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The Gays™ Have Closed the Wage Gap… and Exceeded It! But How?

August 10, 2019

Omaralexis Ochoa

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It’s a sad but true fact that, historically, gay men have made consistently less than their straight counterparts in the workplace – it actually fucking sucks. But there’s a pretty unbelievable piece of research I dug up from the Harvard Business Review, written by an incredibly accomplished gay business thinker, Kitt Carpenter, which states: “Gay men used to earn less than straight men; now they earn more.” I found this hard to believe before I really sunk into the article, so I want to walk through some of the background, the new research, and what Kitt and even myself think could be causing this trend.

Who is Kitt Carpenter?

Kitt Carpenter is a professor of economics at Vanderbilt, and currently serves as the director of the university’s LGBT policy lab. Along with that, he is the co-founder of the American Economic Association’s Ad Hoc LGBTQ Economics Working Group. All of this adds up to a really impressive resume, so we can be assured that he is an incredible business leader and HUGE advocate for LGBT people. He has focused the majority of his work on identifying the economic differences for sexual minorities in the US, and has published several studies that intersect the LGBTQIA+ with economics alongside other researchers such as Samuel Eppink.

The American Gay Landscape

With all of that said: I want to touch on some updates regarding the gay landscape here in the United States. A lot of this you might already know, but I think it is important to use some of these points as a way of illustrating the logic behind the conclusions Kitt and other researchers have made on gay male earnings.

The PEW Research Foundation, which is a non-partisan fact-tank that puts together statistics and research to help stimulate discussion here in the US regarding policy, recently reported that 92% of all LGBTQ adults felt that society is MORE accepting of them than a decade ago. As someone living in Los Angeles having moved across the country just a couple of months ago, I can say that the US is an utterly MASSIVE country, and so there are some pretty upsetting differences across state lines for LGBTQ people especially. Therefore, I’d be really interested to hear from you – do you feel like American society has become more accepting of LGBTQ people in your experience? For some of you this may well be true, but for a lot of others, it really remains to be seen, so I’d love to hear what you think.

Moving forward, PEW also reported that 87% of adults reported personally knowing someone that is gay or lesbian – which is way up from 1993 when it was estimated to only be about 61%. We might be able to unpack this one little more as well, as both of these statistics lend themselves to suggest that the US really is warming up to the LGBTQIA+ community, and a huge part of that is the flat-out visibility of queer people.

Ultimately, statistics like these might only paint a positive picture, and not actually describe your lived experiences. Consider that in the US, the federal government has yet to recognize LGBTQ persons as a protected class. I point this out because it’s a pretty stark juxtaposition when you have reports claiming: “LGTBQ support is way up! Gays are the best!” But then have our very own government refusing to take action on protecting these same people. There are several organizations, however, that are actively working to change this and secure federal nondiscrimination protections for sexual orientation and gender identity, such as GLAAD, the National LGBTQ Taskforce, the HRC, and the ACLU. But it’s this juxtaposition that, I think, has pushed Carpenter to question whether or not these “shifts” in social acceptance have had any tangible economic effects.

Changes in the Research

Current studies have shown that gay men earn 5-to-10% less than their straight counterparts, even with similar education, years of experience, and job responsibilities. This is from decades of research conducted across varying time periods, as well as in countries like the US, the United Kingdom, and Canada. The gamechanger is Carpenter’s more recent research that highlights a 10% premium on LGBT wages, which is a complete turnaround. He published this alongside Samuel Eppink, in a report titled “Does it Get Better? Recent Estimates of Sexual Orientation and Earnings in the United States.”

So naturally, the first question I asked that you might also be wondering is: What’s the catch? How can we be sure this isn’t just a fluke? Well, Carpenter and Eppink have worked and reworked this data to eliminate the finding, in hopes of uncovering some unknown error. But once they were unable to eliminate the result, it has instead led them to attempt at explaining the phenomenon, which is where I feel I may be able to chime in and would love to hear your thoughts as well.

#1: It Gets Better

One explanation that Carpenter offers in his article is: “it gets better.” When you think about it correlatively, it’s possible that the “earnings penalty” where gay men make less than straight men is a direct function of labor discrimination in the workplace. Therefore; with a society moving towards more acceptance and tolerance of LGBTQ people as the statistics from the PEW Research Foundation may lead you to believe, it would make sense to surmise that as acceptance increases, labor discrimination decreases.

Some research supporting this theory includes field experiments cited by Carpenter from 2013 and 2010: both of which simulated gay and straight job candidates and failed to find meaningful differences in the capability for a gay or straight candidate to receive a callback. This is compared to an older study from 2005 which DID find that gay candidates were substantially less likely to receive a callback when showing LGBT aspects on their resumes. I myself have a TON of LGBT oriented leadership experiences and volunteer work listed on my own resume, so I would actually love to dig into this a bit more.

Between these two studies we can draw a line from 2005 and 2013, where it seems labor discrimination has reduced, meanwhile in the US, several key milestones for LGBTQA+ acceptance were hit. Each of these milestones may contribute to this change in results over time. For example, in August 2009, Harvey Milk was posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama, and in that same year, he signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law.

In August 2010, the California Supreme Court ruled that limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples is unconstitutional, reversing the previously-approved Proposition 8 which made gay marriage illegal in the state of California. Then in September 2011, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed, and a HUGE win for our brothers and sisters in the military. Perhaps most notably, in June 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that legally married same-sex couples are entitled to federal benefits.

So, while the “It Gets Better” explanation may be able to rationalize the gradual erasure of a wage gap, over time, with the coinciding LGBT milestones, it doesn’t explain the development of an earnings premium. Kitt Carpenter in his article reasonably asks the question “Did it really get THAT much better?” Consider some companion studies on gay WOMEN which have not coincided with the same changes in male earnings.

Wages for Lesbian Women

If the “it gets better” phenomenon really was a driver of this change for men, we would be seeing the same positive effects for women. However, while gay women already seem to earn more than heterosexual women, they don’t seem to earn EVEN more than before.

A 2015 study conducted at the University of Washington by Marieka Klawitter, a professor of public policy, found that lesbian women had a 9% wage premium, long before gay men began to show a premium. However, no recent research has shown a material change here, although this in itself could use a bit of explanation. For queer women especially, there is still the dimension of broader female-discrimination in the workplace that may be in some ways magnifying the effects we are seeing on earnings failing to climb higher than before.

#2: Sample Changes Due to Gay Marriage

Another possible explanation that Carpenter suggests actually comes from a few related studies which have shown that gay women have a tendency to formalize their relationships at a higher rate than gay men. This means moving in together, getting married, adopting children… even before recent legislation that has recognized gay marriage.

Therefore, it’s possible that we are observing a wage premium in the gay male population because of more gay male couples formalizing – getting married, adopting children, etc. For example, in a 2003 study published by Cornell University’s ILR Review, researcher Gary Becker was cited arguing that LGBTQA+ male and female earnings differed on the basis of household specialization wherein one partner worked while the other tended to the home. This makes sense with the earnings premium, as when a gay male couple formalizes, it is possible that the man earning a HIGHER income stays in the workforce, while the one earning a LOWER income exits in order to take care of children, handle household duties, etc. (Similar to the age-old straight family dynamic.) This reduces the number of gay men in the sample pool overall, leaving behind only those with higher earnings, which has skewed the results into a premium. I would think this is a less likely explanation given the prominence of the dual-income, no kids phenomenon in the gay male world.

#3: LGBT Concentrations in Affluent Cities

A third possible explanation could be as simple as demographic shifts. It is a known trend that coastal, urban cities often skew more liberally both socially and legislatively. With that said, the trope of “small-town gay boys, California dreaming” may reign true – perhaps gay men are moving to more liberal cities – which happen to also happen to come with higher costs of living, and therefore higher minimum wages. Consider a gay male earning $15.00 per hour in a larger, more expensive city at an entry level, versus a straight male earning only $8.00 per hour in a smaller, less expensive city.

#4: Out-and-Proud

Lastly, it’s possible that samples taking part in Carpenter’s research are simply “out-and-proud,” and therefore indicative of a particular personality type. By opting into a research study, I would say that this in itself selects out those respondents who are closeted, or do not identify confidently as gay or even queer. Despite any potential for anonymity, this could present a barrier to obtaining a fully representative sample.

Chances are, a respondent confidently identifying as gay or otherwise queer is in a situation where he/she/they can feel secure in that response, be it financially or emotionally. A secure situation such as this can generally lend itself to higher income, whereas people in less financially-stable situations, especially, may need to remain closeted for fear of being made homeless, for example.


There really is no good explanation for this gay male premium, but whatever it is, it may bode well for our community both socially as well as economically. That isn’t to say the LGBT group is in any way privileged or no longer in need of advocacy – in fact, quite the opposite. There are is still a ton of work to be done, and it’s for that reason I would LOVE to hear from you – what do you think? Do you believe gay men truly earn more than straight men? Is this something you’ve experienced firsthand? Or perhaps the opposite? I would LOVE to hear your thoughts and experiences with this.

Omaralexis Ochoa

Data analyst, podcaster, pasta-lover... I'm many things, but above all, I'm a creator. I created The Gay Pro because I love sharing stories of queer success, with the intention of empowering and inspiring other queer leaders.