The Lavender Dollar: Debunking Lesbian Spending Stereotypes

by Merryn Johns

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday December 19, 2020

Kristen Stewart, left, and Dan Levy, right, in a scene from "Happiest Season."
Kristen Stewart, left, and Dan Levy, right, in a scene from "Happiest Season."  (Source:Hulu)

In Hulu's hit queer holiday movie release "Happiest Season," Kristen Stewart's character Abby is accused of shoplifting. While viewers know it's not true, there's an unspoken subtext to that plot point: Abby is, after all, a lesbian orphan. When a Christmas brooch goes missing at her girlfriend's parents' house, Abby is under suspicion once again.

The stereotype of lesbians as frugal or "frumpy shut-ins who don't care about nightlife or fashion" — is well-circulated.

The cultural invisibility of lesbians and the struggle to keep lesbian spaces alive tend to reinforce the image of queer women as financially incapacitated or, at best, inconspicuous.

But lesbians do spend money. Don't they?

"Do people still think this?" asks former editor-in-chief of Nylon magazine Gabrielle Korn. "Part of the issue is that people don't realize 'lesbian' is a multitudinous category. I'm sure some of us are frugal, but that's more of a reflection on socioeconomic circumstances than anything else."

Korn, who has written the memoir "Everybody (Else) Is Perfect: How I Survived Hypocrisy, Beauty, Clicks, and Likes," is outspoken on the financial disadvantages experienced by queer women, as well as the impossible beauty standards that trap women in a cycle of consumerism.

"Women make less money than men, period," says Korn. "As a demographic, we have less to spend. But that doesn't mean we don't spend at all. I think the frugal thing goes back to what feels like a very '90s vision of lesbians, which is to say a masculine aesthetic, which I think is hilarious because the butches I know spend as much money on themselves as anyone else.

"I think that [masculine of center] expression of gender is kind of illegible to straight people," Korn suggests. "They don't read it as intentional or even as something that is hot and specifically curated; they read it as minimal effort and probably, therefore, minimal money."

But Ebonť F. Bell, Editor-in-Chief at Tagg Magazine, a Black- and queer-owned media platform for all LGBTQ women and allies, says there is a kernel of truth to the stereotype that we need to dig into.

"Women are statistically known to make 18 percent less than men—which is a significant number. If you go out to eat, are you going to spend or tip more than you can afford? Of course not. Unfortunately, this is looked at as frugal instead of smart or cautious," says Bell. "I think gay men are largely behind this stereotype. There is an unspoken hierarchy in the LGBTQ community, and lesbians are looked down upon for a few reasons, and not shelling out money is one of them."

Lesbian travel bloggers Sunny Eaton and Karin Balsley think the stereotype had truth — once. "I used to be a server at Nashville's largest LGBTQ dance club, and I remember that women just did not tip as well as the men and were far more conservative in spending," says Eaton. "I don't see that as much now. Lesbians have more money, we have better jobs, we spend more money, we have evolved into a community that has broader representation in our ranks."

Balsley has a slightly different view. "I've known very frugal lesbians that tip extremely well because they have prior experience in the service industry. It all depends on the person and circumstance. I have noticed that as my social circles have advanced in their careers, so has their spending. More often, women are spending money on what they want rather than only what they need.""

Why Can't We Get a Handle on Lesbian Purchasing Power?

Gabrielle Korn
Gabrielle Korn  (Source: Lauren Pearlstein)

According to Forbes, women drive up to 80 percent of all purchasing decisions. Oddly, lesbians are rarely marketed to despite being part of the country's the largest consumer group—women—possibly due to another odious stereotype: all lesbians are masculine.

"I think major marketing organizations don't consider lesbians as women," says Korn. "When they talk about the things traditionally marketed to women—things having to deal with personal aesthetics—they're picturing a straight cis woman. It's such a huge missed opportunity because the lesbians in my immediate circle spend more on clothes and haircuts than anybody."

"Lesbians absolutely spend money," says Bell. "We need to remember there are some 'pink dollar' lesbians in our community," she says. "In my experience, both lesbians with high incomes and those without high incomes spend behind the scenes. Lesbians are known to spend money on causes or things that are important to them. Many lesbians donate to charities or patronize businesses that mean something to them," says Bell, who has spearheaded fundraising drives for Tagg Magazine and the Tagg Scholarship Fund.

According to the latest survey by LGBTQ-owned research firm Community Marketing & Insights (CMI), lesbian, queer and bi women are more likely to be married, have children, and care for a pet than gay men or transgender folks. Lesbians outspend gay men and transgender women on personal care and beauty products. They also outspend other groups on beer and cannabis.

Lesbians are also conscientious consumers. CMI research found that an overwhelming majority of queer women (94 percent) intended to vote in the 2020 election and that companies needed to earn their brand loyalty. In the survey, lesbians mentioned Target, Subaru, Starbucks, Apple, TomboyX, Amazon, Nike, Absolut, IKEA and Wildfang as some of the companies they recognized as having gone above and beyond standard marketing practices to show authentic support of the LGBTQ community through their outreach, policies or practices.

Yet many companies tend not to target lesbians in their campaigns unless it's under the general banner of the rainbow flag and timed to coincide with Pride Month. It's an oversight, says Jonathan Lovitz, Senior Vice President of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC).

"Two decades ago, slapping a rainbow on a liquor bottle one month a year was enough for a brand to consider themselves 'gay-friendly... Findings from LGBTQ economic experts, however, have taught corporations the value of LGBTQ brand loyalty. More than 75 percent of LGBTQ adults and their friends, family, and relatives say they would switch to brands that are known to be LGBTQ-friendly," says Lovitz.

"In 2017 alone, the LGBTQ consumer buying power was over $917 billion," says Lovitz. "Whether it's a closeted Latinx first-generation lesbian immigrant in the Deep South or an out queer woman on Wall Street, the key to winning their dollar is authenticity and representation that says we see all of your community and what makes you and your family so special."

The lesbian demographic is viable, as Subaru discovered in the 1990s when it traced the popularity of its all-wheel-drive vehicles to lesbians.

"When we did the research, we found pockets of the country like Northampton, Massachusetts, and Portland, Oregon, where the head of the household would be a single person—and often a woman," says Tim Bennett, then the company's director of advertising. When marketers talked to these customers, they realized many of these women were lesbians. The car fit their lifestyle: low-key, practical, outdoorsy, transporting children and pets. The company acknowledged this loyalty and even hired Martina Navratilova to appear in ads.

"Queer-identifying women like to support people and businesses that support us," says Bell. "We often seek people who look like us and/or respect us. So many times, I see people looking for lesbian realtors, lesbian therapists, lesbian photographers. I also believe if a brand consistently shows up and supports LGBTQ women's media, eventually, they will be top of mind for our community."

Balsley lists her brand expectations: "Eco-friendliness, local, community-minded, women-owned, not-animal tested, sustainable, fashionable, family-oriented, pet-friendly, capable, practical, well-designed, not just pink."

Lovitz says lesbians' buying power needs to dovetail with their causes.

"Many of us will be looking closely at price tags as we plan for brighter economic days ahead. When you do, look for an indication that the company is an LGBTQ-inclusive corporation or an NGLCC Certified Business Enterprise. It has never been easier to go online or check with your local affiliate LGBTQ chamber of commerce to make sure you support the brands that have our community's back."

Eaton agrees. "One brand that causes Karin and I constant turmoil is Toyota. We love our Land Cruiser. We have been to 13 countries in it, lived in it, it kept us safe," she says. "But Toyota refuses to market to women in their expedition and off-road categories. For that reason alone, our next full-time travel vehicle won't be a Toyota."

Women of Color and the Pink Dollar

Eboné Bell, Editor In Chief, Tagg Magazine
Ebon√© Bell, Editor In Chief, Tagg Magazine  

Ebonť Bell started Tagg specifically "because many other media outlets were focused on white gay men—even the advertisers. I wanted to see people who looked like me, LGBTQ women, and QPOC. Our stories and voices deserve to be heard, too."

Bell says that conversations around the "pink dollar" buy into a monolithic stereotype of gay affluence, which is mostly male and white. "I don't think people of color are even part of this conversation—or included in these statistics. The double-income, gay male couple never included Black gay men," says Bell. "This not only shows up in our own community, but it shows up in brands as well. We constantly see gay white men in ads. The majority of the time, I see queer people of color in Black gay and lesbian publications and outlets. Why can't we be in other publications?"'

But the Black-white wage gap is real, says Bell. "On average, Black folks make nearly 22 percent less than our white counterparts. So, imagine being a Black lesbian/queer woman. Making less is just one reason you may not see the Black community tipping more or spending more. But it's also important to note that Black and Brown people often face discrimination in our own bars and similar establishments. What person wants to tip a bartender who purposely passes over them to serve white customers or treats them like a second-class citizen? I know I wouldn't."

Anita Dolce Vita, owner of dapperQ, a queer style and empowerment online style magazine that also produces fashion events, agrees: negative racial stereotypes persist within our community. "I have even had several cis white lesbian event producers say they will not produce hip hop parties because they attract 'thugs' who do not spend money. All of that is nonsense. My events are some of the most diverse and center BIPOC queer folks where we are able to celebrate in safe spaces, enjoy quality venues and talent, and we come with our wallets open!"

Eaton, who is Puerto Rican, says, "I want to see myself. It's what I want. Are minority lesbians represented? Check, take my money."

Close the Gender Pay Gap and Give Lesbians a Raise

Sunny Eaton and Karin Balsley
Sunny Eaton and Karin Balsley  (Source: Vagabroads)

Anita Dolce Vita's day job as a nurse enables her to create upscale ticketed events for her community and marketers who view queer women as a monolith are missing out on this audience, she says.

"The stereotype is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Marketing agencies and event producers offer options based on an extremely narrow perception of who they think we are. In turn, queer womxn are left underwhelmed and not willing to pay for lackluster experiences."

Eaton and Balsley reveal that on the road they "shed needless consumerism" but when they are back home, they manage to strike a balance between being "spendy people who enjoy luxury and ease" and the former.

Balsley, who works in IT, recalls how employers have equated her "being a lesbian with a 'take charge' attitude," may have been considered as a factor in some leadership roles she's earned. It is a historical need to be financially secure that has led lesbians to be resourceful, which equates with frugal — and it's an image that sticks "even as wages and career success increases," she says.

When Gabrielle Korn started as a beauty editor at Refinery29, she "had that 3 a.m. drunk self-inflicted haircut that's kind of a right of passage, I didn't really wear makeup other than eyeliner, I lived in my combat boots and flannel. I spent my free time doing activism. And then suddenly I was writing about beauty, being flown around the world to cover brand launches, and even doing some light modeling."

She was a young queer woman going up in the fashion world, unable to afford the products she wrote about.

But as she discovered when she moved out of media work and into another industry, the conspiracy of silence around wage brackets is designed to cloud women's sense of self-worth.

"As a hiring manager, I was shocked to find that the vast majority of women I interviewed—particularly queer women—would ask for much less than what I had budgeted for them. I did my best to give them the money I had in mind anyway, as my own private ongoing rebellion and also because it was important to me that they know their worth," says Korn.

While talking about money so frankly in the book felt "so taboo ... I wanted to tell other women exactly how I did it," says Korn. "Especially women in editorial, because we are so often told that the perks of lifestyle media make it worth it. I'd rather be able to buy a product I love at full price and not worry about it. There are lots of ways to have impact. You don't need to be underpaid to have your work matter."

Merryn Johns is a writer and editor based in New York City. She is also a public speaker on ethical travel and a consultant on marketing to the LGBT community.