When studying gender in politics, sometimes it is necessary to tease out the subtleties of a campaign or parse the nuances of a candidate’s rhetoric. In other cases, such as the recent discussions concerning the sexuality of sitting Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, gender takes center stage in the political arena in a way that causes your jaw to drop.
The chain of events over the past week that led to the septuagenarian governor’s denunciation of claims that she was a closeted lesbian have injected some turmoil into an otherwise sleepy Republican primary. Indeed, in the only recent public poll, incumbent Ivey – who ascended to the governorship in 2017 when then-Governor Robert Bentley resigned after pleading guilty to charges related to campaign finance violations – was 36 points ahead of her nearest challenger and just three points shy of the 50% needed to avoid a run-off in next month’s primary election. With 30% of the primary electorate undecided, she looked all but certain to do so and cruise to a relatively easy win in the general election.
Last Tuesday, however, one of Ivey’s primary opponents, evangelist Scott Dawson, criticized the Governor for allowing funding to go to a local LGBTQ non-profit organization. Ivey responded mostly with an eye-roll, claiming Dawson was “getting desperate” in response to low polling numbers and noting that the funding was federally mandated. She also mentioned that she “certainly [doesn’t] agree with the agenda or the values of that organization.” While this may all seem fairly standard for a Republican primary in Alabama, one retiring State Representative took exception to Ivey’s comment on the values of Free2Be, the organization in question. Patricia Todd, a Democrat who recently received a standing ovation from her colleagues upon announcing her retirement after 12 years in office (and who also happens to be an out lesbian), reacted publicly, posting on both her Facebook and Twitter accounts: “Will someone out her for God’s sake…I have heard for years that she is gay and moved her girlfriend out of her house when she became Gov. I am sick of closeted elected officials.” In each post, Representative Todd linked to the article containing Ivey’s rebuttal to Dawson’s comments.
Count mine among the jaws that had to be scooped off of the floor after reading Todd’s tweet. Several years ago, Todd did warn in a Facebook post that she would expose hypocrites in Alabama politics, specifically mentioning legislators who “talk about ‘family values’ when they have affairs” and those “elected officials who want to hide in the closet.” Still, the comments were entirely unexpected, and much of Alabama’s political establishment reacted quickly and firmly. In a statement posted to her social media accounts, Governor Ivey managed in just 66 words to call Todd’s claim “disgraceful,” “a disgusting lie,” “false,” “wrong,” “a bald-faced lie,” and “everything that’s wrong with politics today.” She further reiterated in a TV interview that her “Biblically-based faith definition of marriage is that it is between a man and a woman.” Ivey’s fellow Republican primary candidates largely steered clear of the commotion, denouncing the focus on the Governor’s personal life and calling for a return to a discussion of the issues most important to Alabama. Terry Lathan, the chair of the state Republican Party, called Todd’s comments “shameful rumor mongering.” Some of Todd’s former colleagues in the state legislature expressed surprise at her tone, with Republican State Representative Phil Williams telling AL.com, “I just took it as one of the meanest things I’ve ever heard her say.”
My Statement: pic.twitter.com/VynDmm2l6r
— Kay Ivey (@kayiveyforgov) May 16, 2018
Todd, the first out gay lawmaker in Alabama, has faced backlash from the LGBT community as well. Some advocates in the community accused her of “weaponizing queerness” and “psychic and emotional violence.” The One Orlando Alliance, the umbrella organization of LGBT groups for which Todd was set to serve as Executive Director, rescinded her job offer on the grounds that involuntarily outing a person, regardless of perceived hypocrisy, is against their values. Todd, for her part, is refusing to back down. During a radio interview on Friday, she apologized for “the inappropriate way” she delivered her message and conceded she should have commented on the Governor’s remarks rather than her personal life. Still, when asked if she thought Ivey would identify as gay, Todd replied, “There’s a lot of men who have sex with men who don’t identify as gay.” If Kay Ivey was hoping for an apology or recantation from Todd, it certainly did not come during that appearance. Instead, this was the political equivalent of a mic drop, and the reverberations are being felt throughout Alabama.
Scholarship concerning out LGBT political officeholders and candidates is under-developed, though a study by David Niven suggested that a gay or lesbian candidate’s sexual orientation no longer poses a political disadvantage. In fact, he finds that such an orientation may even help the candidate win office. Such findings contradict those of other academic work that has shown that downplaying traits traditionally associated with LGBT people – those “tells” that might give away someone’s sexual orientation – is the best strategy for success as an LGBT candidate. Doan and Haider-Markel, for example, found that gay and lesbian candidates are perceived as less honest, weaker, and amoral, especially among male, Evangelical, less educated, conservative, Republican, and older respondents – a veritable cross-section of the Alabama Republican primary electorate. Others, like Jerry Harvey, have found through experimental research that candidates identified as being gay or lesbian lose support compared to otherwise identical non-LGBT candidates.
As Ewa Golebiowska finds, for gay and lesbian candidates, context is key. They do better when they disclose their sexual orientation after they are well-known to voters for their positions on issues. Billy Kluttz uncovers something similar, arguing that out candidates often “mute” their sexuality during their campaigns so that even if elected, voters may never have even known they identify as LGBT. While Golebiowski shows timing to be important, the context of place matters as well. In the UK, for example, Magni and Reynolds find that LGBT candidates perform at least as well as their straight counterparts, even in more conservative areas. In some more progressive locales, an LGBT identity may even help a candidate, as David Niven suggests. In Palm Springs, California, as an anecdotal example, the mayor, city manager, and entire city council identify as part of the LGBT community. In fact, Councilwoman Christy Holstege, who is married to a man and identifies as bisexual, was accused of inventing her bisexuality for political gain and was often asked to somehow “prove” her sexual orientation.
While identifying as LGBT may be a boon in some places, this is unlikely to be the case in Alabama, suggesting that Todd’s comments would amount to the weaponization of queerness that some critics have claimed. A recent Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) study found Alabama to be the only state in the nation with a majority of residents who still oppose same-sex marriage, and one of just six where the issue garners less than 50% support. Alabama also registered the second-lowest level of support for legally protecting LGBT people from discrimination, and the state does not have any such statewide protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Roy Moore was famously removed as the state’s Chief Justice (for the second time) for instructing his probate judges to refuse marriage licenses to same-sex couples in direct violation of the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which found that marriage bans blocking same-sex couples from marrying are unconstitutional. As of June 2017, at least eight Alabama counties still refuse to issue any marriage license, asserting that by denying all couples marriage licenses they are not treating same-sex couples in a disparate manner; this has not yet been tested in court. Gov. Ivey herself signed a bill in May 2017 that allows religious-based adoption agencies to refuse placement of children with LGBT parents.
Regardless of the Governor’s actual sexual orientation, the accusations have shone a spotlight on the darker side of identity politics. Dawson, Ivey, and Todd have all been criticized for their roles and responses to the developments, though it remains to be seen whether the episode will have any tangible effect on the Governor’s race. Ivey is still highly favored to win her primary, though the allegations and fallout could prevent her from winning the 50% of the vote necessary to avoid a run-off election. Perhaps the major takeaway from the incident should not center around the accusations themselves, but instead the reactions to them. The statements and actions of the principal players in this story, regardless of party or politics, were all widely panned as insensitive, unnecessary, and even bigoted. In their disagreement, however, lies a reminder that the politics of candidate sexual orientation and gender identity remain unsettled – not only in Alabama, but nationwide. That won’t be resolved in any one election cycle, but – for Governor Ivey at least – the effect these claims regarding her personal life will be revealed by voters’ choices at the ballot box during the primary on June 5.
Rick Kavin is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Rutgers-New Brunswick and a research assistant at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers.