New data released recently has highlighted the stark reality of the poverty that continues to face queer people in Australia.
A report released by the Gay and Lesbian Foundation of Australia showed that queer people still face homelessness rates well above the rest of the population, with gay men and lesbian women being three times more likely to be homeless than straight people. The report found these levels were due to a range of structural economic issues, with queers then facing prejudice after seeking social services, perpetuating this disadvantage further still.
This data may be surprising to some, as the queer community has increasingly been projected as a wealthy and upwardly mobile community over the past few decades.
This perception comes from a variety of sources, from images of lavish weddings that often dominate marriage equality campaigns, to the advertising of niche and expensive products found in gay magazines, to shows such as Ru Paul’s Drag Race. The picture of queer folks is now largely one of someone who lives in the eastern suburbs of Sydney (or similar), works in a professional job and spends their weekends going to an expensive gym followed by a fancy brunch.
This report, however, highlights how different reality is, and it is not simply limited to homelessness.
In 2015, the NSW Council of Social Services released a report titled ‘Beyond the Myth of Pink Privilege,’ collating data on the socio-economic situation of queer people in Australia. The data they presented was stark, quoting two studies that showed significant workplace disadvantage for gay and lesbian Australians.
The Australian Longitudinal Survey of Women’s Health found that lesbian women between the ages of 22 and 27 were less likely to have secure employment, more likely to have lower personal incomes, and more likely to lose a job that their heterosexual counterparts. Meanwhile, a study conducted at the University of Melbourne found a "labour market penalty existed for sexual minorities and gay males in particular". This report found that gay men were more likely than their straight friends to have "multiple non-working spells", and on average earned approximately 20% less than the rest of the population.
When it comes to transgender and intersex people, the data is even more bleak. The National Trans Mental Health Survey conducted by Beyond Blue found that 62.4% of the sample reported a gross income below $40,000—well under the 2013 mean Australian income of $58,000, when the study was conducted. Similar data has also been found for intersex people, with a majority earning under the mean Australian income.
This disadvantage is not just something that occurs for young people, but is often experienced throughout a person's life. The research from the NSW Council of Social Services found that older queer people often report having fewer financial resources available at retirement, with researchers stating that “the effects of chronic (prolonged) or acute (intense, but limited) exposure to such disadvantage across the life course are readily evident amongst the older LGBTI population.”
How then, did the perception of the wealthy queer become so prominent?
This image is not something that occurred by chance—rather, it was cultivated on purpose. In the 1980s, as the HIV/AIDS crisis spread across the world, concerted efforts were made to present a more ‘mainstream’ picture of queer people. This effort in particular involved reaching out to big business, with queers being sold as “a dream market” for big companies.
Importantly, this included the propagation of data to highlight our increasingly wealthy status. Amy Gluckman and Betsy Reed cite early studies that aimed to paint queers as wealthy, and in turn ready to spend. In 1988, the National Gay Newspaper Guild in the US conducted studies of readers of gay and lesbian magazines, finding that queers were significantly more likely to have completed university and to work in a professional job. In the 1990s, an organisation called Strub Media Group - led by queers - again surveyed readers of lesbian and gay magazines to find that the average gay household made an astonishing $63,100, compared to the $36,500 made by the rest of the community. These studies continue to this day. In 2012, a national marketing firm in the United States called Experian released a report claiming that both lesbian women and gay men on average earned more than their straight counterparts.
There is no doubt that these queer people do exist, and it is certain that fewer queer people live in poverty now than in previous years. The wealthy enclaves of the eastern suburbs of Sydney (or East Village in New York, or Soho in London) are increasingly being filled with queer people who fit this profile. But these studies, which have often formed the basis of the perception of the wealthy queer, are not scientific in their approach. Focusing on readers of glossy gay magazines, they survey only a small section of the queer population, creating a distorted view of the LGBT+ community.
Despite this predominant perception, the homelessness report highlights that the wealthy queer person does not, in fact, make up our entire community or even the majority of who we are. Despite the progress we have made, more and more scientific studies highlight that structural economic disadvantage remains extremely common for queer people.
As a community, we need to recognise that poverty very much remains a queer issue. While campaigning on issues such as marriage equality, which are often more of a concern for middle-class concern queers, those who can’t even afford to live, let alone pay for a lavish wedding, are being left behind. This is something we cannot allow to occur any longer.
This means two things. First, we must focus on the discrimination that queer people face when accessing support services. As the homelessness report showed, many queers face prejudice when accessing services, stopping them from being able to receive the support they often desperately need. Working with these service providers is essential in order to change these behaviours.
More importantly, however, we must treat the elimination of poverty as an inherently queer concern. As an example, we should treat legislation such as that currently in front of our Parliament designed to slash the welfare system as something that will disproportionately impact queer people, therefore treating it as an inherently queer issue. This means teaming up with anti-poverty organisations to fight against these attacks, something that will not only benefit poor queer folks, but will create important solidarity with others who are struggling.
Poverty still has a queer face. It is time we shed the perception of the queer community as being inherently wealthier than our straight counterparts, and recognise the unfortunate reality that queers still face significant economic disadvantage.