Gay Creativity: Good Taste or Economics?
As much as notions of limp-wristed men prancing around in dresses and bull dykes driving trucks, economic stereotypes have long plagued the gay and lesbian community. The clich, of course, is that we make extravagantly more money than our heterosexual peers do. Additionally, we supposedly spend that money in fabulously indulgent ways.
It's an argument that has been used by both pro-gay and anti-gay forces. But new research indicates both sides are coming up a little short on the dollar when they invoke the affluence argument to make a political point.
Gay and lesbian marketeers probably initiated and undoubtedly propagated the financial fairy tale. It made us an unbelievably attractive group of people to everyone selling Prada bags to Polo shirts. Additionally, in a world where we were always deemed inferior deviants, it gave us more than stature. In a society driven by wealth and greed, the money myth gave us bragging rights.
But then our able opponents cleverly seized on the idea that the alleged economic superiority proved our "special rights." They painted a picture of the "typical" gay couple consisting of two overly-educated, hyper-stylized queens who earn twice as much as a family of four. It gave those who fear us on social grounds the excuse to fear us on economic ones, too. And it did nothing to help our struggling political case for anti-discrimination protections in the workplace.
Not to be outdone by right-wing propagandists, our own gay and lesbian propagandists set out to show we as a group earn less than our heterosexual counterparts. And, wow, guess whatthey came up with a study or two that showed what they set out to prove. Then they went about proclaiming everywhere that gay men and lesbians earn less money than our heterosexual counterparts as a direct result of workplace discrimination.
But if the findings of the latest study are correct, then as a group we resemble neither the gay advertiser's fantasy of a well-heeled (and I don't mean pumps) niche market, nor the gay political activists' nightmare of a downtrodden people financially oppressed. The study paints a more complicated mosaic of who we are in the workplace and how that affects our bottom line. More surprisingly, its researchers offer a novel explanation of the Rorschach picture they see surrounding sexual orientation, money and success. When it comes to gays raking in the green, things aren't black and white. The researchers believe the issues are deeper than oft-repeated buzzwords like disposable income and discrimination.
Using data collected from the 1990 Census and two other highly-regarded national social science surveysthe General Social Survey from the National Opinion Research Center, and the National Health and Social Life Surveyresearchers at the University of Maryland, Carnegie Mellon and Syracuse found that gay men earn an average of 14 percent less than straight men on the job. However, they discovered that lesbians earn as much as 35 percent more than straight women do.
Seth Sanders, the principal investigator on the National Institutes of Health-funded study, cautions gay activists against trying to use the data in the fight to gain anti-discrimination laws. "The numbers really, really don't say anything about discrimination one way or the other," he says.
Sanders understands how tempting it would be to use the finding that gay men earn 14 percent less than straight men as evidence of workplace discrimination resulting in lower salaries. But using that logic, you'd have to also believe that the business world discriminates against straight women in favor of lesbians, a conclusion Sanders calls "ridiculous."
Sanders interprets the findings differently. He believes the numbers give us insight into how a job or career fits into a gay or lesbian person's overall view of his or her life. "People plan their futures around their home life, not their work life," he says.
So the fact that lesbians earn more money "is the story of their more independent lifestyles as women." Even today, most heterosexual women will marry a husband who earns more money than they do. Lesbians, says Sanders, realize that they alone will have to support themselves and their children. As a result, he believes, lesbians tend to go into fields that are traditionally male-dominated and thus pay more money.
Gay men also make career choices based on their home lives, Sanders continues. The vast majority of gay men will not have the financial responsibilities of a wife and children. Therefore, says Sanders, gay men have the freedom to weigh other career goals along with how much money they make. Because of their relative financial freedom compared to heterosexual men, gay men are more likely to make career choices based a little less on money and a little more on things like personal satisfaction and creativity, Sanders argues.
He doesn't disagree that gay men and lesbians likely encounter discrimination in a variety of forms on the job. "No financial data of any kind should preclude people from protection against discrimination by law," he says firmly. But he says gay and lesbian activists are short-changing the community when they build the argument for anti-discrimination laws on how much money people make. First, he points out, the research shows lesbians tend to make more money than straight women do. Does that mean they don't face discrimination? Of course not.
The money-and-discrimination argument doesn't even work well when applied to gay men. Despite the fact that gay men may earn less on average than straight men, the vast majority of gay men do not have children to support and send to college. So particularly as men reach their mid-30's and get into their 40's, Sanders figures, gay men will still have substantially more disposable income than straight men.
Gay marketeers rejoice.
Mubarak Dahir receives e-mail at MubarakDah@aol.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 10, No. 8, June 30, 2000.