There’s been a narrative in the media for the past decade or so that LGBT people—and gay men in particular—are more affluent and educated than the general population. Supported by statistics from market research surveys, the image fits well into the story of white, gay men graduating college, moving to gentrified inner-city neighborhoods and living exciting, independent lives as members of the creative class.
But what if this cliché is not really the case?
I was once a full believer of the notion that gay men were “the new Jews,” as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel once put it. So when my editor gave me the idea to explore themes in Amy Chua’s new book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, to explain the gay community’s relative success, I jumped on it.
Specifically, I wanted to see if discrimination and unequal treatment under the law gave LGBT people an extra incentive to succeed; a drive that your average White Anglo-Saxon Protestant might not have.
Exhibit A in my arsenal of evidence supported my hypothesis. A 2012 Prudential market research survey showed that the 1,000 LGBT respondents had an average income of $61,500, compared to $50,054 for the general population. They also were more likely to hold a bachelor’s degree, had higher rates of savings and carried less debt.
Yet when I spoke with Dr. Gary Gates, distinguished scholar with the Williams Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, he put my theory in reverse.
Apparently, market surveys done by corporations are not the same as scholarly research performed by experts. And the scholarly evidence showed that only half of my stereotype was true: LGBT people do have higher levels of education, yet that hasn’t translated into higher incomes.
Then why are companies promoting this idea that gays are wealthy?
According to Gates, corporate America has actually been a pioneering champion of LGBT rights
“[It] turned out to be an effective strategy. Early on, part of that strategy on corporate America was to promote the LGBT population as a consumer market,” Gates said. “It prompted … a message that the LGBT community had money to spend and was potentially more brand loyal.“
It wasn’t some philanthropic effort; it was just good business. Companies were eager to tap into a growing market that would stay fiercely loyal to the brands that supported gay rights. Just think of Nike’s Be True rainbow shirts or Gap’s Love ad featuring two scruffy men.
The effects have been substantial. Corporations are far ahead of most governmental agencies on anti-discrimination and relationship recognition policies, and have been crucial in pushing for equality in the law with hefty donations to political action committees and media campaigns of their own.
Lee Badgett, Director of the Center for Public Policy and Administration at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, explained that market surveys are not representative of an entire population because those surveyed are likely to have higher purchasing power.
“In some cases, they have an incentive to say gay people are more affluent,” Badgett said. “Then you’ll be more likely to market to our community, and advertise. There’s an economic self-interest there.”
For example, a 2012 Gallup poll—conducted by Gates and Frank Newport—shows that 16 percent of LGBT people make more than $90,000 per year, while 21 percent of the general population does. At the same time, a whopping 35 percent of LGBT individuals report incomes less than $24,000, compared to only 24 percent for the general population.
This could be due to the fact that, according to the same Gallup poll, the LGBT population is disproportionately younger than the U.S. population, and therefore makes less. But it still proves the Prudential survey wrong. A far more in-depth study by the Williams Institute at UCLA, titled “New Patterns of Poverty in the Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Community,” show similar results.
So if LGBT people aren’t wealthier than the average population, then is there no connection between gays and the “successful” cultural minorities in Chua’s book?
Turns out, there’s quite a few holes in her theory as well. She singles out groups like Jews, Persians, Nigerians, Indians and other minorities with higher levels of education and wealth than average to explain how cultural traits like discipline, combined with a superiority complex and the insecurity of living in a foreign land, drive them to succeed.
“I think it’s a big mistake to apply any sweeping generalizations to the LGBT community, or any community for that matter,” Badgett said. “People face individual circumstances and have different strategies to deal with those.”
Badgett gave Pride festivals as examples not of a superiority complex—as Chua might suggest—but as a celebration that, “[Gay people] are fully worthy of the same human rights and dignity that straight people are.”
However, the fact that the scholarly evidence shows that gays do in fact have higher levels of education might be a sign that discrimination has encouraged members of our community to get a better education in order to escape negative stereotypes.
“There’s no question that, a common [issue] across LGBT [people] is this experience of stigma and discrimination, and they have to work a little harder to get what everyone else gets,” Gates said. “That’s something that immigrant communities have faced who are very successful. There are potentially similarities across some of those groups.”
Yet Gates was quick to point out that the benefits Chua cited ended after the second generation, as the children of immigrants assimilated into U.S. culture. These supposed traits were passed on, yet gays do not produce gay children who will face the same discrimination.
For this reason, the LGBT community is unique as a minority group. Gays are black, white, Asian, disabled, men, women, Muslim, Mormon—a microcosm of the U.S., if you will.
“It’s important to remember, when you make these comparisons with ethnic groups, LGBT people are a bunch of people that also live with those stigmas that their other groups have,” Gates said. “It’s a group made up of all parts of America.”
So, we might not be wealthier than average; but we’re far more representative of today’s “Real America” than Sarah Palin’s image of it.