Volume , Number 0
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Class & Gays
Anna marie Smith
Gabriel San román
Z Papers on Strategy
Nicolas J.S. Davies
Gay & Lesbian Community Notes
Son of Dick
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I just finished a brilliant book on lesbians, gays, and class. No, not class as in: What? She broke up with you by e-mail while she was visiting her aunt in LA? How tacky. At least the last one had more class.
Amy Gluckman, Betsy Reed, and the contributors to their anthology, Homoeconomics: Capitalism, Community and Lesbian and Gay Life (New York: Routledge, 1997) show that it is possible to talk about queers and class without a single crass joke about the Martha Stewart line in K-Mart and without the stereotypes that are central to popular films such as Titanic and Good Will Hunting. Gluckman and Reeds study is intended as a refutation of a key piece of religious right ideology, namely the idea that we sexual others are so madly enjoying an opulent and hedonistic lifestyle that gay rights are just special rights for an already excessively privileged elite.
If you have any doubts about just how effective that line is with middle Americawherever that might bejust take a look at Heather MacDonalds documentary, Ballot Measure 9. It shows that when religious right activists mounted a vicious campaign in 1992 to pass an anti-gay state initiative in Oregon, they successfully appealed to unemployed people with the message that rich perverts do not need any more rights, and that gay special rights belong in the same suspect category as affirmative action for women and blacks. Its as if the gay movement were somehow to blame for the decline in Oregons logging industry. Okay, sounds wacky, but it worked.
So Gluckman and Reed want to put this myth to rest once and for all. Their job is not, of course, made any easier by the mainstream gay media. Not only does the content of The Advocate suggest that being gay is all about sun, sex, and sumptuous living, but gay magazine advertising departments are bent on trumpeting about the almighty gay dollar.
Gluckman and Reeds book demonstrates that lesbians and gay men are located in every income bracket, occupation, and poverty program. We pay the financial, emotional, and political, cost of homophobia in the form of job losses, promotion denials, and discrimination in housing and health care. Taking gay men and comparing them with heterosexual men of the same age and with similar educational backgrounds, we find that they earn between 11 and 27 percent less.
As for lesbians, some studies indicate that there is relatively little difference between our average incomes and that of straight women. Others suggest that the proportion of lesbian households in the very poor bracket is far greater than our proportion in the population as a whole, and that individual lesbians earn as much as 30 percent less than similar heterosexual women. Lesbians are also confronted with the same gender gap as our heterosexual sisters; womengay and straight alikeearn on average 70 percent of mens income.
How can we account for these differences? First, we have to understand the concept of class mobilitythe relative ability of an individual born into a family in a lower class bracket to work their way into a higher bracket through sheer effort in school, college, and career. In the imaginary world of Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, sweat is destiny. They think that we live in a basically fair or meritocratic society. As long as the free market is allowed to do its thingand liberals are not allowed to stick unnatural distortions into the system such as affirmative action or welfarethe harder you work, the better you will do. If youre poor, its because you didnt try hard enough; you only have yourself to blame.
The reality is that class mobility is at an all-time low in the United States and that it is, in fact, lowest here than in any other developed country. By an overwhelming margin, chances are that if you are born into a certain class in the United States, you will spend your entire life in that same class.
Why cant someone easily move up the wealth ladder? The schools to which the poor and the working class have access are generally in very rough shape. Where people with only a high-school education used to be able to get some decent unionized factory, government, and construction jobs, they are now scrambling to find low wage McJobs in the service sector; it takes a lot of a familys spare change and sometimes a family history of college attendance to get the kids into the best colleges; college graduates are competing more fiercely than ever to enter the best paid careers; and nowadays, most young professionals need to borrow from their parents to obtain their first homes or to tide them over during career transitions. If youre talking about women, blacks, and Latinos, poverty rates and lack of class mobility are far worse.
@PAR SUB = So where do lesbians and gays fit into the picture? If the economic privileges that flow from being born into a secure family play a greater role in securing a childs economic future, then the cost of ostracizing for queers increases as well. What happens to our teenage brothers and sisters who run away when they discover that they are gay? Or to the queers who are passed over when financial gifts, personal loans, and college tuition are doled out by parents? How many gays are encouraged to take over the family business or to take advantage of familial career networks?
Anyone trying to do it on their own these days is fighting an uphill battle, and there are all too many lesbians and gays out there having to do just that. After 18 years of Reaganism (sorry, Clinton fans, its true), there is very little help available for an American who finds herself cast out of her family at a young age. The welfare, public housing, and public health programs arent there to help her get back on her feet; the mountains of college-related debt look insurmountable; and she winds up in serious difficulties when she is struck by an economic crisis in her adult years.
Now you might object, hey, we live in a basically sexist world in which men make far more than women on the average, so isnt a household with a double adult male income bound to be better off than your average household with heterosexual parents? Well, sure, there must be some gain here for some gay guy couples. If gender discrimination were the only factor that shaped gay household income, then a typical gay male household would earn 18 percent more than a typical heterosexual one. A lesbian household would earn 18 percent less than a typical heterosexual one, and 30 percent less than a typical gay male one.
If gay men are actually earning far less than their heterosexual counterparts, then there must be a lot of job discrimination and familial ostracization out there that is more than canceling out this gender gain. Now add in the cost of HIV-related disease in a country that lacks a civilized health care policy. Sure, some personal choices must be playing a role here, too. Perhaps David in Memphis or Jose in Minneapolis are foregoing better wages because they would rather work as waiters in San Francisco than get stuck as assistant managers at the Radio Shack in the local mall. But it is only in a truly cruel world that we are asked to choose between earning a decent income and living in a positive cultural environment.
What about lesbians? Turns out we are not all designer professionals buying sports cars and cavorting on Olivia cruise ships. Many of our sisters are among the poorest of the poor. Are we lesbians symbolically read as one of the guys when we do manage to build professional careers? Yes and no. On the one hand, I bet we are seen in the office as the kind of women who will put our careers first, who will burn the midnight oil and not raise messy questions about childcare and family obligations. Being an out lesbian means being constantly infantilized; hardly anyone thinks of us as people with adult responsibilities. Then there is the new minority syndrome. We are expected to sacrifice everything for the career since it is assumed by many of our colleagues that we ought to be grateful for this chance to make it.
So sure, some of us are probably getting mentored a little more than our straight sisters, because we are seen as more serious, more dedicatedread: less pregnant. But the data also suggests that we bump our heads up against the same glass ceilings that our black and Latino brothers and our straight sisters have found in their careers.
Lesbians and gays never make an appearance when welfare programs, national budgets, and education policies are discussed; its all noble entrepreneurs, plucky college grads, and evil single mothers. But were there, in the shadows, paying the price. <S>Z
Anna Marie Smith teaches at Cornell University, and writes on gay and lesbian issues.