Michelle Marzullo

The Recession and LGBT Communities: A Series

Filed By Michelle Marzullo | November 17, 2009 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Living, Marriage Equality, Politics

The global economic recession has been rolling over the world full force for over a year now. We have seen the markets flowing in red, homeowners being turned out at a rate not seen since the great depression, and the economy "shedding" jobs by the millions--a term far too positive and faceless for the gravity of the situation.

I was riding along in my car one fine afternoon wondering how all of this impacts LGBT people when the National Public Radio (NPR) show called "Marketplace" began. Since I am no economist, I always find the reporting on this show to be factual yet pithy, exactly how I like my economic information. Get to the point. Be entertaining. Speak my language. Good. Well, until they covered a story about how DINKs (Dual Income, No Kids) are handling the recession.

To Marketplace's credit, the most I've seen in the press or from LGBT organizations on the economic implosion is about the "disappointing fact" that the recession will put off moves towards marriage equality or other important policy concerns to the community. While all of these policies are important, no one actually addresses how our communities are doing nor why we may have particular concerns regarding the economy or what we can do to safeguard ourselves.

Indeed from past experience I know that we all do have good reason to worry. LGBT people are economically vulnerable in the best of times. Our pay is usually lower and the jobs that we are able to obtain may be more vulnerable to surreptitious firing for our sexual orientation and/or gender identities. To help a little, a federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is currently winding its way through Congress. If you support this legislation call your congresspersons today by clicking here.

ENDA is a federal bill that would protect all people in the US who claim or are perceived to have non-normative sexual orientations and gender identities from being discriminated against in the workplace. There is no such federal law at this time though different states and municipalities have varying laws barring such discrimination. Read more here and watch Brad Sears, Executive Director of the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law testify at a hearing regarding H.R. 3017, Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2009 on September 23, 2009.

Without federal-level protections, the guarantee of "work hard and prosper" as the most fundamental promise of the American Dream is denied to those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans among other non-hetero, non-gender conforming identities. There is hope that ENDA will be voted on by the end of this year but that's quite far off for those suffering presently.

In light of all this, how are LGBT folks faring in these, the worst of times? To assess this question, Marketplace sent a small team to Times Square and Provincetown, Massachusetts (P-Town is a popular vacation destination for LGBT folks). In Times Square they saw that a few young, heterosexual DINKs on a shopping spree were doing well. Similarly, they found that the gay and lesbian DINKs on holiday in P-Town were also doing great by citing the fact that many were kicking back $10 cocktails and having a gay ol' time. Isn't that a relief?! To support this proposition, Marketplace interviewed a handful of locals as well as the marketing firm who has been working against the myth of the pink economy since the early 1990s.

Now, if you have never heard of the myth of the pink economy, it goes something like this: most "gays" are DINKs (coupled with dual income, no kids) and will stay that way. They have good jobs, they do not aspire to have or adopt children, and they are all at least middle class. Most are assumed to be white. So, they have gobs and gobs of money just waiting to be spent if marketers can figure out how to reach them. Sounds neat doesn't it?

The P-Town interviews focused on a handful of locals to support their supposition of no worries in DINK-land. One person they spoke with was entertainer Mark Sam Rosenthal. He was interviewed to help them to "prove" their point. At the moment, Mr. Rosenthal was engaged in a Commercial St. tradition of luring theatre-goers into his show by standing on the street in the minutes leading up to it.

The show was called, "Blanche Survives Katrina in a FEMA Trailer Named Desire." To Marketplace's question of whether the P-Town crowds have been impacted by "the greatest recession since the Great Depression?" Mr. Rosenthal replied, "No, but I wasn't here for that one. I'm not that old! I mean, I hear that it's worse than last summer, but I don't see the greatest, whatever you said." While Mr. Rosenthal's racially-charged satire has drawn critical acclaim, he is no economist.

Marketplace also interviewed Wes Combs of the marketing firm Witeck-Combs Communications. While that firm has fought against the myth of the pink economy since the 1990s, PRI used their finding to paint LGBT respondents as, "more confident about what's going on right now and what they're seeing, and there's also some additional evidence to show that they're spending more when they go out, specifically with travel."

Now main problem with this PRI report on DINKs is that they are not all the same--even the homos--lest the title fool you. Of course, there will be some gays and lesbians going out and spending money on travel and such, as Witeck-Combs found. What PRI did not report was that not all LGBT people are doing so nor did they emphasize that there are many LGBT folks who are not coupled or in dual-income relationships. Reporting this may have seemed like overemphasizing the fact but given that many Americans do not understand that all LGBT-people are not the same, it would be an important point of clarification.

Indeed, reporting on LGBT economic issues is a sensitive topic as care must be taken to emphasize that the economic picture of LGBT individuals varies widely. Not taking such care perpetuates myths of the pink economy and a like myth that all gays are affluent. This "affluence" myth has recently been used to argue against LGBT people needing federal protections under ENDA. As Bob Witeck recently reports, "the Traditional Values Coalition and other opponents, once again, selectively cherry pick data to argue that 'gay incomes don't justify ENDA.' In an action alert made in October 2009, the TVC writes that it doesn't appear 'that LGBT individuals are suffering any widespread or systematic discriminatory treatment as employees. Clearly, the stated purpose of ENDA is based on a falsehood about widespread discrimination against LGBT individuals.'" Grouping all LGBT people together as one economic unit is the same as saying that all heterosexuals are in the same financial situation without regard to education level, marital/cohabitation status, profession, socioeconomic class, race/ethnicity, or citizenship status. Put in those terms, the idea that all "gays" are DINKs is silly.

All this glossing over and collapsing down of our communities to fit into a tidy, MarketPlace clip had me seeing red. And it began as such a nice afternoon drive.

In the blog series that follows, I will focus on how people in our communities are faring under the recession outside of the mythic occupants of "pink economy" land. I will also interview scholars examining these issues as well as professionals who provide individual financial advice. In addition, I will collect some online tools to help us do something more about these issues in our own lives.

In the forthcoming installment of the series, I will interview economist Dr. M.V. Lee Badgett, who is the author of "Money, Myths, and Change: The Economic Lives of Lesbians and Gay Men." I will ask her about how much we actually know about LGBT people in the economy and what kinds of things are being done to improve what we know.

In that book, Dr. Badgett, "refutes the common stereotype that lesbians and gay men are more affluent than heterosexuals. Studying the ends and means of gay life from an economic perspective, she paints a more accurate picture than ever before of gay and lesbian standards of living, financial and family decisions, and professional lives, analyzing along the way the crucial issues that affect the livelihood of gay men and lesbians: workplace discrimination, denial of health care benefits to partners and children, the corporate wooing of gay consumer dollars, and the use of gay economic clout to inspire social and political change," (Excerpted from the book's dust jacket).

Along with authoring "Money, Myths and Change," Dr. Badgett has recently written a book on marriage equality entitled, "When Gay People Get Married" (NYU Press, 2009). Dr. Badgett is Professor of Economics and Director at the Center for Public Policy and Administration at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Splitting her time between coasts, she also serves as the Research Director at the Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Stay tuned.

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