Should Economic Equality Have Come Before Marriage Equality?

Screen-shot-from-the-Pride-trailer-YouTube-800x430At the Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg reflects on the new movie Prideusing it as a launching pad to discuss whether the LGBTQI[infinity symbol] rights movement made a mistake by putting marriage first, as a goal, instead of economic equality. After all, she writes,

According to a Williams Institute analysis of data from the American Community Survey, lesbian couples in the United States are more likely to live in poverty than married heterosexual couples, and gay African American couples “have poverty rates more than twice the rate of different-sex married African Americans … Almost one in four children living with a male same-sex couple and 19.2 percent of children living with a female same-sex couple are in poverty, compared to 12.1 percent of children living with married different-sex couples. African American children in gay male households have the highest poverty rate (52.3 percent) of any children in any household type.”

Marriage, she argues, only helps those who are partnered for the long-term. Passing a national Non-Discrimination Act would help more broadly. Especially because lots of people in the community are poor. The Williams Institute reports, “We find clear evidence that poverty is at least as common in the LGB population as among heterosexual people and their families.”

Yet many folks — up to and including one of the nation’s most powerful short-sighted bigots men, Justice Antonin Scalia — harbor the misconception that to be gay is to be rich. In an opinion in the 90s, Scalia wrote of the queer community’s “high disposable income” and its concurrent “disproportionate political power.” Presumably Scalia watched an episode of “Will and Grace” and another of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and drew conclusions. But he’s not alone, here or abroad. The Atlantic calls the widespread notion that gays have influence and cash “the Myth of Gay Affluence.”

What’s it about? For one thing, middle- and upper-class professionals are more likely to be out, i.e., visible, in the public eye. It’s easier to be open about your sexuality when you’re Neil Patrick Harris or Ellen, when you have privilege working for you like body fat to cushion any blow that might fall. (Note: neither NPH nor Ellen has actual body fat. Do you think they hang out, so that they can be funny and fabulous and skinny together?)

Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows large differences in the percentage of people identifying themselves as gay in different economic classes. Those in managerial or professional roles are 60 per cent more likely to describe themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual compared to those in traditionally working-class jobs, a study found.

Higher incomes, more wealth, and liberal cities all offer some blow-cushioning. There are some surveys saying that gay male couples, at least, are doing quite well, and they should be: if a man, on average, out-earns a woman, two men will on average out-earn a hetero couple. But, again, according to the Atlantic, those surveys aren’t reliable.

Further corrupting the data, not all partnered gay people feel comfortable declaring their sexuality in surveys, and, a high-earning gay couple is more likely to report their sexual orientation to a census-taker than a low-earning couple, making wealthier gay people overrepresented in national surveys. Only when asked anonymously, are more gays and lesbians more willing to disclose their sexuality. In such surveys, the poverty and food-insecurity rates for LGBT people rise.

In one 2010 anonymous survey of Americans ages 18-44, gay men were found to have a poverty rate of 20.5 percent; the rate for straight men was 15.3 percent. For lesbians it was 22.7 percent, compared to 21 percent for heterosexual women. The similar rates for lesbian and straight women is attributed to the fact that women overall tend to earn less than men. Additionally, same-sex couples are 1.7 times more likely than different-sex couples to receive food stamps. The more accurate data doesn’t clarify, though, what is the cause of the gay/straight economic gap.

OK, so, being that the LGBTQI[infinity symbol] community is poorer than many of us assume, should it have made economic equality its primary goal rather than marriage equality? Certain high-profile leftists think so, like Julie Bindel, who is disdainful of the “staid, middle-class conformists” who have overwhelmed the old-school activists and radicals. Yes, middle-class conformists do probably have the most to gain from marriage, gay and straight: it’s a way of consolidating and passing on property, after all.  

On the other hand, the decision to put marriage front and center — inasmuch as it was a “strategy” and not the unexpected result of (individual acts of protestgood timing) + momentum — galvanized an unbelievable amount of support for a recently marginalized community. It brought popular opinion along in a way few would have thought possible a decade ago. In 2013, three-fifths of America was in favor of legalizing gay unions, including, at last, Hillary Clinton, and the moderate suburban army behind her. This year it was 59% in at least one poll. That number is lower in the South, but it’s still trending the right way, and anyway, Johnny Reb got used to having lost to the Union eventually; he’ll get used to this too.

In many ways, marriage — the Fight for the Picket Fence — was the safest, blandest, best possible battleground on which the battle for acceptance could be fought. Now same-sex marriage is a reality in more than half of America, and only 30% of Americans think certain consensual acts of love among adults should be illegal, which, though shocking, is an all-time low. The more normal it is to be queer, the more economic equality, stability, and autonomy queer individuals will enjoy. Would a fight for equal pay and employee protections have accomplished the same goal? That’s more or less the course feminists chose, and things haven’t worked out great for the ladies.


NB — a useful history and timeline of the gay rights movement in America.



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