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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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.

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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