|In the current recession, has our alleged 'conspicuous consumption' pattern changed? Was it ever really universal in the first place?
In October 2008, the (US) Advocate investigated this question, interviewing several lesbians and gay men from different occupational groups. Bear in mind, though, that the United States lacks several attributes of other western nations, like a comprehensive welfare state, significant trade unions or a centre-left political party, as well as the absence of a public health sector. Or, for that matter, nationwide anti-discrimination legislation that covers LGBT folks.
That said, on the first page facing me, I spotted a well-dressed twenty-something young gay man, with expensive shades, vintage wine, designer jeans, a BMW somewhere offstage, cellphone and tech paraphernalia. When I compared myself to this demographic, I noted that there are several differences between me and this young man. One, I'm a co-parent, and we have financial siphons called children to deprive us of our filthy lucre. Two, even if I wasn't, I'm a green consumer. I make it a point to buy stylish vintage clothes, I use public transport whenever possible, and my partner and I decided we only need one car. We grow our own vegetables in our garden, we do have tech gear, but we both have student loans to pay off. Three, I don't really care about keeping up with the Johnses because of that. Oh all right, yes, I do conspicuously consume books instead.
In the United States, premier lesbian economist M.V. Lee Badgett has been crunching the numbers on lesbian and gay poverty. According to her, half as many gay men live in poverty as straight men. Does this mean impoverished gay men don't come out, though? However, there is no comparable poverty gap between lesbians and straight women, which suggests that sexism is probably more severe in its economic consequences than homophobia alone.
In his Advocate article, Scott Cloud didn't address questions like generational cohorts, ethnicity, disabilities, family or spousal status or other relevant variables that might affect consumer behaviour. So, why do some of us undertake conspicuous consumption, if indeed we do?
If we aren't burdened with family responsibilities or aren't green consumers, then we may well overdo impression management at our workplaces. In the United States, this takes a psychological toll, and thus, we max out our credit cards or turn into rampant shopaholics for stress relief. However, does that mean if we work in more convivial surroundings, we may not conspicuously consume so much?
What about lesbians? Occupational feminism, female access to reliable contraception and abortion, greater female access to higher education and postponement or avoidance of family responsibilities may have led to reduced income differentials between lesbians and gay men, although both earn less than straight men. Again, though, data is patchy. In the United States, some evidence suggests that ethnic minority lesbians are more likely to undertake training for skilled manual trades, but generational cohorts aren't cited. In Arlene Stein's account of US lesbian cohorts, eighties and nineties lesbians transitioned from earnest Dykes to Watch Out For lesbian feminists to lesbian professionals as the US economy and society changed. They 'mainstreamed' away from the downward mobility ethos of the past, at the cost of alternative feminist institutions (apart from women's music and spirituality). As well though, the United States has experienced an active anti-feminist backlash over the last thirty years. New Zealand hasn't, apart from the demise of pay equity under Richardson in the early nineties.
As for the trans communities, Roberta Perkins did research for the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations in the nineties. She found that trans folk experienced downward mobility during and after transitioning. Again, though, this research was conducted before the rise of trans inclusive antidiscrimination laws across most of Australia's states and territories over the last decade, so those statistics may have changed. As well as that, there's also institutional racism, colonialism and ethnicity to consider in the context of whakawahine, tangata ira tane and fa'afafine. Or, for that matter, what about takataapui and the recession?
Has the recession harmed 'us?" Not according to US data, but then, does that accurately reflect New Zealand social, economic and demographic realities at all?
John Cloud: "The Cost of Being Gay" Advocate: 21.10.08: 36-44: http://www.advocate.com/ Craig Young - 26th May 2009