The Myth of Gay Affluence

Despite a commonly held belief that LGBT Americans tend to live it up in classy urban neighborhoods, they struggle with disproportionately high levels of poverty compared to straight people.
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A gay pride flag flies in D.C.'s posh Logan Circle neighborhood. (Ted Eytan/Flickr)

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.

* * *

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.

Further corrupting the data, not all partnered gay people feel comfortable declaring their sexuality in surveys, and, a high-earning gay couple is more likely to report their sexual orientation to a census-taker than a low-earning couple, making wealthier gay people overrepresented in national surveys. Only when asked anonymously, are more gays and lesbians more willing to disclose their sexuality. In such surveys, the poverty and food-insecurity rates for LGBT people rise.

In one 2010 anonymous survey of Americans ages 18-44, gay men were found to have a poverty rate of 20.5 percent; the rate for straight men was 15.3 percent. For lesbians it was 22.7 percent, compared to 21 percent for heterosexual women. The similar rates for lesbian and straight women is attributed to the fact that women overall tend to earn less than men. Additionally, same-sex couples are 1.7 times more likely than different-sex couples to receive food stamps. The more accurate data doesn’t clarify, though, what is the cause of the gay/straight economic gap.

* * *

Social scientist have established that gay men are more likely to work as teachers, nurses, secretaries, and other jobs that are traditionally female dominated and which don’t pay very well. Additionally, nearly 40 percent of all homeless youth are LGBT (often having been kicked out of their homes by homophobic parents), putting them at a great economic disadvantage as they grow older. Beyond these factors, are there other factors contributing to gay people’s economic hardship?

“It’s hard to say. I think w'ere still learning about it,” says Lee Badgett, director of the Center for Public Policy and Administration at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a scholar at the Williams Institute. “Some of the issues are likely to be employment discrimination against LGBT people which would tend to reduce their earnings, and might push to them to take low wage jobs.”

How big a problem is such discrimination? It’s hard to say. Though there are 29 states where employers are legally allowed to fire someone for their sexual orientation, the public is largely opposed to workplace discrimination. Sixty-eight percent of voters support federal workplace protections, and 87 percent of Fortune 500 companies already have non-discrimination policies that included sexual orientation, according to the Human Rights Campaign. So on the surface, it appears that discrimination might not be as pervasive as some activists proclaim. Further evidence against the discrimination hypothesis: nine out of 10 Americans—including 86 percent of Republicans—believe that companies should hire and fire people based on merit alone, not sexual orientation or identity.

However, like the survey example showed, people are more forthright when asked anonymously. And in the case of employers, research shows that, when provided with anonymity, tolerance for discrimination is higher than other, non-anonymous surveys show. A study conducted for the American Journal of Sociology sent two fictitious, but realistic, resumes to more than 1,700 entry-level, white-collar job openings, the only difference between the two being that one resume listed membership in a gay organization during college, while the other claimed experience in a "Progressive and Socialist Alliance" (since both groups are considered left-leaning, the purpose was to separate any “gay penalty” from political discrimination). The result was that the resume without the LGBT organization membership had an 11.5 percent call-back rate for an interview; the gay application had only 7.2 percent. The difference amounts to a 40 percent higher chance of seemingly straight applicants getting called back than explicitly gay applicants.

Together, these studies show that people are hesitant to openly admit they don’t support LGBT equality. When asked less directly though, people are more willing to concede they wouldn’t feel comfortable working with or hiring an openly gay person.

* * *

Popular culture has helped launch gay people in to the mainstream, but for all the benefits that shows such as Will & GraceModern Family, and Glee have had for the LGBT community on the public’s consciousness, few cultural outlets accurately represent the realities gays and lesbians face in America today. Realities like poverty, discrimination, homelessness and food insecurity. And as Justice Scalia has shown, this misinformation is more damaging than simple ignorance. It holds back the entire gay equality movement.

His ignorance aside, Scalia was more accurate than he knew when predicting the future of the gay rights movement. LGBT people want more than mere “drudging social toleration.” They demand full and equal civil rights. But equality can’t and won’t be achieved as long as myths and stereotypes about LGBT people continue to be perpetuated and believed. 

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Nathan McDermott is a writer based in Washington, D.C.

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