LGBT is So Much More Than Pop Culture Icons and the Affluent Elite


The Pew Research Center released the results from their first ever survey of LGBT individuals last week, illuminating the delicate reality of a community that has seen rapid, if unevenly distributed improvements in civil rights over the last few years.

“Nine in ten of LGBT surveyed feel they have become more accepted in the past decade,” explains Paul Taylor, executive vice president of Pew, “and just as many say they expect the acceptance to increase in the coming decade. In our business, when you see those numbers, that’s pretty dramatic.”

Ninety-two percent of the 1,197 LGBT adults surveyed agree that life has gotten better for those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, and agree things will continue to improve. “Compared with the general public, Pew Research LGBT survey respondents are more liberal, more Democratic, less religious, less happy with their lives, and more satisfied with the general direction of the country. On average, they are younger than the general public.”

And it’s here we hit a troubling note. Less happy with their lives is a tough one to swallow, tucked away amongst some no-brainers like liberal or younger or Democrat. Twenty-one percent of respondents report being mistreated by an employer. Twenty-three percent report receiving bad service at a hotel or restaurant, while 39% say they have been rejected by a family member or close friend. Thirty percent have been physically attacked or physically threatened, and 58% have been the target of slurs.

Forty-one percent of LGBT adults haven’t yet come out to their mothers. Sixty percent haven’t come out to their fathers.

Pew didn’t offer any suggestions as to why this might be — only noting that the data suggests “the complicated realms of their lives.” Though it may be that growing up in the twenty-first century has given us a false-sense of the positives.

We live in an America of Glee, of Gaga, of Obama. One where gay has become chic, and perhaps bourgeois. We are a generation of LGBT that never knew Reagan, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, or the depths of the AIDS crisis. Neil Patrick Harris hosts four Tonys; Tammy Baldwin wins one Senate seat. We have gay role models in the media, politics, and business — leaders who are polished and shiny, remarkably fit and impeccably dressed. And while many surveyed by Pew believe these figures to have contributed to the many social advances the community has made in recent years, it has also served to produce a sort of myth of affluence that is poorly representative of the state of the community, and distracting to those crafting public policy. 

According to the Williams Institute, 24% of lesbians and bisexual women are poor, compared with just 19% of heterosexual women. Gay couples of color are more likely to face poverty than straight couples of color. Transgendered peoples are four times more likely to have a household income under $10,000 and twice as likely to be unemployed (in much of the country, employment discrimination due to sexual orientation or gender identity is still perfectly, horrifically legal). And of the 1.6 million youth in the U.S. who experience homelessness each year, 20% to 40% of them identify as LGBT.

“For many,” the Williams report reads, “when they think about LGBT people, they envision gay, white, young men who do not have children. They think ‘Will’ on Will & Grace.” If it’s possible for a community to have too many positive stereotypes, surely it’s ours. LGBT is a body that is remarkably intricate and diverse, that somehow found itself represented by characters who all look pretty much the same.

So what do we do with this? Will & Grace can still be funny, as can Modern Family. (Glee can be eh.) We can still love Ellen; still listen to our Gaga; still be jealous of Neil Patrick Harris’ style, wardrobe, and voice; and still watch SNL’s “Xanax for Gay Weddings” a few dozen times. But it's important, when surveys like this one come out, to remember that LGBT is more than white, successful, and well-dressed; it is more colorful, more complicated, more complex, and so, SO much more interesting.