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Gay Men and the Great Recession—How Are We Faring?

By L. K. Regan

The current economy has been tough on everyone. But how is the gay community faring? Despite early expectations that gay men would be the only demographic to carry on as usual—the famous "double income, no kids" effect—the current picture is much more mixed. Here's the state of gays and the economy.

Conventional wisdom holds that the gay community ignores recessions. It's not that we don't experience the pain, the theory goes, it's that we just keep going out and spending as if nothing happened. Early in the crisis, in 2008, headlines blared phrases such as, "Do Gays Love A Recession?", proclaiming that the gay community would ride out the storm in its usual high style. The logic behind such assumptions was simple. We gay men like to go out, and we like to look good when we do. And without kids to pay for, we can supposedly afford it better than most. Market researchers carefully studied the gay community's purchasing habits and published studies citing the money spent by gay consumers on fashion, grooming products, music...you get the idea.

Now, deep into the recession, the evidence is much more mixed. Several prominent gay businesses have been forced to close up shop, including New York's Oscar Wilde Bookshop and supper club Mecca in San Francisco. The New York City Gay Men's Chorus reports that they are in severe financial distress. Gay newspapers have cut staff—as happened at the Gay and Lesbian Times in San Diego—or shut down all together, as did the Windy City Times in Chicago. And gay advocacy groups have suffered the same cutbacks as other non-profits, with Lambda Legal and GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) both cutting staff.

There are also signs that the unstable job market has disproportionately cut into gay men's sense of emotional health as well. Recently the British mental health charity Mind released part of an extensive survey of English men and women looking for evidence of their different experiences of the recession. They found that 37 percent of men were feeling low or depressed. Among those, middle-aged men were substantially more likely to have suicidal thoughts than were women, and all men were less likely to talk to either a doctor or friends about their depression. In particular, men tend to dwell on job security and work issues, the study found, and to sink quickly into depression upon losing their jobs.

These effects are general to men, but the survey pointed out that some demographics are hit particularly hard. Gay and bisexual men are more than four times as likely to commit suicide as heterosexual men. According to Mind’s Chief Executive, Paul Farmer, "The recession is clearly having a detrimental impact on the nation’s mental health but men in particular are struggling with the emotional impact. Being a breadwinner is something that is still crucial to the male psyche so if a man loses his job, he loses a large part of his identity, putting his mental wellbeing in jeopardy. The problem is that too many men wrongly believe that admitting mental distress makes them weak and this kind of self stigma can cost lives." For gay men, the pain of ostracization from community and, often, family, can take an additional toll.

There is one area where we seem to be carrying on as usual: travel. As the economy began to unravel, travel marketers advised targeting the gay community, on the grounds that the American gay community spends around 70 billion dollars annually on travel, and that gay travelers do not change their plans as easily as other clients. As one newspaper succinctly put it, "Most gays and lesbian households don't have children, and so have more income for discretionary spending. They also aren't tied to the school year and can travel year-round." In March, the chairman of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association told the Washington Times that his own gay vacation company, Zoom Vacations, was seeing booming business.

But even within this mini-boom there are signs of trouble. Late last year in California, Saratoga Springs, a gay-oriented spa resort, hit reduced bookings and credit trouble that threatened to close its doors. Earlier this year, South Florida, home to popular gay destinations Miami, Key West, and Fort Lauderdale, experienced a marked downturn in gay travel that deeply concerned local businesses. To the extent that travel has picked up again, it has been in large part thanks to deep discounts and budget packages that have helped travel rebound, but kept profits down. For budget-seekers, however, this has been high season. As hotel consultant Richard Gray told the Miami Sun-Sentinel, "The approach in the e-mails we receive now is: 'What specials do you have?' not 'What are your rates?'"

We don't yet know how the LGBT community has fared economically in the recession compared to the nation at large. But one Oklahoma state official believes we're to blame for the economic downturn, our continued contributions to the travel industry notwithstanding. State Representative Sally Kern penned an "Oklahoma Citizens' Proclamation for Morality" that was signed by supporters at the state capitol. In the proclamation, Kern blames the economic troubles on the fact that "this nation has become a world leader in promoting abortion, pornography, same sex marriage, sex trafficking, divorce, illegitimate births, child abuse, and many other forms of debauchery." Good to know.