Is There Really Such a Thing as ‘Gay Privilege’? This Study Says Yes
A study recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships says that gay people can use their sexuality as a form of ‘privilege’ in non-exclusively gay spaces, challenging the idea that homosexuality always makes a person an oppressed minority.
Max Morris, a Sociology and Social Policy PhD candidate at Durham University in England, spoke with 40 gay male students at four different English universities and concluded that openly identifying as gay gives gay men “gay capital,” a form of social prestige and standing that makes others see them as reliable resources of specific cultural information.
If that idea seems a little strange, here’s a summary of Morris’ concept from his research abstract:
Building on Bourdieu’s conceptualization of the symbolic economy of class, I introduce a new concept to understand how having a visible gay identity can act as a form of privilege in inclusive, post-gay social fields: gay capital. Through shared knowledge of gay cultures, belonging to gay social networks, and having one’s gay identity recognized as a form of prestige, gay capital supplements cultural, social, and symbolic forms of capital.
Anyone who has ever heard a straight person say, “Oh, I’ve always wanted a gay best friend!” understands this concept. Morris himself says that “straight people look to gay men ‘for advice, and for modeling avant-garde appearance, language, and dress.’”
His theory raises several interesting points. Foremost, it makes us question the role of stereotypes. Straight people may assume that gay men are experts in fashion, musical theatre and LGBTQ politics whether they are or not. But does a gay man lose his “gay capital” if he’s discovered to have no knowledge of these subjects? Can he increase his gay capital by dressing and acting in stereotypically gay ways? Can one act too gay to be taken seriously as a cultural resource, and if so, what does that even look like?
Second, “gay capital” can only exist in places with lower levels of cultural homophobia. While gay men may be seen as cultural resources on English college campuses or creative fields, they’re likely only regarded this way in societies with laws affirming the worthiness of LGBTQ people. Gay men seen as liabilities in, say, Chechnya where being gay can get you and your loved ones killed. No one’s asking gay Chechen men for fashion advice.
Third, we wonder if there’s such a thing as lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer capital. We imagine, based on media representation, that gay men might experience the greatest amount of social privilege followed by bisexual men, lesbian women and transgender people (accounting for misogyny, biphobia and transphobia). What cultural needs would straight people turn to others non-gay queers for?
Morris only talked to gay men in his study, but it’d be interesting to see if responses from straight people match up — gay people see themselves as a cultural resource, but do straight people see them the same way?
(Featured image by BraunS via iStock Photography)