Are Gay Men Really Rich? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

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(Photo: Ludovic Bertron)

(Photo: Ludovic Bertron)

Our latest episode is called “Are Gay Men Really Rich?”  (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) It began with a question from Freakonomics Radio listener Danny Rosa:

ROSA: I’m wondering why gay men are so affluent and successful. If you walk around neighborhoods like West Hollywood in Los Angeles, the Castro in San Francisco, and Boystown in Chicago, they are all very well-kept, expensive, and highly sought-after. So, I’m thinking, what is it about gay men and the gay culture that makes them so wealthy?

In the episode, Stephen Dubner explores the “gay men are rich” stereotype and learns what the data can — and, importantly, cannot — tell us. Along the way, you’ll hear from Lee Badgett at the Williams Institute, a UCLA think tank dedicated to sexual-orientation research; Dan Black, a professor of public policy at the University of Chicago; and Keith Ericson, a professor of public policy at Boston University. You’ll also hear from Steve Levitt on why gays choose to live where they do (he talked about this in an earlier episode). In the end, you’ll learn a lot about income and sexual orientation, but you’ll also learn that nearly everything you learn is, on some level, suspect. As Badgett reminds us: 

BADGETT: The most important thing to know is that it is actually pretty hard to get good data on lesbian, gay, and bisexual people.

This episode drew on the following papers and studies, which you might wish to look through if the topic is of interest. Thanks to Gary Gates at the Williams Institute for helping us sort through the data:


Tarrou

Uhh, that may be less about gay people than "gay people who can afford to move to SF (or NY, Chicago, etc.)". I live in Saginaw, Mi., a decaying, crime-ridden failed auto-producing town in mid-Michigan. Of my several gay friends, one is a hair-dresser (shocking, no?), one works at a Men's Wearhouse (solid work, and a job isn't nothing given near 30% unemployment). His husband works in a coffee shop and does massage out of their living room. Another friend works at a telecom company, and several gay acquaintances shuffle around between low-wage jobs (waitstaff, bartenders, etc.). While the ones with steady work live reasonably well, and pay a lot of attention to their living spaces, I don't know that they are noticeably richer than my straight friends.

James

Good point. As a (straight) single male software engineer working in Silicon Valley, I appeared pretty affluent, as did all my married acquaintances who lived in places like Atherton.

J296

Gay people will not have any higher of a percentage of rich/poor people than straights. Aside from who they are attracted to, they are just like all of the rest of us.

NZ

That is almost certainly false. First, studies find that gay people do indeed have higher average incomes.

Second, if gay people were just like straight people, then it should be impossible to tell if a person is gay unless you are having sex with him and he is the same gender as you. In reality, gay people are often easy to distinguish from a distance, meaning that other things besides their sexual preferences distinguish them. (This doesn't have to be true for every last gay person--and certainly isn't--but it's true of enough of them that your statement is false.)

Third, being gay is not just psychological--if it were, then people could choose, maybe with some effort, to be gay or not be gay. Instead, homosexuality is caused to a significant degree by our chemical makeup. It seems unlikely that one trait (sexual preference) should be affected by a certain unusual chemical makeup consistently in one way while all other traits are left intact.

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anonymous

They don't generally have KIDS. DUH.

NZ

That seems irrelevant. Neighborhoods full of college students tend to also be free of kids, but those neighborhoods look like crap. In that case, it has more to do with expendable income.

But kids are relevant to the look of neighborhoods in another context:

Neighborhoods where most kids go home to single moms tend to look shabby. Neighborhoods where most kids go home to Mom and Dad tend to look nice.

Average.Random.Joe

Collage students ARE kids or at least have the same income effect.

J1

Seriously? If I didn't have a non-working spouse and a couple of kids I could trade my Ford in for a Bentley without breaking a sweat, and I'm no "one percenter". Like J296, I doubt the gay population has a higher percentage of high earners; they just for the most part have essentially no family expenses.

NZ

Your Ford would probably holds its value better and break down less.

J1

I thought that was implied in any discussion of British cars.

NZ

I can think of several reasons:

1. Gay men do indeed enjoy higher average incomes, and thus can afford to buy or rent, and maintain, nicer-looking property. (This turned out to be true of my gay friends from college and high school.)
2. One aspect of gay male culture, for whatever reason, seems to be an almost Victorian obsession with tidiness. So, not only can they afford nicer-looking property, but they also want it.
3. I'm pretty sure gay men are somewhat overrepresented (from their percentage in the general population) in fields like arborism, architecture, interior design, and fashion, etc. all of which attract the type of people who care a lot about how their neighborhoods look.
4. Gay white men, because of their protected status, are able to be a bit more bold about keeping out racial minorities, who tend to put less effort into the appearance of their neighborhoods. (The pervasive racism among gay men in the fashion and perfume industries, for example, is well-documented.)
5. The types of people who let their neighborhoods look like crap often hold anti-gay sentiments, and aren't exactly eager to move to places they perceive as heavily populated by homosexuals. ("You're moving to West Hollywood? What are you, gay?")
6. Gay men are less likely to consider their spouses exclusive and for life (see that FAQ put out by the Census Bureau, linked above), meaning they end up spending more time attracting a partner (hah, I almost typed "mate"). Making the outside of your home look nice may be one way for a gay man to show that he is desirable.

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Lulu

Stereotype, much???

#6, making the outside of the home desirable to attract a partner.....like a bowerbird, or a bird of paradise? (snort) ... I wish straight men would learn this, it's astonishing how little thought or effort they put into even doing their laundry or taking out the trash. But a lot of women will put up with squalor, with ANYTHING, just to get a man. So the men don't have to exert themselves, much.

NZ

"Stereotype, much???"

Yeah! I use stereotypes all the time, and recommend you do too! They're incredibly useful for a wide range of situations, because they help us anticipate outcomes based on just a few data points. This is possible thanks to the magic of patterns, which exist in the world whether you choose to notice them or not.

Now, stereotypes aren't always useful--like for instance if being wrong would be extremely costly, or if the pattern on which the stereotype is based is rapidly changing--but for questions like those posed in the blog entry (and for basically any other question where you're really just interested in gathering hypotheses), stereotypes generally can be a very useful tool.

And of course we should always keep looking at our stereotypes to make sure they're up to date. For example, it's no longer *that* useful to stereotype Progressives as racists who want to put people in jail for doing drugs (it's only a little bit useful)--but this stereotype would have been much *more* useful a hundred years ago.

Your comment about my point #6 (that one was more of a possibility, actually) rings true for me. When my wife (then girlfriend) started dating me she considered my living conditions filthy, even though I was very neat compared to some of my roommates and to most of the other bachelors I knew. But for evolutionary reasons, women of a certain age have a strong incentive to find a mate, squalor be damned. Gay men, not having a ticking clock to worry about, can be more picky in this regard.

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Joe J

Dating women is expensive. It is still the norm that the man pays. With gays that doesn't really apply.

LG

Men's average wage is more than women's average wage. Hence an average couple with two guys will earn more than an average couple with a man and a woman and more again than an average household with two women.

NZ

"Men’s average wage is more than women’s average wage."

Is this still true in 2013? If so, it certainly isn't true of all groups of men. Black men, for example, tend to earn less than black women.

David

I was surprised no-one has commented on the datapoint given in the podcast; gay couples earned more than straight couples earned more than lesbian couples. I'm pretty sure that previous Freakonomics episodes have asserted that women earn less than men; so discrimination or not, it's entirely logical that two men earn more than one man/one woman or two women.

The suggestion of confirmation bias, together with the mention of study which shows the opposite result (that gay couples earn less than straight couples (what about the lesbian couples?)) gave the story an interesting twist in the tail/tale.

Shane L

Haven't been able to listen to the podcast yet so I don't know if this is covered, but I would guess that higher educated, richer socio-economic groups are more likely to be tolerant towards different sexualities than lower-educated, poorer groups. Hence poorer gay people may be more inclined to conceal their sexualities than richer gay people.

Noah

I live on SSD, and my husband is a NYC public school teacher. Rich? You've got to be kidding! What we need to see in the media are images of REAL gay men--the ones who don't go to the gym, the ones who are not "pretty boys" but instead just average ordinary men trying to get by. Please see my YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NmJeLzZC2kM.

NZ

Thumbs up! I couldn't agree more.

The gay rights movement would do itself a huge favor by placing a priority on changing the way gay people are depicted in the media. If the rest of America got the impression that gay men watch football, mow their lawns, go to church, and are grossed out by the idea of nude yoga (you know, just like normal people are), it would remove the assumption that gay people are out to change--rather than participate in--the institution of marriage.

(Of course, the gay rights movement doesn't exactly have a spotless track record when it comes to acting in the interests of gay people.)

In the media presently, gay men are usually depicted as flamboyant, prissy, sex-obsessed, and/or cosmopolitan. (Gay publications like Out! magazine tend to fuel this depiction as well.) An occasional statement, but little hard evidence, has been offered up by prominent gay men to disprove the accuracy of this depiction. I like to assume the evidence is there somewhere but that for whatever reason it just hasn't made its way into the mainstream view. But even if the evidence isn't there, changing the depiction would still be beneficial, from a tactical standpoint, to the cause of gay integration and acceptance.

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James

I don't know who you think of as "the rest of America", but as a football detesting agnostic straight male who has pretty much always done his yoga in the nude, I kinda prefer the stereotype of gay men to your stereotype of "normal people" :-)

BigGuy

When families have 3 or more kids, the youngest boy is likely to be gay. One reason some gay men may have money is because they inherit it from their parents and older brothers and sisters.

Most gay men have lower incomes and less wealth than straight men, not more. They appear to have more than they do because they pay attention to their appearance.

Gay couples are likely to be more stable than a homosexual individual, just as straight married couples are more stable than singles living alone.

anonymous

Where is it you GOT these ideas? Third boy is gay??? Gays are poor but better looking so you can't tell??? Where were these studies done???

As for "inheriting money from parents and brothers and sisters", I suppose it happens. But if those brothers and sisters have kids, the grandparents are going to leave their money for those kids' college fund, not send it to Gay George in San Francisco so he can get botox injections. The brothers and sisters money is also tied up in mortgages and kids, why would they leave money to their gay siblings instead of their own children?

anonymous

BTW, for what it's worth, my neighbor who has a rich gay relative said the relative got a big inheritance from an elderly sugar daddy, who died after this relative functioned as a sort of caretaker for a few years. There's that to consider, inheritances and support from rich gay men - who have to leave their money to someone (or something).

Mike Jones

Question for the gays reading this - "At what age did you discover that you were attracted to the same sex?" I often hear gays say "Oh, I always knew that I liked men (or women)".

Does that mean the age of 6? The age of 10? 13? I didn't know that I like girls until after puberty. Before puberty I looked at women as just friends with cooties.

LS

I'll bite...

Can you think of the age when you learned that men and women fell in love and had marriages/partnerships? My guess is that this is such a huge part of the world surrounding children (their families, their communities, television, books, religious stories, etc.) that the moment of "discovery" cannot be traced since it's ingrained from day one. So someone might say that they "always knew" it to be the case.

I can't speak for queer men and women in general, but for myself, I would put the idea that I was interested in other women in the same sort of category. Long before understanding what sex was or what gay rights were or anything like that, I had this understanding that the man-woman partnership I saw everywhere did not feel right to me. Later I was able to articulate these feelings and realize it was homosexuality, but the feelings existed from such a young (and inarticulate) age that there is nothing like an aha! moment to point to. I just knew it in the way that kids know about heterosexuality well before they understand what sex is or begin to desire it.

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claude

I think you missed one point that the question should have suggested.

The gayborhoods and people who live there have some of their wealth as a result of the increase in property values. Everyone want to live in those neighborhoods, which pushes the price. However, in many cases, when the gays started moving in, they were run down parts of town. Having the wealthy follow them has helped them.

But..good story.

Voice of Reason

I've always assumed that gay affluence arose as a result of gay people never having to worry about unwanted pregnancies, and only ever having children when they had to fight tooth and nail for them through adoption.

Even disregarding the disposable wealth having two incomes with no children brings, think about how much worse off people tend to be when they have children out of wedlock as teens compared to their childless counterparts. Even if that accounts for just 20% of the straight population, that's enough to put a dent in the data.

jerilyn

Hi Freakanomics, I listen to your podcasts often. I find them interesting. I am a Physician Assistant, an am woefully ignorant about economics. I enjoy looking at issues through the economics world view, which is different from mine.
As I read the title of the article and started listening, I immediately thought that gay men were NOT richer, and was surprised to find that others thought they were. The way that gay men are portrayed on T.V. is not what I see at my clinic.

Recent research has shown that gay men suffer from higher rates of suicide, depression, substance abuse and other self destruction behavior than straight men. I kept waiting for the podcast to mention that as part of the equation. As a reason for income difference.
Also this could be a factor in job discrimination. Maybe employers don't want to take a risk with a gay employee because he statistically has a higher chance of suicide, substance abuse, ect.

I know that this is a sensitive issue in the gay community. This issue is not talked about much.

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Zippy

Wow, this has degenerated into an entirely un-economic discussion. I'd like to return the to the main premise of this story for a moment.

Dear Stephen and Steve,
I love your books, radio show, blog, podcasts, etc. I listen with great interest to your podcasts while I'm at the gym, on a walk, or on the road. I've become increasingly concerned with the lack of presence of feminist economics or economic/social issues from a Global South perspective. This podcast tipped the scales of my concern. One of the researchers (can't recall who, but it was a female) stated that one reason for the higher levels of education among gay men is that they may choose to compensate for future discrimination in the workplace by achieving higher degrees. (this was the only reason presented in the podcast for this phenomenon). This may hold some truth, but it seems like quite an assumptive statement. What's worse, it leaps right over top of a very well studied and simple explanation.

We know, from years of intensive study, that women struggle to achieve higher levels of education and enter into professional fields like law, academia and medicine because of the ticking time bomb of their biological clocks. Women, straight or lesbian, are all under the tick tock of the maternal clock. Gay men, by definition, are exempt from this constraint. So, to say that gay men might seek more schooling for fear of discrimination is far more complicated an explanation than necessary. Gay men don't have to worry about getting out of school (especially high earning graduate programmes like law, medicine, etc) in time to get a good job (one that will pay off hefty loans), work their way up to partner/resident/tenured professor before turning the magic 35 (point of 'advanced maternal age'). They also don't have the same worries women (again, straight or lesbian) have about going through pregnancies and childbirth while working or going to school. Finally, they don't have to worry about any "surprises" in the form of a baby (that may throw some women off their education or career track).

Certainly gay men face many social, political and economic barriers. I'm glad that the Freakonomics team was able to break down some of those inaccurate impressions about gay men being much wealthier than everyone else. Still, I wonder if the 'hidden side of everything' is really not so hidden in this case.

Zippy

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Carmen

How can I download this??

rob

As a poor white gay male who is in the minority of the elitism of the "gay white male" I only earn 9.80 an hour and I barely can afford my rent and groceries. I struggle daily trying to make ends meet. As for being obsessed with perfectly clean, my place is a disaster only kim and aggie would go crazy about. I have junk everywhere. I try to keep it clean but busy working to live where I live. I don't own a car, never had a driver's license, never went to college. All this costs thousands. I don't want to be part of the american dream which is a joke because america is obsessed with money, materialism and having things. Those things are useless. When you die, you cannot take anything with you. If I lived on the streets I know how to survive because there are plenty of wild and edible foodstuffs in the woods. Life is about survival and the way to survive doesn't always mean working a job 9 to 5. volunteering to help others is good because it shows you care about others needs. Who gives a fuck about owning some stupid house and car anyways? You make the realtors and bank wealthier and the auto industry CEOs get richer and the workers are screwed regardless. Besides the republican party makes money from the banks,auto industry, real estate and developers as well as the oil industry. This ties in with the log cabin republicans which I hate because they are wolfs in sheeps clothing and a traitor to what gays are supposed to be about, diversity. They represent the minority of the gay society but their influence is too strong on the gay mafia which owns the gay media and controls the thought processes of gay men in contemporary society; they tell gay men how to dress, act, eat, where to eat, and all the things associated with the wealthy people.

Also of course is the racism and elitism of gay white men who push the same mentality as straight white men. No difference there.

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Javier

Not THIS gay man!

Maat

You make a big jump at the beginning of your analysis. You look at couples (straight vs. gay male vs lesbian) and then extrapolate out to all people. Don't you need to look at single gay and single straight people to have a comparison valid for all people?

Could it not very well be that straight people are likely to couple up and marry even at lower income, whereas gay males who settle into couplehood (or marriage) are of a type more likely to be settled and affluent?

Maria

I never seen in my life gay people, but I hear from other people or read about them. According to this article about gay people that they have very lower income because it is difecult for gay people to have good job. This people alwayse have to remember who they are. Gay people has to be from the same back ground and have higher education. Eventhought that gay people have little perceant to have children and give them good education. children who was raised by gay people they will have hard time at school and making friends. Few people will be friends with kids who were raised by gay parents.