Gays are affluent.
Because gays aren’t usually saddled with children, they have lots of disposable income.
The “gay dollar” is a powerful market that businesses and political organizations need to tap into.
If your exposure to LGBTQ people is limited to the news and entertainment media, then it would be very easy to fall into the trap of believing these statements. A frequently-cited statistic is that this year, in 2012, the lesbian and gay market is worth $790 billion dollars. Since the 1990s, newspapers and magazines have run scores of articles about the increasing market presence of the LGBTQ community. Business journals have published articles and run advertisements courting the gay dollar. And there is some statistical data out there that supports the power of the gay dollar. Numerous books, including Steven Kates’ Twenty Million New Customers! Understanding Gay Men’s Consumer Behavior and Bob Witeck’s Business Inside Out: Capturing Millions of Brand Loyal Gay Consumers, have been marketed to the business community. (As an aside, Bob Witeck heads up Witeck Communications, a think tank that conducted the market analysis that yielded the $790 billion statistic.)
Businesses – and politicos – are paying attention. Earlier this month, Billie Jean King and Jane Lynch launched LPAC, the first lesbian super PAC to be established that raises money for pro-lesbian political candidates. Leveraging the “lesbian dollar,” they successfully raised $200,000 in the first day. American Airlines, a company known for its support for the LGBTQ community, saw almost a tenfold profit increase after the company formed a team devoted to gay and lesbian marketing. And just this past week, when Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy stated the company’s opposition to same-sex marriage and reiterated their Bible-based values, the ensuing boycott of the fast-food chain led company officials to soften their stance – probably because they feared the hit their profits would take. Based on these examples, it’s hard not to have reverence and respect for the power of pink money.
But, sad to say, the idea of the all-powerful gay money is really just a half-truth. If we focus our microscope solely on urban, well-educated, affluent gay men who don’t have kids, then of course we’re talking about people who are likely to have a lot of money. But that’s only a narrow sliver of our incredibly diverse community. When we widen the scope, a different reality emerges.
Here’s a slice of that different reality. In Money, Myths, and Change: The Economic Lives of Lesbians and Gay Men, M.K. Lee Badgett, an economist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, uses numerous scientific studies to debunk the myth of gay affluence. Among other things, Badgett cites bans on same-sex marriage, wage discrimination, the intersection of discrimination against women and homophobia (the wage gap between women and men is still alive and well), and lack of access to workplace benefits such as health benefits and retirement plans as barriers to achieving financial stability and success. Over the months I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve made clear again and again the impact of oppression and marginalization against LGBTQ people. When we experience discrimination and oppression because of our sexual orientation or gender identity and expression, we take a serious financial hit.
What also strikes me about the “gay affluence” stereotype is that, at least in my mind, the image of a gay person with disposable income is often a White male. Lesbian women are more likely than gay men to be raising children, and that has a significant impact on economic status. Moreover, wage gap data collected over the past 60 years indicates a shrinking – but still distinct – difference in the earnings between women and men. When we consider race and ethnicity, the “gay affluence” image gets even more sketchy. In a 2006 study titled “Nuestras Voces/Our Voices: The National Study of Latino Gay Men,” researchers Rafael Diaz, Edward Bein, and George Ayala found that, over a one-year period, 61% of the 397 participants ran out of money for basic necessities, 54% had to borrow money at some point in order to get by, and 45% had to look for work sometime over the course of that year. Not surprisingly, experiences of financial hardship put people at higher risk for social isolation, low self-esteem, and psychological distress. And just this past Friday, the Queer Southeast Asian (QSEA) Network released a study titled A Census of Our Own: The State of QSEA America. While the results of this study focused predominantly on experiences of racism and homophobia, the study revealed that, of the 364 LGBTQ Southeast Asian Americans who participated in the study, 74% had been on public assistance at some time in their lives. If that doesn’t debunk the myth, I don’t know what does.
To me, the conflicting economic narrative we’re seeing here is all about where we choose to focus our lens. If we decide to study whether or not gay men shop at Whole Foods, and we get participants by standing outside of Whole Foods, then right off the bat we’re getting a skewed version of reality. Of course, most researchers would never commit such a novice sampling error. However, studies have shown repeatedly that, when we don’t include a diversified sample, or if they rely solely on a volunteer or convenience sample, what we’re going to get is largely a White, well-educated, affluent demographic in our participant base. That clearly paints an inaccurate picture of the realities of our community.
What if there wasn’t so much focus on how to get a piece of the gay money pie, but instead efforts were channeled – with equal fervor and drive – towards creating an economically equitable community? What if we leveraged our financial power to eradicate homelessness, poverty, and economic distress among our LGBTQ brothers and sisters?