Poverty Is An LGBT Issue

We all know the stereotype. The rich gays living privileged lives with mounds of disposable income. There we are, lining up to go into the latest hip club or into elegant fundraising events – where we funnel cash to our all-powerful, gay agenda-wielding organizations.

But here’s the thing about the stereotype: it’s largely false. A myth. If anyone doubts that, they should have seen Dr. Lee Badgett’s presentation at a Horizons-sponsored convening on LGBT poverty a couple of days ago.

Or gone and looked at the people lined up for shelter in the Tenderloin. We’re in that line, too.

This isn’t a harmless myth. Our opponents love it because it lets them sow resentment against us as privileged members of society selfishly seeking “special rights” so that we have even more advantages. We know the whole “special rights” argument is ridiculous. But politically it packs much more punch when linked to the lie that LGBT people are rich already.

And it’s not just the political charge it carries. The “gay = wealthy” shibboleth obscures the all too real and all too painful reality of LGBT people living in poverty. It makes them invisible.  Data compiled and analyzed by the Williams Institute at UCLA tell the real story:

  • After controlling for other factors associated with poverty (such as education levels), poverty rates for LGB adults are higher than for heterosexual adults
  • Lesbians in particular – and lesbians of color still more – experience dramatically higher poverty rates than comparable heterosexual couples
  • The children of LGB couples are twice as likely to live in poverty as are children of heterosexual couples
  • Even gay male couples, once researchers controlled for other contributing factors, had a higher risk of poverty than the heterosexual population.

We also know from other research that poverty among transgender people runs at shocking levels (see the TransgenderLawCenter’s “The State of Transgender California” report, here.  You can also see the Williams Institute’s groundbreaking report on LGBT poverty here.)

Why do so many LGBT people live in poverty? Some of lesbian poverty is explainable by the still-significant gender gap in pay throughout the work world. Other causes include discrimination, unequal laws such as those governing marriage and its myriad associated rights and benefits, or insurance plans that don’t allow for same-sex partners.

That’s why Horizons – along with United Way of the Bay Area and the SF LGBT Center put together Monday’s convening  on “Taking Poverty Out of the Closet.” There, perhaps the most powerful and hopeful moment of the evening came when a young transgender woman of color shared her own story of living with poverty, with having few employment options, of having to do sex-work to survive. But she did more than survive. She found the community organizations that she needed to get to a better, more secure place.

And she’s done that. In fact, she’s now working for one of those very nonprofit groups, “happy,” she said, smiling, “as a clam.”

But we have a lot more work to do. Monday’s convening was one step in that direction – and there are a lot more to come.