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Abandoning the Gay American Dream

A low-rent queer in a high-rent 'hood

LIVABLE FOR WHOM? Guy Babineau, facing yet another rent increase threatening to drive him out of the increasingly unaffordable West End. Credit: James Loewen photo

The minute I saw that white envelope slipped beneath the door, my palms began to sweat.

Another year, another rent increase. You know that the legal four percent hike is going to happen but somehow it always comes as an unpleasant shock.

Being stressed to snapping by the vagaries of life as a low-income freelance writer, and having cut so many corners that I was running around in circles, I had started to contemplate leaving the West End a while ago. Either that, or make some radical changes.

I was living as close to the bone as the bone could bear. I took public transit. I scoured the secondhand stores for clothes. I couldn’t afford a gym membership, and forget about ski weekends, circuit parties and a personal trainer.

I asked my family for socks and underwear at Christmas. I stopped asking for sweaters. Somewhere there is a factory sequestered deep inside a mountain cave, staffed by sightless trolls. Accompanied by a mournful Nordic symphony, from dusk till dawn they manufacture patterned cable knit ’80s pullovers in all the wrong colours. And that’s what you’ll get if you ask for a sweater.

Botox? Getaways in Palm Springs? Concert tickets? Oh please.

My little bachelor apartment, a cute but faded fixer-upper that-like me-needs some work, is all I have.

But there’s no way you can compensate for rent. You’ve got to pay it.

Mine is low by local standards, only $815 a month. According to the 2007 Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation Survey, the average bachelor apartment in the Greater Vancouver Regional District rents for $1,222. You’re supposed to pay about 25 percent of your net income on rent, which means you’d need to clear $58,656 annually.

Rent had been sucking up more than 50 percent of my income. Knowing that more half the residents in this money-mad town spend at least half their paycheque on accommodation was cold comfort. No wonder the fastest-growing homeless population on the continent shows no sign of abating.

Virginia Woolf said about the writing life that all one needs is 500 pounds and a room of one’s own. If she were a single gay man buying in modern-day downtown Vancouver, she’d have to revise that to at least 60,000-70,000 smackers a year and an overpriced cubby-hole (“urban living at its finest”) featuring “the clean lines of modern European design” (whitewashed walls with no accessories) and a “contemporary downtown lifestyle” (Carrie Bradshaw lives next door).

Add a perplexing name, and voilĂ . Like that tall drink of water going up at the corner of Burrard and Barclay, Patina. Who dreamed that up? A patina is either a green film on metal caused by oxidation or corrosion-ew!-or a superficial sheen buffed by years of constant handling, like Madonna.

The other option is a matchbox in a tower “conveniently located close to it all” in Maple Ridge.

I faced a real dilemma. I have always been an urban dweller, and I’ve always been fond of the West End.

In earlier days, the third most populated downtown neighbourhood in North America attracted gay men escaping grim circumstances in the suburbs, smaller towns and rural areas. Gay westenders have played an important and visible role in the shaping of this city.

Today the attraction is the community’s highly developed social life. It’s not a ghetto, it’s a gathering place. Like Chinatown or Little Italy, Davie St and environs form a hub of activities for people who share certain commonalities.

Then there’s the diversity thing, although I prefer to say variety. Sure, a gay man can live pretty much anywhere in this city without raising an eyebrow, but not everyone wants to live in the suburbs. You can have your wedding bands and picket fences, boys. Not me.

To quote the legendary Eva Gabor, star of one the 20th century’s great cultural achievements, Green Acres, “Darling, I love you, but give me Park Avenue.”

When I scoured the classifieds for something in my price range, all I saw was doom. Anything I could afford was so far east that it was practically in the outskirts of Winnipeg.

It was either pack my toothbrush and head for an SRO, or leave the West End. That would mean leaving Vancouver.

I contemplated going back to Toronto, where I had lived for 17 years before returning to Vancouver in 1996. I have lots of connections, and plenty of places to stay. Most of my best gay male friends live downtown or nearby. But it’s not home.

Interestingly, most of the gay guys I know who own homes in Vancouver and Toronto do so with a partner. An inheritance was often involved.

They form part of a chorus of people who frequently lecture me that it makes more sense to be paying a mortgage. Not only is that not feasible, it’s a misconception.

Last October, Scotiabank released a report revealing that the buy-over-rent premium in Vancouver is the highest in the country. You’d be paying $1,220 more per month for a mortgage on a two-bedroom condo than if you rented it. According to the BC Real Estate Association, you need to make an annual “family” income of at least $114,000 just to qualify for a mortgage to buy a house going for $454,945, the provincial average.

The world is taking note. A new Century 21 survey of downtown housing prices in major international cities rated Vancouver as the fourth most expensive urban core in the world, on the heels of Paris, Moscow and Seoul, and pricier than New York and London.

The Demographia survey said that Vancouver was “severely unaffordable.” The Economist rated Vancouver as the world’s 34th most expensive city for overall cost of living, warning that if the US dollar continues to drop, it could soon be the most expensive city in North America.

What’s weird, though, is that two years ago The Economist touted Vancouver as the world’s most livable city. And this year, the 2007 Mercer Report, the other international survey that the media hang on to, placed Vancouver as the world’s third most livable city.

Livable for whom? The Economist is the Tiffany’s of international business magazines. The average household income of its subscribers is US$212,000.
Mercer Human Resource Consulting is a global finance company that works with blue chip clients. These are not impartial surveys, and are skewed to an elite crowd.

Just the way that most of the gay media skews to high-income queers and the chimeric Pink Dollar. According to this myth, someone like me should have the cash for a downtown pad with all the trimmings. If I don’t, then there’s something wrong with me.

I read a 2006 survey saying that the North American gay “market” is worth US$641 billion. (Let’s remember to tell people to remove the price tag when they take us home.)

All the cheerleading about the affluence of queers is due to original sources that stand to benefit from such claims: companies marketing to gays, and gay media driven by advertising catering to the notion of a Gay American Dream. In-depth and impartial studies indicate otherwise.

The American Dream itself is a fallacy. The term was never intended to be a slogan for free-market capitalism and giddy consumerism. Quite the opposite. The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James Truslow Adams coined it in his 1931 book, The Epic of America.

“The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement,” he wrote. “It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

Marxist much? This sounds suspiciously like an endorsement of both social and economic diversity, something that has been draining out of what we call the gay community for some time.

Bombarded by image after image of homogenized homos, we’re exhorted to buy, buy and buy some more, in print, digital and broadcast media that are increasingly-and blandly-interchangeable in style and content. It’s taking its toll.

An exhaustive UK survey claims that, on average, gay men have a credit card debt 15 percent higher than straight men. An Advocate article reports that a large and growing number of 20-something gay guys are saddled with ever-increasing debt. A drug counsellor for San Francisco’s Stonewall Project writes that the most common reason men give for their addiction to crystal meth is: “They were chasing after the Gay American Dream…”

At the same time, numerous studies such as Income Inflation: The Myth of Affluence Among Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Americans; In Money, Myths, and Change: The Economic Lives of Lesbians and Gay Men; Measuring the Effect of Sexual Orientation on Income: Evidence of Discrimination, and others indicate that we are no more affluent than single or married heterosexuals. There is strong evidence that, on average, gay men earn considerably less than straight men.

Why isn’t anyone talking about this? As more and more people I know leave the West End because they can’t afford it, it seems like an important conversation. It’s one that I plan to participate in.

I decided I would do anything I could to stay here, and now I’m a corporate girl, writing white-collar copy and paying my rent.

It feels good to be home.