Too rich to be victims?

One key argument against workplace protections for gays and lesbians has been these two groups’ supposed affluence, which has been cited as proof that they are not victims of discrimination.

Consider, for example, the following snippet from the conservative, Raleigh-based N.C. Family Policy Council, a nonprofit that says it’s “dedicated to the preservation of the family and traditional family values.” A position paper titled Special Rights for Homosexuals — Why Sexual Orientation Should Not Be a Protected Class states:

“Homosexuals are among the richest and most privileged class in this country. With an average household income of $55,430, they far exceed the general population’s average household income of $32,144. Homosexual households are also four times as likely than average Americans to be earning more than $100,000 annually. Collectively, gays and lesbians earn more than $514 billion a year. And Jeff Vitale, president of the Chicago-based market-research firm Overlooked Opinions, notes that gays and lesbians have ‘tremendous buying power and lots of discretionary income.'”

But two landmark studies — one by University of Washington economist Marieka Klawitter and the other by University of Massachusetts-Amherst economist M.V. Lee Badgett — have concluded that the wealth argument is fundamentally flawed.

Badgett’s analysis found that gay men who worked full time earned up to 27 percent less than comparable heterosexual men. Lesbians who worked full time earned roughly the same amount as heterosexual women. Klawitter’s study yielded very similar results. Men earned 26 percent less than married men with the same education, location, race, age, number of children and disability status. These findings for gay men, say both Badgett and Klawitter, point strongly toward workplace discrimination.

Klawitter’s study of women living with female partners also showed no real difference in household earnings compared to heterosexual women living with male partners. But she told Xpress that lesbians must work more hours to match their heterosexual peers’ income. “Lesbians are living in households where they have a same-sex partner. Married women are living with a man — and gender still has a huge impact on earnings.” So lesbians living together don’t have the advantage of a male partner’s higher income to boost total household earnings, she explains.

Misconceptions about gay people’s wealth and/or disposable income have even found their way into crucial civil-rights cases. Perhaps most famously, gay and lesbian incomes were cited in litigation challenging the constitutionality of the anti-gay rights Amendment 2, approved narrowly by Colorado voters in November 1992.

The amendment would have prohibited state and local governments in Colorado from extending any civil-rights protections to gays, lesbians and bisexuals. During the trial, Clemson University political scientist James David Woodard testified that routinely used marketing and advertising surveys of gay and lesbian consumers and other numbers extracted from U.S. census data offered a fairly accurate portrayal of all gay people across the United States. (Although the census does not directly ask questions about sexual orientation, it does allow for self-identification by same-sex couples. But the resulting figure understates the actual gay population by about 62 percent, according to gay advocacy groups such as the Human Rights Campaign.) These statistics, he argued, prove that gay people have incomes “on average or median of over $50,000 a year — a number much higher than the normal or the average income of other Americans.”

In the landmark 1996 case Romer v. Evans, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Colorado amendment as unconstitutional on a 6-3 vote without ever mentioning Woodard’s testimony or any other studies exploring the supposed correlation between sexual orientation and wealth.

But in a dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia did cite Woodard’s data. “High disposable income,” argued Scalia, gives gay people “disproportionate political power,” and therefore, the state’s voters should be permitted to rein in that power by banning antidiscrimination protections for lesbian, gay and bisexual residents.

Klawitter, however, challenges that argument. “The data [gay-rights opponents] were using was primarily from marketing research, which might survey readers of a certain gay magazine,” she counters. “Those surveys suggested they had quite a bit of money, and people were quite wealthy on average. But of course, it was a biased sample that were responding.”

— Hal Millard

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