Yesterday was Gay Pride in West Hollywood. With 3 more weeks of celebration left, LGBT people of all stripes will continue to gather in cities all over the U.S. One recent article about being gay caught my eye. It was titled, “The Truth about Gays and Money.” It’s a thoughtful and insightful piece I've included below in a much longer piece that I hope you will take the time to read and think over as I have over the past week.
We often hear from opponents of full equality for the LGBT community that we are already better off than most Americans. This article from NBC News does a thorough job of deconstructing that egregious myth used to discriminate against us. First here is the link:
When gays and lesbians are featured in popular culture, what do we see? White, wealthy women who host talk shows or affluent men doting on their kids -- like Mitchell and Cameron from "Modern Family." So it’s no wonder that the conventional wisdom is that gay people in America have tons of money and fewer economic struggles than the rest of the population.I pose the question of what does it mean to be gay in America because as someone who starting coming out @ 16 back in the mid Eighties, I too bought into a lot of the myths about being gay in popular culture. This article hit home for me because I started thinking back to what I saw and what I felt when the gay rights movement started seeping through the evening news into my lower middle class home in suburban southwest Ohio. (FYI—I grew up an hour north from John Boehner’s district in Cincinnati and in a county that went for 67% for Bush in 2004.)
But the truth is significantly different.
“I think people are surprised there are any poor gay people,” says M.V. Lee Badgett, professor of economics and research director for The Williams Institute, a national think tank at UCLA Law School researches sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy. “This ‘myth of gay affluence’ has been around for a long time. It gets in the way of people even imagining that LGBT people can be poor.”
I’ve vivid memories of my parents watching ABC News coverage of the 10th Anniversary of Stonewall when I was 12. I’d known I was gay since I was 5 so seeing all those beautiful (and mostly white) gay men on the streets of New York and San Francisco all celebrating, dancing, kissing and hugging had a huge impact on me. They were all so good looking! They all looked so happy! Contrast that with my alcoholic family living on $37,000 a year and it looked like paradise. Couple it with magazine articles and newspaper stories about Studio 54, Donna Summer and the Village People and I was half-ready to run away from home to the nearest Gay Mecca A.S.A.P.
Then again, I was only 12. And I was poor and struggling in school. In magazines, newspapers and on TV, nobody talked about poor gay people or gays who didn’t go to college. As Professor Badgett puts it:
What people think they know is that gay people are pretty well-off economically. We don’t see poor LGBT people on television, we don’t see them in movies, we don’t see articles about them when discussions about marriage show up in the newspaper. But it doesn’t mean they’re not there. It just means we haven’t looked for them. And we haven’t looked for them because we think they’re not there.As a child, I was totally clueless about basic finance along with being borderline dyslexic and undiagnosed A.D.D. Thoughts of college or how I’d make a living rarely entered my mind except as vague daydreams. I was a kid looking for acceptance and approval so my fantasies were all based on the glamorous life I saw other gays living in big cities. I lacked the sophistication, emotional maturity and basic life skills to understand that the picture-perfect gay life I saw in bookstores on the covers of The Advocate (all featuring models and porn stars) came at an expensive price—a price I was totally oblivious to and was in no way prepared to pay for or earn on my own.
College may have been more affordable in the Seventies and Eighties, but a degree has never been cheap or easy to get. The realities of finance, education, career, home ownership and recreation were things I never learned from my parents who were basically one step removed from their white trash trailer park origins. It was easy for me as a child to buy into the exciting gay lifestyle I saw in magazines and on TV news without appreciating that that lifestyle cost money. Unlike my teenage fantasies, the reality of an urban gay lifestyle is that it takes a hefty income attained in large part from earning a degree.
Pop culture images of men with bodies perfected through gym memberships (and steroids) gyrating to pop music in cosmopolitan neighborhoods hypnotized a lonely kid looking for an escape from the dead end life of an uneducated and economically disadvantaged family. I’ve no doubt many LGBT youth still buy into that commercialized gay lifestyle, too.
There are lots of people in same-sex couples who are poor, and that is an important takeaway. The gap is clear in the raw data for some of these comparisons. For example, for lesbians, if you just look at the poverty rate for women in same-sex couples (7.6 percent), it’s higher than the poverty rate for women in different-sex couples (5.7 percent). For gay men, it’s a little more complicated a story, and race plays a big part.Race does indeed play a big part. I was too naïve to ever consider the question of why so many of those gay magazine covers only featured white men (and very, very rarely any lesbian women).
So what does being gay in America mean? Sadly, although it has improved over the past 30 years, the fact is we don’t see nearly enough people of color in pop culture’s images of the LGBT community. The images we see are overwhelmingly white, wealthy and college-educated. Most of the time, it’s Ellen or Neil Patrick Harris or Zachary Quinto or Melissa Etheridge. Has Out Magazine ever ran a feature article on poor LGBTs or on rural gays and lesbians? If they did, I feel fairly safe in saying they weren't cover stories. Because how many urban gays want to see a spotlight on poor gay people or those living in rural areas? Or to acknowledge we exist?
I have only a high school diploma and barely managed to finish one semester of college. I live on less than $29,000 a year in Los Angeles and have never owned a car. And let’s not get into my credit rating. It’s taken me almost 30 years, but I’ve finally outgrown those adolescent fantasies of an idyllic gay lifestyle.
My experiences with the LGBT community in general and with gay men in particular have not lived up to that sparkling TV footage of half-naked, happy-go-lucky gays prancing through the streets with their arms around each other. Gay life has not turned out like a magazine cover. How many other LGBT youth mistakenly buy into the fantasy lifestyle of Gay Mecca that they see paraded around in the media—both the MSM and our own?
In 2004, there was an effort to build a shelter for homeless LGBT youth in the Castro which was hotly debated by residents who were terrified at the idea of all these troubled teens with drug & alcohol problems flooding the neighborhood. I’m told by friends that the shelter was ultimately blackballed by upper income residents. CNN.com quoted one of the teens living on the streets there who’d run away from Indiana like I had from Ohio 25 years before…
“I came looking for my people. I didn’t realize my people were rich.”That quote has stayed with me for 9 years because I still know how that kid feels. I see most of my peers with their credit cards, cars and condos who can afford to drop hundreds of dollars a night at “Pride” parties who are as oblivious to poor LGBT folk as I think most Americans in general are. It saddens and angers me. I dreamed that being gay in America was about finding acceptance in a community where one would be safe from prejudice and discrimination. I went chasing after that Horatio Alger myth in the gay world. Instead, I discovered lack of both a college education and the upper middle class income one needs to keep up with one’s peers has rendered me invisible to many…and too often an object of ridicule to those who can afford to tear down others less fortunate for fun and sport.
What does being gay in America mean? Based on the images we promote in not only our own community, but also in our wider culture it means being white, well-educated and well-off financially. It means that gays celebrate conspicuous consumption of all sorts from fine furniture to high fashion and lavish vacations to locales foreign and domestic. Being gay in America seems to mean in appearance and frequently in practice one comes from a good family, gets a degree and goes after the best money can buy.
I think being gay in America should mean so much more than that. That we ought to see a wider range of socioeconomic backgrounds in LGBT magazines and television. That channels like Logo, Here and Bravo should cater to more than just wealthy white gay yuppies. That our community can and should do more to be inclusive of LGBT people who are middle class or poor or those who may live in rural areas. That LGBT pop culture and entertainment should do so much more to show stories and depictions of our senior citizens, our homeless youth and more people of color. RuPaul’s Drag Race with its multicultural cast is only a small step in the right direction. Our media must become more inclusive.
I’d like to close with an excerpt from an opinion piece on Gay Pride written by Dennis Conkin that was published in the Bay Area Reporter in 1991 or 1992 which I feel is still relevant today. Conkin tells of “an enormously gifted young man with so much to contribute emotionally, intellectually and artistically” who is dealing with the damage of rejection in SF’s LGBT community. I keep Mr. Conkin’s article in a scrapbook from my time in San Francisco because it still rings true for me about being gay in America today:
Ever tried to reach out to another lesbian or gay person or group and them sneer or flat out turn up their nose and flip you the you’re-not-part-of-the-club attitude? Sorry, wrong race, wrong gender, wrong clothes, wrong hair, wrong body, wrong cultural expression, sorry too hardcore, sorry too vanilla, you don’t belong. It’s really a horrible experience.
And it doesn’t just happen in the bar and club scene. It’s endemic through our community. No wonder we have so many love troubles. We who pride ourselves on being so liberated and cutting edge trash and mock and reject each other all the time and don’t think twice about it.
I’ve been thinking twice about it, but then I’m a sucker for sentimental buzzwords like gay love, gay liberation and gay pride.