The catalog shows a well-heeled gay male couple from the city visiting a pair of lesbians at their rustic but posh cabin in the woods. Everybody wears the vendor's upscale clothes, drives $30,000 sport-utility vehicles, and relaxes for an outdoorsy weekend of giggles, intimacy, and playing fetch with a purebred puppy.
It's an image of luxury, of economic and social contentment, of health and leisure. And, some gay activists contend, it's a mostly false perspective on gay and lesbian life that is fast becoming the most potent weapon in the religious right's antigay arsenal. "This is a totally distorted picture of the economic status of gays and lesbians," says Lee Badgett, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts and director of the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies. "It keeps popping up in all sorts of destructive ways."
Indeed, archconservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia implied that gays are well-off in his dissent of the court's landmark 1996 ruling striking down Colorado's antigay Amendment 2. "Those who engage in homosexual conduct tend to reside in disproportionate numbers in certain communities ... have high disposable income ... and of course care about homosexual-rights issues much more ardently than the public at large," the justice wrote. As such, Scalia implied, gay men and lesbians use this alleged wealth and power to bully hetero America into "not merely a grudging social toleration, but full social acceptance, of homosexuality."
Yet this image was created not by enemies of gays but by those wishing to convince corporate America that gays are a viable target market for cars, travel packages, and a host of other goods. Two marketing agencies, Simmons Market Research Bureau in New York and Overlooked Opinions in Chicago, have insisted for years that gay men and lesbians are a lucrative, untapped market of childless, well-educated adults with lots of money and leisure time. These studies polled only openly gay and lesbian people who hold credit cards, donate to political causes, and subscribe to gay magazines. Yet the mainstream media have reported the results as if they reflect a cross section of gay America.
Other studies paint a more average picture of the financial health of gays, including one by Badgett to be published in a book tentatively titled The Economic Lives of Lesbians and Gay Men. Badgett, alarmed that the image of wealth may cover up widespread discrimination problems, culled data from six smaller, nonmarketing surveys of gay men and lesbians. She concludes that gay men tend to earn about $2,000 less per year than straight men, with estimates of the incomes of gay males generally falling in the $20,000 to $27,000 range. Lesbians tend to earn about the same as heterosexual women -- between $13,000 and $18,000, depending on the study.
Activists say such information can be used to lobby Congress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which fails to garner a majority year after year. …