By Larissa McGarrity, University of Utah Doctoral Candidate, Clinical Psychology
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia famously argued that the high disposable income of gay Americans gives them “disproportionate political power.” It was part of the reasoning in his dissenting opinion in Romer v. Evans, a landmark 1996 case that overturned a Colorado amendment prohibiting legal protections for gay men and lesbian women. And still today, Scalia’s reasoning isn’t unusual. Americans who view lesbian, gay and bisexual people as wealthier than average are significantly less likely to support gay rights, surveys suggest. It’s as if they believe that most LGB people are in the mold of Mitchell Pritchett, the Ivy League lawyer on “Modern Family,” or Arizona Robbins, the chief pediatric surgeon on “Grey’s Anatomy.”
But is it true that lesbian, gay and bisexual people are wealthier and more educated than the general population? What is the lived experience of people who are subjected to stigma for both their sexual orientation and socioeconomic status? And what are the unique health implications? Does consideration of socioeconomic status change our common assumptions about what it means to be LGB? You might be surprised by the answers to these questions, which I recently reported in an in-depth review in Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity.
Population-based studies make clear that the stereotype of gay affluence is, at best, an oversimplification and, at worst, a gross inaccuracy. Although education levels appear to be higher for LGB people, this advantage is not reflected in the individual income of gay men or the family income of lesbian couples. The majority of population-based studies find that gay men earn lower wages than heterosexual men. And while lesbian women earn higher wages than heterosexual women, same-sex female couples earn lower wages than different-sex couples. Both male and female same-sex couples have higher poverty rates than different-sex couples. It is clear from these studies that LGB individuals are at least as socioeconomically diverse as heterosexual individuals.
Being LGB and lower on the socioeconomic status ladder represents a unique experience in several ways. Individuals who are gay and poor, for example, may live in neighborhoods more hostile to LGB identity and expression, face stricter standards for gender role conformity, experience isolation from the mainstream LGB community and engage in higher-risk health behaviors than higher- socioeconomic status LGB individuals.
Antigay discrimination and related stressors that contribute to health disparities among LGB populations may differ by socioeconomic status. One’s place in the social hierarchy may provide a fundamental context for understanding the impact of these stressors on health. LGB individuals who are lower on the ladder of social status may be more psychologically and physiologically vulnerable to the negative effects of discrimination on health – and uniquely vulnerable to negative effects of sexual orientation disclosure on health. For example, the common assumption that disclosing one’s sexual orientation is uniformly healthy may be inaccurate for lower status groups. My earlier research with David Huebner, associate professor at the University of Utah, suggests that being out and open about one’s sexual minority status is beneficial to one’s physical health for individuals with high income and education, but it is detrimental for individuals with low income and education.
Overall, research to date suggests that the intersection of socioeconomic status and sexual orientation is health-relevant and worthy of future investigation. Researchers should re-examine the existing literature on sexual orientation with increased awareness that it is predominantly a reflection of white, middle class, gay male experiences. Going forward, it will be important to think critically about predictors that have traditionally gone unexamined, such as financial stress and poverty, and to develop interventions that are inclusive of diversity within the LGB population.
We need to not only integrate research on socioeconomic status and LGB health, but also recognize that socioeconomic status is a fundamental variable that should be examined more extensively in the field of psychology as a whole. Without specific attention to socioeconomic status in psychology research, the field may continue to assume that prominent theories and findings apply universally instead of recognizing that some apply only to specific economic groups.
McGarrity, L. A. (2014). Socioeconomic status as context for minority stress and health disparities among lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, 1, 383-397.
McGarrity, L. A., & Huebner, D. M. (2014). Is being out about sexual orientation uniformly healthy? The moderating role of socioeconomic status in a prospective study of gay and bisexual men. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 47, 28-38.