Social activism is on the rise, especially on the political left. But who are the people who actually get off the couch and devote time and effort to supporting a cause?
Disproportionately, they are gay men and lesbian women.
That's the conclusion of newly published research, which analyzed the sexual orientation of activists in a variety of causes, both liberal and conservative.
"Lesbians, gays, and bisexuals were more than twice as likely as heterosexuals to join anti-war, environmental, and anti-corporate movements," writes Eric Swank of Arizona State University. This may reflect the fact that they are "more aware, and less accepting, of social inequalities than heterosexuals."
Swank's study, published in the journal Social Science Research, utilized data on 3,519 Americans taken from the American National Election Study of 2012. Participants—a national random sample of voters—completed a questionnaire on the Internet shortly after Election Day.
Their sexual identity was determined by their answer to the question "Do you consider yourself heterosexual, bisexual, or gay/lesbian?" Approximately 4.5 percent chose one of the latter categories.
Participants were asked whether they "were active" in eight specific social movements: two on the political right (the Tea Party and anti-abortion crusades), and six on the left (gay rights, environmentalism, anti-war, racial equality, women's rights, and Occupy Wall Street).
Not surprisingly, Swank found the biggest participation gap involved gay rights. "Approximately one out of five gays, lesbians, and bisexuals have joined the LGB rights movement," he reports, "while less than one out of 100 heterosexuals have done the same thing."
But the activism of those communities did not stop there.
"LGBs were roughly twice as likely as heterosexuals to join the peace, environmental, and Occupy Wall Street movements as heterosexuals," he writes. No similar sexual-orientation gap was found for the other campaigns.
This association remained even after taking into account the fact that gays and lesbians in the study were "more educated and younger than heterosexuals," he adds.
So what accounts for this? Swank offers several possibilities.
Experiencing discrimination based on one's sexual orientation can "undermine the credibility of other social institutions, and foster greater solidarity with other marginalized groups," he notes. However, the fact that gays and lesbians are not particularly active in the racial equality movement calls that explanation into doubt.
Another school of thought argues that "the same characteristics that make people willing to adopt an LGB identity also drive activism." If you are openly "out," the odds are your social circle is at least somewhat politically oriented, increasing the likelihood of activism.
And, as noted earlier, "exposure to heterosexist discrimination undermines the legitimacy of all social hierarchies," leading many people to look critically at society, and take action accordingly.
So if your social justice organization is looking for recruits, the local LGBT communities are good places to start. When your sexual orientation puts you in the minority, sometimes leading to discrimination and scorn, the personal becomes political.