Who are America’s gays? To hear it as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia would have it, gays are a privileged set, living it up in cities across the country. As the justice wrote in his dissent to Romer v. Evans—a landmark 1996 case that overturned a Colorado state constitutional amendment prohibiting legal protections for gays and lesbians—“Those who engage in homosexual conduct tend to reside in disproportionate numbers in certain communities.” Even more ominously, to Scalia, they have "high disposable income," which gives them "disproportionate political power… to [achieve] not merely a grudging social toleration, but full social acceptance, of homosexuality.”
The pernicious insinuation—that gays and lesbians are one the wealthiest demographics in the country—isn’t a new cliché. Some of the most ingrained public images of LGBT people are their cosmopolitan, highfalutin lifestyle; gays, so the story goes, live in gentrified urban neighborhoods like The Castro in San Francisco or Chelsea in New York, eat artisanal cheese, and drink $12 cocktails.
But like most stereotypes, the myth of gay affluence is greatly exaggerated.
In reality, gay Americans face disproportionately greater economic challenges than their straight counterparts. A new report released by UCLA’s Williams Institute found that 29 percent of LGBT adults, approximately 2.4 million people, experienced food insecurity—a time when they did not have enough money to feed themselves or their family—in the past year. In contrast, 16 percent of Americans nationwide reported being food insecure in 2012. One in 5 gays and lesbians aged 18-44 received food stamps in the last year, compared with just over 1 in 4 same sex couples raising children. The LGBT community has made huge political strides over the past decade, but in economic matters they still lag far behind the rest of the country.
“I think we have this sense, borrowing from the campaign, that ‘it gets better’,” Gary Gates, a law professor and the author of the Williams Institute’s report, told me. “And that’s true: It is getting better, but it’s not getting better everywhere all the time. Things in rural Alabama look very different from Seattle, and as more LGBT people come out, they are disproportionately more likely to come out in Alabama than Seattle.”
And Alabama, like many other places where gays of another generation might have stayed in the closet or left town altogether but today are coming out, is poorer than Seattle. As a result, the number of self-reported gays and lesbians living in poverty is rising.
Ironically, at first glance, this makes it appear that an increase in political and social acceptance for LGBT in Americans is accompanied by a fall in economic standing. Progress isn’t making gays and lesbians poor though, but it is allowing more poor people to acknowledge their sexuality. As these numbers become more readily available, it reminds us of why the myth of gay affluence ever existed in the first place.
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Up through the 1970s and ‘80s, gays and lesbians played a seedier role in the public consciousness. The “gay lifestyle” was the bastion of society’s most depraved individuals; sleazy bathhouses, leather bars, and so on. The image of gays and lesbians began to change, however, once Wall Street and Madison Avenue realized that there was a vast, untapped market of potential consumers.
“Corporate America was one of the first targets in terms of trying to improve policies around LGBT issues,” says Gates, “and part of it was this idea that they needed to focus on the LGBT community as a consumer market that mattered.”
Marketing firms conducted surveys to try to show not just affluence, but disproportionate levels of brand loyalty were a hallmark of gays and lesbians. In the media, gay men became well-to-do, cosmopolitan, and voraciously consumeristic. In 2012, Experian, a national marketing firm, released a business report claiming that the average household income of a married or partnered gay man is nearly 20 percent more than a straight married or partnered man ($116,000 compared to $94,500).
“The downside,” says Gates, “is that those marketing studies looked at the LGBT community as a consumer market, which is a very different perspective compared with how a social science researcher who does poverty research would look at those questions.”
Gates and others social scientists believe that public perception of LGBT people’s economic standing comes from these kinds of marketing studies and campaigns. Finding less biased research is more difficult. Economic breakdowns by racial and ethnic demographics are widely documented through census data, but for sexual minorities, this kind of information is almost non-existent. Complicating matters more, the census does not ask directly what a person’s sexual orientation is, though researchers can get some notion of that number indirectly: Instead, the census records people who report being in a same-sex-partnered household.