The Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Vote in a More Tolerant Canada

By Eric Guntermann, Ph.D. (UC Berkeley) and Edana Beauvais, Ph.D. (Simon Fraser University).

Scholars have long been interested in the distinctive political preferences of different social groups. One of the most distinctive and understudied groups, particularly in Canada, is the lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) community. Research on LGB people in Canada and elsewhere has found that they have political attitudes that are distinctively left-of-centre. The main mechanisms proposed to account for these distinct preferences are that LGB individuals share interests, they are influenced by the LGB community, and the people who are attracted to the same sex who also have left-wing attitudes are more likely to identify as LGB.

These mechanisms assume that LGB individuals have to fight for their rights, have identities that are stigmatized, and strong ties to the LGB community. However, Canadians have become much more tolerant of LGB people in recent years and LGB individuals have acquired new rights, notably same-sex marriage. LGB rights like marriage and the lower stigma attached to LGB identities has reduced both the distinctiveness of LGB interests, how exposed they are to the LGB community, and the influence of political attitudes on people’s decisions to identify as LGB. Thus, LGB individuals’ political attitudes may have become less distinct among recent generations.

However, a countervailing force is the strong increase in the percentage of women from the most recent generations who identify as bisexual. Figure 1 below shows how women respondents from each generation identified their sexual orientations in the 2019 Canadian Election Study. We find that over a fifth of Generation Z women identify as bisexual. The number of men who identify as bisexual has also increased, but not nearly as much (not shown).

Graph of sexual orientation by generation among women

Figure 1: Sexual Orientation by Generation Among Women

The increasing number of women who identify as bisexual is notable because women are the most left-wing sexual orientation group. Figure 2 shows ideological self-placements rescaled from 0 to 1 (1 is the most-right wing position) by sexual orientation and gender. It is a pirate plot showing the mean and 95% confidence intervals, jittered points as well as “beans” representing the distributions. Figure 2 shows that bisexual women are the most left-wing of any sexual orientation-gender group.

Plot of ideology by sexual orientation and gender

Figure 2: Ideology by Sexual Orientation and Gender

We do find that marriage narrows some of the gaps in political attitudes. Figure 3 shows our best estimates of the causal effect of marriage on each gender-sexual orientation group, which we estimate using matching. As we can see, marriage makes heterosexual men and women more conservative, but it makes gay men even more conservative, thus closing the gap between gay and heterosexual men's mean ideology scores.

Plot of causal effect of marriage on each gender-sexual orientation group

Figure 3: Causal Effect of Marriage on Each Gender-Sexual Orientation Group

The net effect of the opposing forces of the increasing number of bisexual women and same- sexual marriage is that gaps in political attitudes between LGB individuals and heterosexuals are stable across generations.

In short, as Canada has become more accepting of LGB people, two countervailing forces have influenced the political attitudes of LGB people. First, bisexual identification has increased in recent generations, particularly among women, and bisexual women are the most left-wing group. Second, marriage has countered that change by moving gay men to the right. Consequently, on average the gaps in political preferences between sexual orientation groups are stable across generations.

This piece is a summary of a forthcoming article in the Canadian Journal of Political Science.

Eric Guntermann is a Banting Postdoctoral in the Department of Political Science at UC Berkeley. His research focuses on the representation of citizens' preferences by governments, as well as public attitudes towards political parties and related voting behaviour.

Edana Beauvais is an assistant professor of political science at Simon Fraser University. Her research explores how inequalities shape communication and action, producing unequal political influence between different social group members.