Michael Mason writes in to offer a socioeconomic history of, as he puts it, “the notorious ‘pink pound’ of legend” (edited):
A little about my background. I was news editor (and a director) of Gay News for eight years back in the ’70s until I left to start a paper of my own called Capital Gay, which ran until the mid-’90s. There was much talk of the pink pound used by gay marketeers, as you say, including the advertising department at Gay News. A myth? Well, historically there was truth in it, though it died in the ’70s.
You have to remember that before World War II, the general economic family pattern was for the male to act as the “breadwinner” whilst his female partner stayed at home to look after children and the home. Wages were set to allow the male to provide for a family (though, of course, the standard of living was much lower in those days). In poorer households, women would also take paid employment, but at absurdly low rates so that their incomes were commonly referred to as “pin money” – loose change, almost, saved for things like Christmas or the summer holiday.
It was during this period that the pink pound truly existed both for single gay men and for couples (gay men, not lesbians) with single gay men receiving a “family wage” and male couples a double “family wage.”
With the birth of the women’s-liberation movement and the passing of the 1970 Equal Pay Act, this began to change. Capitalists accepted the change with alacrity because the expansion of the labour force meant that they were able to reduce the average wage so that, today, two partners with average earnings have to work in order to take home a comfortable income. By the ’80s, the phenomenon of the pink pound had vanished and the advertising crew at Capital Gay were under instructions not to use the phrase in any of their sales materials (though The Pink Paper continued to use it, he said irritatedly).
Your observations on the economic value of gay men’s work is also interesting. Readership surveys at Gay News showed a disproportionate number of gay men working in the “caring” professions – teaching, social work, etc. – rather than the higher-paid competitive professions in industry and commerce. But again, historically, the picture was a little different because of the operation of the class system.
Before the passing of the Sexual Reform Act in 1967 and its partial decriminalization of gay sex, the closets of middle-class gays were built of much sterner stuff than those of working-class gays out of fear that they had more to lose materially and socially. So it was that the secret backstreet clubs for homosexuals/criminals tended to have a much stronger working-class ethos to them, with middle-class gay men venturing into them cautiously, as into a jungle. There was a lot of pleasing class confusion in these venues. On the one hand, middle-class men envied the greater working-class forthrightness about homosexuality; they were both excited by relationships with “rough trade” and initially fearful that they would be robbed or exposed if they went with a man less well off than themselves. But club regulars would get to know one another and trust one another, so that it was far commoner for gay couples to be of mixed class than heterosexual couples.
Out of this emerged a common model of the middle-class partner mentoring the working-class partner. And though that sounds patronizing and distasteful, the working-class partner would have new opportunities opening for him – theatre-going, foreign travel, and yes, wine-tasting. And though the clubs retained their working-class ethos, there was a great deal of fluidity in social relationships. I’m old enough, I’m afraid, to have experienced these clubs as a teenager/twentysomething, so I feel a certain nostalgia for the days where the classes mixed easily and unconsciously. I have a symbolic “black date” in the ’90s when the class system returned: It was with the opening of the Village Soho, catering for young professionals with Filofaxes, where the beer was imported and sold in bottles at prices higher than a draft pint from Charrington’s.
The effect of cross-class relationships was that it raised the horizons of many young gays, who became ambitious for – and were encouraged by their partners to become more ambitious for – higher-status jobs that paid more. It’s often forgotten that, from classical times, pederasty – and many of these relationships were pederastic, even if they were not necessarily between partners of different ages – involved obligations on the more experienced partner to impart education to the other.
So it was that, before the ’80s, gay couples appeared at least to have notably higher standards of living.