just how financially well off *are* LGBT people?

(Warning: I let my inner wonk out to play on this one. I think it’s interesting, but then I can be a first-class math geek at times.)

Over at Patheos, Timothy Dalrymple wrote about a recent survey on whether LGBT people are suffering economically. The study found that LGBT households had an average income of $61,500, compared to the average household income of $50,000 across the board. And this is proof against what Dr. Dalrymple calls the “gay wealth myth.” In his own words,

The study is based on a detailed survey of 1400 LGBT’s in every state of the union, aged 25-68. […] In the past, one argument against the “gay wealth myth” has been that it’s disproportionately the wealthy who are “out” and therefore the results are skewed. Yet the Prudential study included both “out” and “not out” gays. While the methodology will presumably be attacked, the Prudential study represents the strongest evidence to date that the “gay wealth myth” is not a myth at all.

That’s not exactly true. According to the official survey results published by Prudential, “participants needed only to define themselves as part of the LGBT community, and to be aged 25 to 68. The study reached both people who are “completely out” (64%) and those who are still at least somewhat ‘in the closet’ (36%).” So far that tracks with what Dr. Dalrymple said – it’s not just limited to LGBT people who have informed their family, friends, coworkers, etc. that are included in the survey.

But I’m sure Dr. Dalrymple recognizes that many people sexually attracted to their gender, don’t necessarily identify as LGBT. I had a classmate, a Chinese exchange student at UNC-Greensboro, and we got talking about the way our different cultures thought about sex. She told me about a brother of hers who slept with men but would never describe himself as gay. In fact, at the time he was engaged to be married and had every intention, as far as she knew, to go through with it. His fiancée knew about his same-sex attraction, too. But in China, being masculine meant you got married, had sons, and provided for your family. It’s not so different from the down-low subculture among African-Americans. Since they don’t identify as LGBT, even to themselves, they wouldn’t show up in a survey like this.

How representative is the Prudential survey? The best way I know to compare is to look at how the demographic break-down of the people surveyed compares to data from the 2010 census.

First, age: According to the census, there are 146,992,337 Americans between 25 and 64 (the ages surveyed by Prudential). That’s 57.8% aged 25-44, and 42.1% aged 45-64. The Prudential survey, on the other hand, found that 22% of its respondents were aged 27-34 and another 28% were 35-44, for 50% aged 25-44. In the older set, 28% were aged 45-54 and another 22% were aged 55-68, or 50% for the 45-68 age bracket. Put simply, the Prudential survey has more older participants and less younger ones, than you see in society as a whole.

A recent Gallup poll, however, found a steady decline in LGBT affiliation from younger to older Americans.

So again, the Prudential survey includes a higher percentage of older Americans relative to the numbers who actually think of themselves as LGBT. This matters, because as you get older you earn more. If I’m looking at it correctly, the Prudential survey is looking at LGBT people who are more likely to earn more than you’d see in people generally.

(The survey also completely overlooks the most vulnerable groups of LGBT people, economically: emancipated teenagers who run away or are kicked out of their houses because of homophobia, and the recent graduate who won’t have a legal partner to provide health insurance and other benefits if their own job doesn’t offer it.)

Second, ethnicity. According to the Prudential survey, 67% of those surveyed are white (compared to 63.4% of the census), 11% black (compared to 13.1%), 12% Hispanic (16.7%), 5% Asian/Pacific Islander (5.2%), 1% Native American (1.2%), and 4% mixed-race (2.3%). Now I know it’s hard to survey for ethnicity because the categories aren’t easily broken up. Just look at the debate over whether Barack Obama, a biracial man with Kenyan black (as opposed to African-American slave) ancestry, was truly a member of the African-American community. So I could see there being some room for people answering slightly different questions differently. (I know the census instructions, but I’ve obviously not seen how the Prudential survey worded.

Still, I think there are some definite trends here, especially when you look at that Gallup survey.

So more minorities than Caucasians are willing to identify as LGBT than whites, yet the numbers in the survey are lower even than their census numbers.

Granted, I just had one statistics course over a decade ago, but this seems decidedly fishy to me.

Finally, the degree of outness. According to the Prudential survey, 8% weren’t out at all, 28% were partially out, and 64% were fully out. Back in 2011, however, the University of Rochester sponsored a study looking at how many LGBT people remained closeted, in what contexts, and what led them to come out. 50% stayed closeted at school, 45% at work, and 36% to their families. (69% weren’t open about their sexuality with their religious group, but if I was a lesbian and told everyone but my church friends, I’d consider that fully out, so I’m willing to set that statistic aside.) If this study is right, it seems like a lot more people are closeted than showed up in that Prudential survey. And again, this matters economically. According to the survey, people came out when they thought the group would be supportive; age, race, and other factors didn’t seem to matter that much. And I suspect that white-collar work environments are more supportive of this kind of thing than blue-collar ones. Again, the survey seems to drift toward high-earning LGBT people than low-earning ones.

The Gallup survey tells a different story. Higher education and even undergraduate education aren’t full of LGBT people; actually, the proportions go down:

To be fair to Dr. Dalrymple, who claims the Ivies are swimming in LGBT professors and that 20-25% of undergrad students are gay. The poll he links to is talking about same-sex attraction, not LGBT identity, but if he’s right – and he’s the one with an M.Div. from Princeton and a Ph.D. from Yale – it’s fair to notice that not all degrees are created equal. A B.A. in communications from State U. will earn you a lot less than one from Princeton, or even my current school (Fordham University, a Jesuit school in NYC) would.

All I can say is that in my own education history, I’ve met exactly two professors I knew who identified as LGBT, one in religious studies and the other in philosophy. With LGBT students the number was a little higher, probably because I knew many more students than professors. But the number is probably around 5%, – and that is with being active in various LGBT/ally groups pretty much everywhere I’ve studied. I learned that an acquaintance or two was gay because we showed up at the same meeting and we talked afterwards. I’m probably a little more conscious of friends/acquaintances being LGBT than most, and it doesn’t come close to 20-25%. Of course, we’re talking about two public schools and one Jesuit school, so maybe I’m missing the effect Dr. Dalrymple describes and the way that effects income potential.

Speaking of income, Gallup disagrees with the Prudential poll here as well:

This actually cuts the other way as well. It’s not just that less high-income earners are LGBT; less LGBT people are high-income earners. According to the Gallup write-up:

Among those who report income, about 16% of LGBT-identified individuals have incomes above $90,000 per year, compared with 21% of the overall adult population. Additionally, 35% of those who identify as LGBT report incomes of less than $24,000 a year, significantly higher than the 24% for the population in general. These findings are consistent with research showing that LGBT people are at a higher risk of poverty.

I’m more inclined to trust a Gallup poll than one done by a corporation, because Gallup has a reputation for rigorous, well-set-up polls. I’ve also been able to find more details about the Gallup poll than I have about the Prudential one. I’ll look forward to seeing more people respond to it, as it gets more press coverage.

Statistics aside, I don’t really disagree with Dr. Dalrymple on the conclusion he wants to draw at the end of his discussion of the poll (before the whole discussion of how evangelicals are the real put-upon minority – I disagree with that majorly). The LGBT community as a whole does not suffer economically the same way that racial minorities and women do. As a group, LGBT people come from all kinds of backgrounds. Same-sex attraction is determined by genetics and by the kind of experiences you find at every rung of society. What does differ with class, religious background, ethnicity, etc. is whether you’ll feel free to act on that drive, and how acting will affect you. Homophobia isn’t also a “poor” vice or even a religious one (though it often is dressed up in religious language).

You get economic problems when things go off the rails even a bit, because being homosexual or transgendered puts stress on those support systems. When a kid is made miserable at school, when she has feels like she has to run away or become self-sufficient as soon as possible – this keeps her from being able to succeed at school. Between the stigma of homosexuality in sports and DADT, many homosexual men lose two major ways to help pay for college (athletic scholarships, GI benefits). And I suspect many LGBT people who do make it to college may be drawn to save-the-world kind of jobs because they want to help others avoid the problems they ran into growing up. But none of these are problems that apply to all or even most LGBT people in the same way that Jim crow and the women’s pay gap affect all African-Americans and all women.

But equal rights for LGBT people isn’t about money. I’m surprised Dr. Dalrymple doesn’t get this, because he turns around to another group he thinks is getting discriminated against where money isn’t involved in the slightest: evangelicals, and in particular Rvd. Louie Giglio, the pastor who was bumped from the Obama inauguration because he had once spoken approvingly of reparative therapy. Now, I disagree pretty strongly with Dr. Dalrymple’s assessment of the situation. Even when I thought homosexual sex was a sin, I didn’t believe if you prayed hard enough God would take away your sexual desires – partly because I didn’t think of same-sex desire as a sin, but partly because my denomination (United Methodists) always talked about God giving you the will to master your desires and actualize them at the right time, in the right way – we were never promised God would take away bad desires. Even the Roman Catholic Church’s catechism (#2359) calls homosexual people to chastity, not to become heterosexuals.

I’m also not on board with Dr. Dalrymple’s claim that, when Rvd. Giglio was pressured to step down (if that’s what happened), this pushed him out of the public square. I wasn’t invited to speak either. Neither were many other religious people with reaches much greater than mine, both from the pulpit/blog and through their work with the poor. The right to speech and participate in the body politic doesn’t guarantee you a megaphone. In fact, I’ll take it a step further: inaugurations and other events like this are the way politicians set out their ideals, the values they most want to emphasize. If President Obama didn’t think Rvd. Giglio fit in with the impression he was trying to give, then it’s good that he choose someone who conveys that message better. That’s not an infringement on your rights.

But even if it had taken away Rvd. Giglio’s right to make his voice heard, the problem wasn’t that Rvd. Giglio lost some income. I suspect he’s getting more exposure now than if he had spoken at the inauguration, and Rvd. Giglio could turn that into money if he was so driven. (To be clear: I’m not suggesting he will, or that his decision was at all motivated by money). The thing is, even if Rvd. Giglio doesn’t lose a dime, Dr. Dalrymple still thinks he lost something he deserved. Or to put it another way: even if Southern slaves had a better standard of living than Northern factory-owners, they still weren’t free.

I don’t really agree with a lot of what Dr. Dalrymple says about LGBT rights or Rvd. Giglio’s view of homosexuality. But I’m also wonkish enough that the poll itself bothered me. Thanks for indulging me on that point.

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