Bishin is the author of Tyranny of the Minority: The Subconstituency Politics Theory of Representation. http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/1996_reg.html

Talking about Toilets

1992_regOlga Gershenson and Barbara Penner, editors of Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender, discuss their motivations behind their new book, which looks at the culture, meaning, history, and ideology of  public toilets.

Olga and Barbara, what is your fascination with toilets?

Barbara Penner: I stumbled onto the subject in 1995 as a graduate student of architectural history in England. I was in search of a space that demonstrated how architecture shaped women’s experience of cities. Finally, I found it. On a walking tour through Camden Town, the tour guide stopped before an unassuming and (truth be told) somewhat grubby Edwardian female toilet at the intersection of several main roads. “This,” she pronounced with a flourish, “was the only monument George Bernard Shaw ever wanted to his service as a local councilman.” I was struck by this image of Shaw as a proud champion of female public toilets. I was sure there was a story there. But the story turned out to be about much more than Shaw’s efforts to have this one public toilet for women built: it was a window onto the ongoing struggles of women to have access to and to move comfortably through London’s city streets as a legitimate part of the “public.”

Olga Gershenson: Well, for me the subject of toilet was a complete accident (no pun intended). I was teaching a course on gender, and in the process of my preparation bumped into a totally unexpected subject—toilet accessibility for folks who are transgender, gender-variant, or just plainly don’t look their sex. I was stunned that for all these people using a public bathroom—that I took for granted—was a hurdle and a risk. It seemed particularly unfair that most people, like myself, just don’t think about it. So, I tried to do more research on the subject, couldn’t find much material, and realized that there is a need in a book about toilets and gender. Five years later—here we are.

And now with the publication of Ladies and Gents, what are your thoughts on toilets, and/or how have they changed?

Olga Gershenson: To be honest, now my preoccupation with toilets is different. For the last few months I’ve been living in Moscow, doing research for my new project. And the public restrooms in Russia are still—how should I put it?—a work in progress… But seriously, I am really happy that Ladies and Gents is being printed as we speak—it was a long process and sometimes it looked like it might never happen. I am particularly happy that the book talks not only about social justice issues—that are really important—but also about art, film, theater, and literature, in short, about the realms of representations. It was crucial to us to show how this both ordinary and taboo subject is perceived, imagined, and reflected. I think we succeed: the great Peter Greenaway (director of The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover) wrote an afterward to our book.

Barbara Penner: The subject is finally being taken more seriously and hopefully this book will help shift things further. But we’d be naïve to think that a book on toilets won’t still shock and offend in some quarters (amuse is okay!). In 2005, when we sent around a Call for Papers for this book, we were accused of triviality, immorality and worse. Although there’s a noble lineage of people who use toilets or scatological humor to deliberately provoke from Jonathan Swift to Marcel Duchamp, this was never our intention. But toilets offend anyway because they threaten to transgress so many well-established boundaries and reveal the way in space, society, etiquette, and academe work to keep certain things in their place. This is something that the archest provocateur of all, George Bernard Shaw, understood full well. And with his keen eye for human foibles, he wouldn’t have been surprised at toilets continuing ability to upset in the noughties. Despite the importance of very real practical issues in toilet design, the discussion of public toilets rarely turns on such issues. It is shaped precisely by those things that we can’t see or touch – social ideas about decency and cleanliness and attitudes towards the body and sexuality – and is a powerful index of status and of belonging (or not). This is why questions about toilet provision, design, and representation continue to be important for those interested in the creation of dignified and genuinely inclusive cities, now more than ever.

For more information on Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender edited by Olga Gershenson and Barbara Penner visit: http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/1992_reg.html

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