Lesbian Notions

It's the Economy, Stupid

Paula Martinac | April 28, 2004

Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, thinks tolerance can be good for business
Many supportive straight people recognize American antigay governmental policies for what they really are: discriminatory and unfair. But is antigay discrimination also bad for the U.S. economy? This theory, proposed by a heterosexual economics professor, is one that more and more businesses and cities are taking seriously, and that could have a big impact on the future of gay people's pursuit of equal rights.

It's always tricky to talk about economics and gay people in the same breath. In order to justify denying us civil rights, right-wingers have often invoked the idea that gay people have huge reserves of disposable income that we spend like drunken sailors; and wealthy people, of course, can't be oppressed. For example, some conservatives have claimed that same-sex couples don't really need legal marriage rights, because we can easily buy ourselves the costly paperwork that simulates what our heterosexual counterparts enjoy for the small price of a marriage license.

However, the research of economist M.V. Lee Badgett of the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies has pointed out the serious flaws in studies that indicate we're wealthier than straight people. Badgett's work actually suggests that many gay people - especially lesbians - earn less than the average American.

Fortunately, then, it's not the myth of gay wealth that feeds the economic-development theories of Professor Richard Florida, of Carnegie Mellon University, who authored The Rise of the Creative Class, recently available in paperback. In a nutshell, Florida believes that the cities with the most vibrant economies are the ones able to attract talented young entrepreneurs, technology geeks, artists, and writers, who will be at the forefront of this century's new "knowledge-based" economy. Florida put his findings side by side with demographic research on gay people by Gary Gates of the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., and discovered that these economically flourishing cities are also gay-friendly.

Florida is not suggesting that gay people are the brains and talent driving the new economy - a sort of "queer eye" for the financial sector. What he means is that members of the "creative class" - both straight and gay - consider tolerance of many different kinds of people an important factor in choosing a place to live. For them, gay-friendly cities like Minneapolis and Austin, Tex., are more attractive than, say, Pittsburgh, an old manufacturing city dominated by an aging population and largely deserted by the young. "I love Pittsburgh dearly," one 26-year-old college graduate recently wrote to the local newspaper, but noted that he opted to move "where the overall societal attitude is more in line with my own views."

Professor Florida's theory is in sync with what much of the corporate world already knows: tolerance can be good for business. Indeed, if tolerance weren't a long-term financial plus, a third of all big companies - and the number is constantly growing - wouldn't bother to offer antidiscrimination policies and domestic-partner benefits to their employees.

Regrettably, government - especially the current administration in Washington - has been slow to follow the corporate lead, and federal policies all too often influence local ones. Consider that Scott Bloch, the Bush-appointed official in charge of investigating discrimination in federal workplaces, went so far as to delete all references to sexual orientation from his office's website and handbooks - that is, until Democratic congressmembers blasted his action and the White House had to issue a statement rebuking him.

So how can the gay movement make use of Professor Florida's work in its quest for social and legal equality? Here's a good example: Notoriously gay-unfriendly Cincinnati has a heinous law on its books called Article 12, which not only allows discrimination against gay people, but prevents the city from ever passing an antidiscrimination bill. Gay activists working to repeal Article 12 have found and fostered support from local business and civic leaders who've seen firsthand how Florida's theory works.

For example, Proctor & Gamble - the second largest employer in Cincinnati and a leading manufacturer of products for home and personal care - is onboard for repeal of the antigay law. Apparently, even this powerhouse company is having a hard time attracting talented new college graduates. "They think Cincinnati is not inclusive," one P&G; official told reporters, and that reflects badly on the company. Which makes perfect sense: public opinion polls indicate that those in the 18-29 age bracket are the most gay-supportive, probably because many grew up having out gay relatives, knowing queer kids at school, or watching gay-themed movies and TV shows.

One important path to gay civil rights involves finding the most effective ways to communicate with and influence potential allies, including straight politicians and businesspeople who don't see why they should care about issues like same-sex marriage. And in many of these instances, the cliche "money talks" obviously still holds true.

Paula Martinac is a Lambda Literary Award-winning author of seven books and editor in chief of Q Syndicate.

Previous edition
Keeping an F-B-Eye on Dissent [19/04/2004]



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