Ever gone to any standard party filled with gay men? Of course you have. The men come in all shapes and sizes. If anything, they represent a completely heterogeneous population, save one factor: they all seem to be, to some degree, quite affluent. Whatever happened to the “retail queen” working at Aeropostale and is of reasonable means? What about the gay guy who works at the seedy video store? Where have these men gone? Well, if these parties are to be believed, they’ve all become investment bankers, nurses, and lawyers and are threatening to take over the world. It isn’t difficult for me, with my four degrees and rather pristine pedigree, to feel like I am poor Cousin Cletus at some of these parties. Advanced education does not always translate into six figures, lest you count after the decimal point.

As a sociologist, I must admit I am skeptical. Contrary to what we all know as reality (or, reality television), most people in the United States are NOT wealthy. They aren’t even doing “great”. The last assessment of median household income is around $51,000 a year, which means half of American households make less than this amount. With simply that piece of information, no one should leave a party feeling bad because they didn’t make the maximum contribution to their 401(k) this year. But why does the gay community seem, at times, to buck this curve?

The answer is simple: it doesn’t. There’s no data that tends to show the gay community is smarter, wealthier, or in any better financial straits than their heterosexual contemporaries. In fact, socio-cultural co-factors would indicate the opposite would be true; queers as a minority population are more likely to make less because of being underemployed. There are a multitude of reasons as to why gay men, lesbians, and trans persons are indeed more likely to be burdened, but this raises an important question – where are the working class queers?

Media is hardly a great representation of community diversity, as network television went decades without credible representations of African Americans, Latinos, Asians, gay men and lesbians. However, in the last 20 years, the media has gone to great lengths to demonstrate that there are a sizable number of families who are not living in the lap of luxury like Alexis Carrington (from Dynasty) and J.R. Ewing (from Dallas). For example, the once-popular show One Tree Hill went to great lengths to demonstrate that a good number of the cast came from working class backgrounds. Shows like Roseanne and King of Queens portray people who, at times, struggle with issues of money.

This reality of economic disparity has not made its way to the queer community, as of yet. The highly popular Will & Grace featured a gay lawyer who lived in Manhattan. Though he was at multiple points fired or resigning from his career, he could afford to not have a job. Queer As Folk and the L Word portray images where the working class characters (like Emmett) seem barely working class and can easily associate and interact in socio-economic circles of their friends (who are upper middle class, at worst). Why do we not see real life as art, as it were?

A key reason as to the invisibility of the working class queer is within the title: visibility. In order to been seen (and counted), one has to be able to represent a data point. Unlike other minority groups, queers have the possibility of remaining in “the closet” for personal conviction (such as lack of gain in publicly coming out), fear of reprisal (for those in homophobic work or living situations), or a host of other reasons. Even early studies tend to show that being “out” is more likely in segregated places and metropolitan areas, as there is less fear of stigma (Dank 1971). So, if the working class person does not live in an area that is accepting, s/he is more likely to not publicly identify, even if they privately do so.

The second problem is one of measurement error. A good number of individuals who might be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans and working class may never been counted because they are not properly identified. For example, the haphazard (but all we have) data from the U.S. Census on homosexual households only measures based on reported domiciles with two members of the same gender, unmarried, as heads. But what if a gay man lives with his lesbian best friend? Not counted. Or a bisexual man lives with his son? Again, not counted. However, if you correlate that those are counted are more likely to be (a) out, (b) urban or suburban, and (c) financially secure, then you see why the picture we get of queers in our country is highly distorted. This is why research done by Simmons Marketing Research (1990) and The Bay Area Reporter (1991) are terribly flawed: small subsets of a population (Advocate magazine subscribers and San Francisco residents, respectively) who are disproportionately more wealthy than the enormous populations missed.

Finding the economically disadvantaged other, the working class queer, is not difficult if one looks. However, getting good quantitative data on this population represents overcoming a myriad of barriers. For good behavioral scientists, the first step might be capturing merit-worthy qualitative data, which the scholarly world lacks even in this day. It’s only through the efforts of behavioral nerds like us that we will close the gap between the stereotypical hustler on one end and the stereotypical lawyer on the other.

(1991): "Where the Money Is: Travel Industry Eyeing Gay/Lesbian Tourism", The Bay Area Reporter, September 19, 1991.

Gary Dank (1971): Coming Out in the Gay World, Psychiatry vol. 34.

Simmons Marketing Research (1990): Readership Survey for the Advocate.

Creative Commons License