Clearly, what Memphis needs is more gays and lesbians.

At least that’s what we concluded from a recent report that put Memphis near the bottom of the nation’s largest 50 cities in a ranking of single sex couples and gay, lesbian and bisexual population.

With only 3.5 percent of its MSA population fitting into this category, Memphis ranked #46, with only Buffalo, Detroit, Richmond and Riverside ranking lower.

Meanwhile, heading up the list were San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Portland, Tampa, Austin, Denver and Minneapolis. Unsurprisingly, the Windy City topped the list — 15.4 percent of its city population and 8.2 percent of its metro population are gay.

Top Cities

Interestingly, the cities at the top of this list also happen to be the cities that are proving the most successful in the new economy and that are the leaders in attracting 25-34 year-old college-educated workers.

Comparing the cities with large gay populations with the cities that are most successfully competing in today’s economy, it suggests that when Memphis rolls out its economic development plans for the future, chief on the list should be attracting more gays to our city.

Of course, that’s simplistic. There is no cause and effect, at least not directly, between the presence of gays and success in the global economy. (This is not to deny that considerable research proves the ability of gays and lesbians to resurrect dying neighborhoods.)

More to the point, gays are the canary in the coal mine, as one gay Memphian said in the wake of the release of the Memphis Talent Magnet Report several years ago. In other words, if a city is welcoming and accepting of gays, it is prima facie inclusive, diverse and tolerant. In today’s competitive environment, these are more than just noble virtues. They are also what young workers are seeking, because research shows that they are gravitating to cities that are open, where they can be themselves and where they can define their own lives.

Selling Tolerance

Tolerance as a selling point is vastly underrated and misunderstood in Memphis. But more and more, it is becoming a priority for cities that understand how it helps to attract and retain knowledge economy workers.

In our work in developing talent strategies for a half dozen large cities, it’s a common and compelling theme. It’s not simply something that comes up as a footnote in interviews, focus groups and research. To the contrary, it is uppermost in the minds of this critical part of the workforce as they make decisions on where they will work and live. It’s not that they are asking if cities have a vibrant gay culture. Rather, they ask about ways in which the city welcomes their opinions and accepts their choices, and there is no more telling indicator that the presence and acceptance of gays and lesbians.

It is in this way that the gay population is an indicator of the fundamental character of a city and serves as a foreshadowing to other indicators of economic success. To prove the point, Memphis’ rank at the bottom of the list of cities with gay populations is also where it is ranked on variety of other economic measurements.

These latest statistics about same-sex couples and the gay, lesbian and bisexual population is contained in recent report of the Williams Institute. It is reminiscent of the widely misunderstood “Gay Index” made famous by Richard Florida in his book, The Rise of the Creative Class.

Gay Index

In his book, Mr. Florida pointed out that Memphis ranked #43 on the 1990 Gay Index and #41 on the 2000 Gay Index. At the same time, Memphis ranked #48 on the High-Tech Index. While those taking shots at his premise mischaracterized it to say that he was suggesting a direct correlation between gays and high-tech jobs, Mr. Florida actually made the point that gays concentrate in open, tolerant cities, and it is these kinds of cities that have a competitive advantage for creative workers.

It’s our suspicion that the percentage of gays in Memphis is underreported. After all, the statistics are based on same sex couples, gays and lesbians identifying themselves. In a city with a historic problem with intolerance, it’s not surprising that they might be reluctant to respond openly.

Despite this, 2,757 identified themselves as same sex couples – 1,295 male couples and 1,462 female couples. Over all, the gay and lesbian population of Memphis was listed at 30,531.

From 2000 to 2005, according to the report, the number of same-sex couples in the U.S. grew by more than 30 percent to 777,000, five times the rate of growth of the overall population. “Most likely as stigma associated with same sex partnering and homosexuality in general decreases, more same-sex couples are willing to identify themselves as such on government surveys,” said the report.

More Than Decency

In other words, if Memphis recorded a sudden uptick in the number of same sex couples and gays and lesbians, it’s a positive sign that things are getting better. That’s why as Memphis follows key indicators and trends to chart its progress, chief among them should be a trend line for gays and lesbians.

Tolerance is more than simple decency. Today, it’s a competitive necessity, the reflection of a community that is open and inclusive at a time when these qualities are vital if it is to compete for the kinds of jobs that matter most in a knowledge-based economy.