📖 eBook - ePub
Capitalism, Community, and Lesbian and Gay Life
Amy Gluckman, Betsy Reed, Amy Gluckman, Betsy Reed
📖 eBook - ePub
Capitalism, Community, and Lesbian and Gay Life
Amy Gluckman, Betsy Reed, Amy Gluckman, Betsy Reed
About This Book
Homo Economics is the first honest account of the tense relationship between gay people and the economy. This groundbreaking collection brings together a variety of voices from the worlds of journalism, activism, academia, the arts, and public policy to address issues including the recent economic history of the gay community, the community's response to its changing economic circumstances, and the risks inherent in a narrow definition of liberation.
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This piece examines the recent surge in mainstream media attention to the gay community, looking at the origins and implications of corporate interest in the gay market.
Since a cocky k. d. lang reveled in Cindy Crawford’s feminine attentions on the cover of Vanity Fair in the summer of 1993, other icons of “lesbian chic” have been showing off their buzzcuts in androgynous ads, while gay men flex their pecs in mainstream magazines and, more figuratively, in the upper echelons of the business world. Newsweek, having declared cuddly, cohabitating “Lesbians” all the rage the previous year, observed a sudden bisexual moment sweeping the nation in 1995. Fashionably late, following centuries of invisibility punctuated by hostile caricatures, a conspicuous kind of gay liberation announced its own important arrival in the 1990s.
Gay and lesbian political activists, who have toiled for decades at the grassroots level to promote a welcoming climate for gay men and lesbians, certainly deserve a large share of the credit for the proliferation of gay-positive images, both in ads and in other media. But it is not as if liberation has suddenly become the bottom line for many of those peddling glamorous pictures of lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men. Marketers, who make it a rule to tolerate their markets, have had a revelation. The profits to be reaped from treating gay men and lesbians as a trend-setting consumer group finally outweigh the financial risks of inflaming right-wing hate. As George Slowik, Jr., publisher of the prosperous, glossy Out magazine, said in a 1993 interview, “Our demographics are more appealing than those of 80-year-old Christian ladies.”
“Untold millions,”1 or so the title of one recent business book proclaims, lie in the deep pockets of gay consumers, a demographic group that can best be tapped by placing ads in outlets like Out, as well as in predominantly straight venues that allow tantalizing glimpses of gay life. Advertisers are steering toward gay publications that promote a stylish, widely palatable vision of gay life—primarily glossy mags like Out and The Advocate that have been cleansed of the objectionable: phone sex ads, radical politics, and hard core leather culture. This foray into even sanitized gay media is big news in the advertising business. Marketing and business publications exhibit a wary excitement, with headlines like “The Gay Market: Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself,” “Untapped Niche Offers Marketers Brand Loyalty,” and “Mainstream’s Domino Effect: Liquor, Fragrance, Clothing Advertisers Ease into Gay Magazines.” Along with Absolut, Calvin Klein, and Benetton, corporations that have taken the lead in advertising in mainstream gay publications include Philip Morris, Columbia Records, Miller beer, Seagram’s, and Hiram Walker.
These newfound suitors of gay consumers have not come calling without any encouragement. Rather, their interest has been piqued by organizations—usually run by gays—that conduct surveys and employ selected information about gay consumers to persuade advertisers that a viable gay and lesbian market exists. For instance, Strub Media Group, led by openly-gay Poz publisher Sean Strub, distributes a flyer claiming that readers of gay publications have an average household income of $63,100, compared to $36,500 for all households. Gay marketing groups also point out that since gay men and lesbians have no children (more and more a false assumption), their disposable income is even higher than their average income would suggest. According to well-publicized data from another gay marketing organization, Overlooked Opinions, 80 percent of gay men eat out more than five times a month. And a promotional package used by a network of local gay newspapers asserts that gay men and lesbians travel more, buy more CDs, use their AmEx card more, and generally spend more money on the good life than do their straight counterparts. The most valuable target market—the one that is most conspicuous in the marketing literature—is white, urban, white-collar, and predominantly male.
Prime conditions exist for these notions to color popular views of gay men and lesbians. Unlike other subgroups that could never “pass,” the clearest characteristic of gay men and lesbians has been, until recently, their invisibility. To be sure, there have been some stereotypes out there, focusing mostly on sexual promiscuity and mental instability. But most straight Americans have harbored few ideas about whether gay men and lesbians were rich or poor, spendthrift or frugal. Past gay invisibility has provided a blank slate of sorts, a slate that is rapidly filling up with notions that have more to do with marketing than with reality.
And the fault lies partly with overzealous gay marketing groups. While anecdotes about free-spending, double-income gay households do accurately represent one segment of the gay community, they have unfortunately been presented as descriptive of all gay men and lesbians. Eager to persuade reluctant corporations of a lucrative yet dormant gay market, Overlooked Opinions circulated misleading statistics depicting gay people as disproportionately rich. As M. V. Lee Badgett contends in her essay “Beyond Biased Samples” in this volume, such assertions of high gay incomes are common but inaccurate, as marketers have confused survey data referring to the readers of gay publications with the demographics of the community as a whole. Badgett’s findings reveal that gay men earn substantially less than their straight counterparts, while lesbians are roughly even with heterosexual women in earning power.
Still, the bottom line for advertisers is that targeting the group of gays that is most prosperous can be quite lucrative. It might not be as large as it appears in the literature, but there is certainly a stack of gay money to be had. Moreover, lesbians and gay men have proven to be vulnerable to the advances of corporate marketers because they have been ignored as a consumer group for so long. The makers of Absolut vodka were the first to discover and exploit the gay community’s brand loyalty, which is now a veritable legend among advertisers. Tracking consumption patterns after local ads appeared in gay media, Absolut charted dramatic jumps in specific requests for its brand name in gay bars.
Ads don’t feature glamorous gays just to connect with gay consumers, either. Firms placing gay-themed ads are also counting on the ability of attractive gay idols to set trends for straight shoppers—a bet that has already paid off for some. Resplendent in red, RuPaul, the queen of drag and Mac cosmetics model, has inspired hordes of genetic girls to buy the company’s lipstick through ads placed primarily in mainstream straight media. And there is the demonstrated power of ordinary gay people to establish trends followed by straights; it has become common lore, for instance, that gay men popularized Levi’s button-fly jeans.
Before such money-making fads take hold in any community, media images usually introduce the novel idea. Sometimes ads alone will do it (such as vodka bottles by Keith Haring), but marketers uniformly believe that to take optimum effect, advertising has to be placed in a complementary environment. This suggests that a sort of mercenary collusion between advertising and editorial forces might have provided much of the impetus for the recent gay media moment. Circumstantial evidence abounds; flip over k. d. and Cindy and you will find Absolut. Ads for Benetton, Calvin Klein, and other companies known for their keen interest in the gay market lurk in the shadows of many of the recent gay-moment stories.
Some of the supposed attributes of the new gay target consumer group are probably harmless. Out magazine’s media kit, for example, says that lesbians and gay men are “homemakers” and “aesthetes.” And the new gay visibility has distinct advantages. The very presence of gay men and lesbians in the media—as celebrities, authors, and social actors—is a long-sought triumph, while being respected as a market often translates into political clout. In Hawaii, for instance, the argument for gay marriage has been bolstered by the prospect of a windfall from gay tourism. One economist has even estimated that the first state to recognize gay marriage could reap a $4.3 billion boon.2 And, of course, money itself can buy a good degree of political influence. As the work of the Human Rights Campaign has shown, carefully targeted donations to political campaigns can cement the loyalty of key politicians (though the Log Cabin Republicans discovered the limits of this approach when Bob Dole returned their carefully rendered gift in the fall of 1995). Certainly, the gay and lesbian community can wield its newly recognized market power wisely by rewarding social responsibility and by punishing capitulation to the Right.
To the extent that gay advances hinge on financial interests, however, they are precarious. What if a future backlash depletes gay incomes, or the right wing proves the greater economic force? Far-right boycotts have hurt progressive causes before and the right wing remains a formidable force in some areas of the marketplace. In 1995, for instance, when PFLAG—Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays—tried to buy $1 million worth of TV air time for antihate public service spots, protests from Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network caused most TV stations to refuse to run the ads. In general, companies that don’t serve a substantial conservative, fundamentalist constituency—such as liquor firms—are the ones that have avidly been cultivating gay consumption. In the case of alcohol, this has made for some unpleasant bedfellows, with ads for Dewar’s, Miller beer, and the like sustaining mainstream gay magazines, while radical gay media like Gay Community News struggle to survive.
In addition, there are concrete political risks in projecting a rich, powerful image to get wide attention. The religious right has appropriated gay marketing statistics to portray gay men and lesbians as a rich special interest undeserving of civil rights protection. Overlooked Opinions received a request for evidence of the gay community’s financial power from the Colorado Attorney General’s office, charged with defending antigay ballot initiative Amendment 2. And the antigay group Colorado for Family Values has argued that “homosexuals are anything but disadvantaged,” citing statistics that gay male households earn an average of $55,400 annually—in the same range estimated by Overlooked Opinions. This campaign, directed at lower-income communities, has succeeded in fanning antigay hate as a response to real economic despair. In the fall of 1995, a similar attempt to convince Maine voters that gay men and lesbians were an advantaged group seeking preferential treatment was defeated by a margin of just 6 percentage points (ironically, this victory occurred only after progay forces outspent their opponents 10 to 1).
And in May 1996, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Colorado’s Amendment 2, Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissenting opinion made specific reference to the “high disposable income” that gay people have allegedly used to build up “disproportionate political power.”3
Stereotypes of gay wealth play not only into the hands of the far Right; more moderate opponents of a broad-reaching lesbian and gay agenda have seized on them as well. In the May 1993 issue of The New Republic, gay social critic Jonathan Rauch invoked popular stereotypes about gay wealth to argue that gay men and lesbians should not consider themselves oppressed. His piece opened with chilling scenes of gay bashing, but then proceeded to claim that gay men and lesbians are not oppressed because they meet only one of his criteria of oppression—they face direct legal discrimination. They can vote, have a right to education, and are entitled to basic human rights, but the point he returned to most is that they are also free of “impoverishment relative to the remainder of the population.”4 After citing Overlooked Opinions’ income data, Rauch offered one anecdotal example after another of the wealthy gay man: a college professor friend who owns a split-level condo and a Mazda Miata; gay acquaintances with $50,000 incomes and European vacations who whine about being victims.
Rauch’s analysis was not only built on a faulty empirical foundation. It was also blind to the link between the legal discrimination that he acknowledged and economic oppression. In his discussion of whether gay people are economically oppressed, Rauch never mentioned the occupational segregation faced by openly gay men until literally the last few years. Like Jews throughout European history, openly gay men have been shunted into a severely limited number of occupational fields. And just as the success of the Rothschilds should never have been used to belittle the wide-ranging effects of the systematic discrimination that Jews faced over many centuries in Europe, so the success of some gay figures in the arts and entertainment business (or in Rauch’s circle of acquaintance) should not obscure the real effects of having to choose between being openly gay and access to a wide range of jobs. Moreover, although discrimination against lesbians is less conspicuous because all women have faced economic oppression, it is clear that women’s lower incomes place lesbian households at a unique disadvantage.
This is not to say that, as a group, gay men and lesbians experience seamless economic exploitation; indeed, the case of gay marketing reveals the very complex relationship between gay people and the economy. We are witnessing a new stage in this relationship, and perhaps some signs of improvement in it, but gay people have always both prospered and suffered at the hands of the market. As the historian John D’Emilio has argued, gay people have enjoyed the economic freedom to build same-sex households in capitalist societies, but culturally they have served as scapegoats for the expression of various anxieties—family pressures but also class frustration, which might threaten the economic status quo were it to find its proper target. “Materially,” he wrote, “capitalism weakens the bonds that once kept families together so that their members experience a growing instability in the place they have come to expect happiness and emotional security…. [L]esbians, gay men, and heterosexual feminists have become the scapegoats for the social instability of the system.”5
Now, suddenly, it has become useful to business interests to cultivate a narrow (and widely acceptable) definition of gay identity as a marketing tool, and to integrate gay people as gay people into a new consumer niche. The speed with which the needs of the market can steamroll the strongest of social traditions and taboos is awe-inspiring. Yet in keeping with history, the outcome for gay men and lesbians is double-edged.
Today, the sword of the market is slicing off every segment of the gay community that is not upper-middle class, (mostly) white, and (mostly) male. Lesbians and gay men who do not see themselves in Ikea TV spots or Dewar’s ads feel alienated. Perhaps more importantly, gay politics now reflects this divide, and a growing chorus of conservative gay writers is calling for gay activism to separate itself from any broader progressive vision that might address the needs and interests of the less visible, less privileged members of the gay community.
Just a few years ago, the AIDS crisis helped give an edge to gay politics by encouraging just those sorts of connections to develop. AIDS politicized a large group of white, middle-class gay men, who suddenly discovered what it was like to live in fear of losing housing or medical coverage, and who had to fight the medical, insurance, and real estate establishments to survive. The crisis moved many gay men to come out, and it also prompted some of them to link the fight against homophobia to other progressive polit...
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APA 6 Citation
[author missing]. (2012). Homo Economics (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1611311/homo-economics-capitalism-community-and-lesbian-and-gay-life-pdf (Original work published 2012)
[author missing]. (2012) 2012. Homo Economics. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis. https://www.perlego.com/book/1611311/homo-economics-capitalism-community-and-lesbian-and-gay-life-pdf.
[author missing] (2012) Homo Economics. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1611311/homo-economics-capitalism-community-and-lesbian-and-gay-life-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
[author missing]. Homo Economics. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2012. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.