When many Americans think about gay people, they think of rich white guys in urban enclaves like Chelsea, Dupont Circle, and West Hollywood -- wearing designer clothes, perfectly accessorized, drinking expensive cocktails, and shopping for the latest home furnishings at high-end specialty boutiques. Thanks to the media, this stereotype is so pervasive that it's spread even to the uppermost echelons of our government: in his dissent in the landmark 1996 LGBT rights case Romer v. Evans, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that our community's "high disposable income" has allowed us to purchase "disproportionate political power..."
But a recent feature article in The Atlantic peeled back the myths and stereotypes and found a much different reality: LGBT people have higher rates of poverty and homelessness, and are more likely to need government assistance programs, than our non-LGBT counterparts. "[T]he myth of gay affluence is greatly exaggerated," Nathan McDermott writes.
In reality, gay Americans face disproportionately greater economic challenges than their straight counterparts. A new report released by UCLA's Williams Institute found that 29 percent of LGBT adults, approximately 2.4 million people, experienced food insecurity--a time when they did not have enough money to feed themselves or their family--in the past year. In contrast, 16 percent of Americans nationwide reported being food insecure in 2012. One in 5 gays and lesbians aged 18-44 received food stamps in the last year, compared with just over 1 in 4 same sex couples raising children. The LGBT community has made huge political strides over the past decade, but in economic matters they still lag far behind the rest of the country.
As someone who falls into that 29 percent, that statistic doesn't surprise me. What does surprise and alarm me is how little-known this problem is, both within and outside of our community.
The Atlantic article also discusses several possible reasons for the gap in perception versus reality, and hypothesizes about some of the possible reasons for the economic disadvantages faced by LGBT people. The most obvious answer? Employment discrimination.
Though there are 29 states where employers are legally allowed to fire someone for their sexual orientation, the public is largely opposed to workplace discrimination. Sixty-eight percent of voters support federal workplace protections, and 87 percent of Fortune 500 companies already have non-discrimination policies that included sexual orientation... So on the surface, it appears that discrimination might not be as pervasive as some activists proclaim.
However, like the survey example showed, people are more forthright when asked anonymously. And in the case of employers, research shows that, when provided with anonymity, tolerance for discrimination is higher than other, non-anonymous surveys show. A study conducted for the American Journal of Sociology sent two fictitious, but realistic, resumes to more than 1,700 entry-level, white-collar job openings, the only difference between the two being that one resume listed membership in a gay organization during college, while the other claimed experience in a "Progressive and Socialist Alliance" (since both groups are considered left-leaning, the purpose was to separate any "gay penalty" from political discrimination). The result was that the resume without the LGBT organization membership had an 11.5 percent call-back rate for an interview; the gay application had only 7.2 percent. The difference amounts to a 40 percent higher chance of seemingly straight applicants getting called back than explicitly gay applicants.
Together, these studies show that people are hesitant to openly admit they don't support LGBT equality. When asked less directly though, people are more willing to concede they wouldn't feel comfortable working with or hiring an openly gay person.
(Hey Mr. President, sign the ENDA Executive Order now! Hey Congress, pass ENDA -- minus that awful religious exemption -- now!)
McDermott concludes that the myth of gay affluence isn't just inaccurate, it's downright damaging to the LGBT movement. "[E]quality can't and won't be achieved as long as myths and stereotypes about LGBT people continue to be perpetuated and believed," he writes.
He's dead on, of course. So the next time you hear someone deploying the "double income, no kids" stereotype or comparing your life to an episode of Modern Family, do your community a favor and let the person know about the real economic hardships LGBT people face.
Click here for the Nathan McDermott's full report at The Atlantic.
Click here for the Williams Institute report about food insecurity in the LGBT community.