Homosexuality for Sale

By any measure, the 1990s was a banner decade for queers. Representation increased dramatically on television, in newspapers and magazines, in courts and legislatures, in the workplace, and in Pride marches. Of all the representations circulating in the nineties, none was more striking than the image of queers as the latest, the ultimate, the as-yet-untapped niche market. Descriptions proliferated of a body of consumers with gay and lesbian dollars ready to be spent in the pursuit of gay and lesbian lifestyles. As a Strubco ad proclaimed, "The Gay & Lesbian Market Is Exploding!" Perhaps we should examine some of the effects of touting the gay and lesbian community as "a market that's educated, affluent, and homosexual."

Birth of a Market

In 1989, American Demographics, referring to the gay neighborhood in Houston, Texas, noted that "marketers have not yet found Montrose." They would soon find Montrose and every other enclave of the newly targetable gay market. Within three years Marketing News would proclaim that "Mainstream Marketers Decide the Time Is Right to Target Gays." Between 1991 and 1993, American Demographics was joined by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Advertising Age, and other mainstream publications in featuring news of a gay niche market. In 1993, Advertising Age issued a "Special Report: Marketing to Gays and Lesbians," and in 1995, American Demographics announced that the gay niche market was "Out of the Closet."

In 1994, The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at the City University of New York sponsored a conference called "Homo Economics" on "Market and Community in Lesbian and Gay Life." By 1995, Grant Lukenbill had published his book-length plea to mainstream marketers, Untold Millions: Positioning Your Business for the Gay and Lesbian Consumer Revolution. In 1996, the Journal of Homosexuality published a special issue, later released as a book called Gays, Lesbians, and Consumer Behavior: Theory, Practice, and Research Issues in Marketing.

Lesbian and gay business expos began cropping up in cities around the country, beginning in New York City in 1994. Although these expos-intended to publicize both gay and lesbian businesses and mainstream producers who targeted the gay market-often had disappointing public attendance, they confirmed belief in the growth potential of the queer market. A number of newsletters put out by gay and lesbian professional associations echoed the hype, such as the online newsletter of the gay and lesbian travel industry, which heralded the "Market of the Decade." Professional gay associations such as the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, and business associations such as the Greater Boston Business Council proliferated, while gay and lesbian employee groups organized in workplaces. There was an explosion of discourse on the gay market throughout the nineties.

One gay market research firm, Quotient Research, began publishing a monthly "Newsletter of Marketing to Gay Men & Lesbians" in December 1994. Quotient reported regularly on "sponsorship opportunities," on ad agencies "serving" gay audiences, on new advertisers in national gay media generally, and on lesbian and gay business expos and conferences, as well as featuring such special stories as the macho "So, Just How Big Is the Gay Market, Really?"

Also established in 1994 was "America's gay business letter," Victory!, a bimonthly newsletter dedicated to acknowledging "the success of gay and lesbian business entrepreneurs throughout the world, as a means to motivate and inspire tomorrow's business leaders." Clout! Business Report was additional, if short-lived, evidence of a phenomenal burst of activity and discourse based on the idea of a gay and lesbian market in the 1990s.

Overrated Opinions

This discourse "exploded" as a result of many factors, but perhaps the most significant was the market research conducted and distributed by a handful of g ay marketing firms. Of these, Simmons Market Research Bureau and a small firm called Overlooked Opinions probably had the most widespread-and destructive-effects. Simmons's earlier surveys were relatively low-impact. In 1991, however, Overlooked Opinions announced that gay men had an average annual income of $42,889, while lesbians averaged $36,072.

These figures exceed average income figures for men and women in general, largely because they are based on a nonrandom sample. Overlooked Opinions' sample came from periodical readers and lists compiled at events and bookstores. In the mid-nineties, Overlooked Opinions reported that gay household annual incomes averaged $55,000 per year. Again, numbers were high relative to the general population. They further claimed that gay men and lesbians earned $514 billion annually.

As exposed in an important analytical piece in Dollars and Sense, these figures portray gay economic status very inaccurately, based as they are on a disproportionately white, affluent, male, and educated sample. The exposZ* helped discredit Overlooked Opinions' survey, but not before the figure had been seized on by right-wing groups opposing antidiscrimination legislation-such as proponents of Colorado's Amendment 2-arguing that such an affluent social group didn't need "special protections." Although some commentators on the gay market have subsequently dissociated themselves from this "research," many gay media entrepreneurs exploited Overlooked Opinions' figures in their appeals for corporate advertising.

Rivendell is another firm which produced claims about the gay market, deriving its inflated figures from samples using readers of gay male publications. While Rivendell is careful to qualify its claims by naming its sample, its most common ad pictures a straight white man in a suit flexing his muscles and wearing statistics about his consumption habits. Although a 1994 study by Yankelovich produced lower figures, which were adopted by many responsible marketers, misrepresentations continued to circulate.

Conservative Consumers

Entrepreneurs promoting a queer niche market argued that, in addition to constituting a viable market, queers wanted to be targeted. Because consumer culture has always seemed to offer some redress for disenfranchisement, consump-tion based on gay identity would seem to ameliorate homophobia. Although homophobia is fundamentally a social and political problem, marketers offered an economic solution-a solution available to gays and lesbians according to their purchasing power.

This "solution" is also more available to men than women, as a rule. In fact, women are frequently ignored by advertisers and marketers aiming at a gay market. At one level, this is merely a matter of common sense. Men, white people, and people of an employable age have greater income and spending potential than do women, people of color, the very old, and the very young, respectively-and it is in the nature of advertising to appeal to people with consuming capacity. But such marketing in general, and advertising in particular, not only misrepresent the demographic diversity of the gay and lesbian community, they carry messages about norms of social behavior. Note the conservative assumptions about gender roles behind Grant Lukenbill's enthusiastic prediction: "The time is nearing when lesbian mothers will promote bleach and fabric softener on national television. Gay male sports figures, sponsored by tennis shoe companies, will soon be emerging as spokespersons for the prevention of violence."

Conservative gender politics in marketing has its counterpart: conservative trends in queer politics. As the niche market has "exploded," the political movement has moved away from "sexual liberation" and toward gay marriage. Movement organizations promote white people and men to the highest leadership positions, while a glass ceiling impedes people of color from becoming executive directors of queer nonprofits.White executive directors appear to feel more accountable to-and spend more time with-wealthy white donors than their more diverse constituencies.

The under-representation of women and people of color in the movement is matched in big advertising which targets gays and lesbians. Political representation and media representation are closely linked; gay identity politics are increasingly played out in the marketplace. Even outside an advertising context-in a rare case in which women are centrally featured-the same tendency is visible.

The Puppy Episode

The "Ellen Coming-Out Episode," broadcast on April 30, 1997, set its heroine's coming out in economic metaphors and expressions, as well as locating it, literally, in a market. Watched by an estimated 43 million viewers, this historic show opened up new territory on prime-time TV by having the protagonist come out as a lesbian. Not incidentally, it did so by reproducing a number of the assumptions about identity, sexuality, and consumption that still circulate in the discourse of the queer niche market.

The episode opens with Ellen on a date with an old friend, at the end of which she rebuffs his romantic overtures and leaves his hotel room. Within minutes of being "read" as a lesbian by his female colleague, however, Ellen rushes back to her date's room, desperate to prove her heterosexuality. As she reenters his room, she pursues him physically and verbally. "Show me the money" are her words, which simultaneously constitute a plea for a disclosure of body parts and of sexuality, and (especially) for a confirmation of her heterosexuality. But the deal is never consummated. Ellen's heterosexuality is left unconfirmed and no "money" is shown or exchanged. Ellen is left to negotiate her sexuality on her own.

Later that night, at the moment of coming to gay consciousness, Ellen dreams of going to the grocery store. The store is the site of Ellen's psychic reassessment of her sexual identity. In the dream, the monetary value of the commodities has been reassessed in terms of lesbian identity. "How much are those melons?" one woman asks another who holds fruit in front of her chest. In the figure of the melons, the lesbian body is merged with the commodity. The joke is, they really are melons and thus revise the usually denigrating reference to women's breasts. A moment later, an express line opens for shoppers who have "10 lesbians or less." In this distortion of familiar check-out terms, a direct correspondence is made between lesbian and commodity.

And the conflation continues. As her groceries are rung up, Ellen mis-hears the total, thinking she owes "a lesbian twenty-nine"-as though she could tender lesbians to the cashier. In this dreamscape, commodities take on the identity of their gay owner, so that Ellen's automobile becomes "your gay car." After her dream-assisted sexual awakening, Ellen and her friends patronize a lesbian coffeehouse. In each of these moments, sexual identity is a function of market activity.

Supporting the Sponsors

At one point, the show refers to its real-life network and sponsor. After Ellen comes out in therapy, her therapist asks, "What are you going to do now?" Ellen's response is automatic: "I'm going to Disneyland!" The irony is that Ellen already is in Disneyland. For one, she emerges into gay consciousness and identity through commodity consumption in a world in which Disney stands as the premiere symbol of commodification.

On another, more literal level, Ellen-the character, if not the actor-owes her very life to her broadcast by ABC, owned by Disney. For the coming-out episode, Ellen was mostly sponsored by ads for Disney movies. Clearly, Disney stepped in to subsidize the show, following weeks of controversy about its sponsorship. The right-wing American Family Association had launched a campaign urging people to lobby Disney not to air the show and sponsors not to buy time.

In opposition, gay men, lesbians, and their allies organized support for Disney's decision to broadcast. Chrysler pulled its ad and opened a phone line for viewers to register their opinion about its withdrawal. (General Motors and Johnson & Johnson were also on the original roster of advertisers). For weeks afterward, viewers debated whether the Volkswagen spot-in which two young men drive around in a car, picking up and then discarding a chair-was "gay vague," meaning open to a gay interpretation. In other words, the stakes seemed high as Ellen's lesbianism was represented on television: visibility versus corporate censorship. On the gay-friendly side, there were some dissenters. One individual observed the great differences, "both in scale and in social significance, between the injustices borne by disenfranchised people and the injustices borne by the star of a sitcom who works for a multi-national, blue-chip, Dow Jones conglomerate who would sell queer Pocahantas dolls in the furthest reaches of the globe if it could secure profit margins tomorrow." Wondering if this was what gay and lesbian politics had come to, this observer recapitulated the 1990s claims and counterclaims about the queer niche market.

The Movement Market

The connections between that market and the queer political movement are embodied in one particular character on Ellen. Susan (Laura Dern), the object of Ellen's affection, has been in a same-sex relationship for nine years and stands as the authentic lesbian in this episode. Playing on the stereotype of gays as recruiting straights, Susan jokes that Ellen's denial of her lesbianism will be reported as the failure of Susan's recruitment effort. "I'll have to call headquarters and tell them I lost you," quips Susan. Here, Susan implies that she is aligned with some political movement offstage, perhaps the movement represented in the commercial break. (The Human Rights Campaign sponsored an ad about employment discrimination that aired during Ellen's coming-out episode.) In any case, Susan's membership in the gay movement is implicit, but her prize from headquarters, when she does finally make the recruit, is quite material: a toaster oven.

At the broadest level, everyone is invested in Ellen's sexuality. Even her friends attempt to cash in on it by betting on it. Ellen's entrance into gay identity is thus measured by the commerce that enables it. The representation of Ellen's sexuality stands at the intersection between a gay and lesbian movement fighting for its civil rights, and a queer community whose primary visibility has recently been as a niche market. The movement implied but not seen on Ellen is a large bureaucracy recruiting consumers for the cause, and in this way it is not so different, after all, from so many American institutions. Of this, viewers gay and straight can rest assured.

Certainly it is useless to decry capitalism, and it is equally useless to try to stand in the way of its inexorable progress toward creating new markets. Furthermore, it is simply impossible to opt out of consumption. In any case, capitalism is not an unadulterated evil-it is the very economic system that has tended to foster rights movements. But it is possible to maintain a critical attitude toward the stratifying effects of capitalist practices. And it is also possible to generate alternative images of what the gay and lesbian community looks like and how it acts.

Alexandra Chasin is the author of the recent Selling Out: The Gay and Lesbian Movement Goes to Market (St. Martin's Press), from which she adapted this article. Co-chair of the board of directors of the International Lesbian and Gay Human Rights Commission, Chasin lives in Geneva, Switzerland.

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