As I write, our country is still facing an economic crisis of massive proportions. Poverty, unemployment, home foreclosures, homelessness, and hunger are all on the rise. This disaster was caused not just by the corporate crime and corruption of the financial market, but by the decades-long policy, pursued by both Democrats and Republicans, of shrinking and privatizing what remains of the social safety net. For those of us who have long championed economic justice, the tragic and obscene consequences of unchecked neoliberalism are not surprising. What is surprising, however, is that even this crisis—the largest and deepest since the Great Depression—seems to be unable to shake our national LGBT organizations out of their myopic stupor. While millions of Americans have begun to scrutinize Wall Street’s power and tried to find ways to meet the needs of the millions who are suffering from the effects of economic calamity, national LGBT organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal, and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and others continue to act as if the most important issue facing queer people is whether or not we can get married. These organizations have dismissed the economic crisis in the same way that they dismissed most other social justice issues; economic justice is simply “not a gay issue.”
How could such a severe crisis not be a “gay issue”? Because all LGBT people are financially comfortable? The myth of gay affluence gained prominence in the 1980s, due in no small part to highly publicized marketing surveys of the readerships of gay magazines like the Advocate. The existence of gay people with lots of disposable income was an appealing pitch to make to advertisers. Gay political leaders, eager to flex our community’s developing muscles, quickly adopted the strategy of increasing our political clout by circulating statistics that exaggerated our economic strength. These statistics have since been used against us by our conservative foes, who have depicted the LGBT community as privileged white gay men who do not need additional “special rights.” Sadly, our movement has done little to challenge this notion, despite its blatant inaccuracy and harmful political effects.
The predominantly white affluent gay men who subscribe to the Advocate, however, are only one small subsection of our community. Subscribers of any magazine are wealthier than the average American, and data generated about the readerships of gay magazines could never represent our entire community. In reality, overall poverty rates for lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults are as high or higher than rates for heterosexual men and women. Despite the mainstream media depiction of gays and lesbians as white, middle-class people, without children, and with plenty of disposable income, this is not an accurate depiction of the LGBT population as a whole.
Even with the scarcity of literature on the subject, a thorough review of both peer-reviewed scholarship and gray literature finds several studies documenting evidence of poverty among many populations in the LGBT community. Several studies show that LGBT people of color (POC) have incomes that are lower than those of their white LGBT counterparts and their heterosexual POC counterparts. Same-sex couples and their children are significantly more likely to be poor than heterosexual married families, primarily because lesbian couples and their families are much more likely to be poor than heterosexual couples and their families. And Hispanic lesbians in couples encounter poverty rates three times those of non-Hispanic lesbian couples, while black female same-sex couples report a median annual income of $21,000 less than white female same-sex couples. People in same-sex couples who live in rural areas have poverty rates that are twice as high as those for same-sex couples who live in large metropolitan areas, as well as being poorer than people in different-sex married couples who live in rural areas. A survey of 171 low-income LGBT New Yorkers (69 percent of whom had been homeless at some point in their lives) found that they deal with continual discrimination and violence at the hands of police, as well as staff and guards at government and nonprofit institutions.
In addition, poverty rates among transgender people are even higher than among the rest of our community. Transgender people face high rates of unemployment, and one study estimated that 65 percent are living in poverty. Age is another issue related to poverty for our community. LGBT seniors are more likely to live without the financial support of families and without the Social Security survivor benefits of a spouse. Between 20 and 40 percent of all homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
By looking at those studies collectively, we begin to see a picture of the LGBT community that cannot be represented by surveys of white middle-class people. Given these realities, how is it possible that poverty is not a concern of the LGBT movement?
At the exact same time that more money is raised and spent on the battle for gay marriage, there has been a surreal, stony silence from most of our national LGBT movement about the current economic crisis. It is beyond maddening to see tens of millions of dollars poured into the fight for marriage equality across the country at the expense of addressing issues that are more urgent for so many people in our community. How is it that economic justice is not considered “a gay issue” by our national organizations, elected officials, funders, statewide organizations, and media?
The answer to this question is easy. With few exceptions, the leaders of our national LGBT organizations have been white and middle class. (A look at the list of executive directors of the past ten years at Freedom To Marry, GLAAD, the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, PFLAG, and others, provides easy evidence of this.) These white, middle-class leaders have probably never been on welfare or spent a night in a homeless shelter or in prison; and they may not personally know anyone who has. For them, what constitutes a “gay issue” is limited to the concerns of white, financially secure American citizens like themselves. I cannot be more blunt than that. “Gay issues” are, for the most part, determined by the kind of people for whom the inability to get married is the only real form of discrimination they face on a daily basis.
White, middle-class leaders of national gay organizations set the agenda and then, after the fact, they may hire people of color to “do outreach” to sell that agenda to minority communities. More often than not, this outreach fails, as people of color and poor communities do not see themselves reflected in the mainstream gay agenda, which remains de facto white and middle-class. Our national LGBT organizations then insist that they have no choice but to concentrate on issues that are “exclusively gay.” They argue that the problems faced exclusively by LGBT people are difficult enough, and that our organizations simply do not have the resources to address broader concerns, even if they wanted to. To imagine otherwise is deemed “unrealistic.”
I offer this critique not to imply that our national organizations are guilty of institutional racism and classism, although they most certainly are. My point is that our national leadership is not merely morally bankrupt, but it is politically and strategically bankrupt as well. Narrowly defining what constitutes a “gay issue” and “the gay agenda” represents a colossal lack of vision, one that limits the gay movement’s scope and isolates it from other progressive social justice movements.
The essays in A New Queer Agenda show, through personal narrative and social analysis, not only that poverty is an issue of crucial concern to LGBT and queer people, but that taking economic justice seriously can also be a key to revitalizing our movements in a time of real hardship and political stalemate. A new queer agenda is about vision, about the ideas that activists and scholars have been developing over the last several years (if not decades) to provide for a world of possibility rather than constraint, of openness rather than narrowness, of the expansion rather than the contraction of hopes.
Expanding the scope of work beyond that currently done by national LGBT groups has a number of positive implications. Such expansiveness could increase the number of queer people who join and support those organizations. Rather than draining and diluting resources, taking on more issues could increase the political base and resources available to the broader LGBT movement. The ability of the right wing to link all progressive movements together as a common enemy has helped it to rally and organize a base of voters. One reason that the right has been powerful enough to control public discourse for the last several decades is that it understands the connections between the different progressive movements and plans accordingly. Until social justice movements can make the same connections between our causes that the right has been making, we will continue to lose.
- A study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, found that African Americans in same-sex couples have significantly higher poverty rates than those of black heterosexual couples, and are roughly three times higher than those of white people in same-sex couples. It also found that white gay men in same-sex couples have poverty rates of 2.7 percent, compared to 4.5 percent of Asian or Pacific Islander gay men, 14.4 percent of black gay men, and 19.1 percent of Native American gay men. While just under 6 percent of non-Hispanic lesbians are poor, that rate is more than tripled (19.1 percent) for Hispanic lesbians in couples. See R. Albelda, M.V.L. Badgett, A. Schneebaum, and G. Gates, G., Poverty in the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Community (PDF) (Los Angeles: Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law, 2009). Gay and bisexual black men in California have median household incomes that are 44 percent lower than those of their straight peers, and the home ownership rate of black individuals in same-sex couples raising children is 20 percent, compared to 63 percent of those in different-sex marriages raising children. See C. Ramos and G.J. Gates, Census Snapshot: California’s Black LGB Population (Los Angeles: Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law, 2008). Twelve percent of black LGBT people represented in one survey had a household income of less than $15,000. See J. Battle, C.J. Cohen, D. Warren, G. Gergerson, and S. Audam, Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud: Black Pride Survey 2000 (New York: Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2002). Asian and Latino LGBT people also show higher rates of poverty than their heterosexual or white counterparts. See Asian American Federation of New York, Asian Pacific American Same-Sex Households: A Census Report on New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles (PDF). (New York: Asian American Federation of New York, 2004). R.M. Diaz, G. Ayala, E. Bein, J. Henne, and B.V Marin, “The Impact of Homophobia, Poverty, and Racism on the Mental Health of Gay and Bisexual Latino Men: Findings from 3 US Cities,” American Journal of Public Health 91.6, (2001) : 927-932. In the Diaz et al. 2001 study of gay and bisexual Latino men in Los Angeles, Miami, and New York, 61 percent of the sample reported that within the past year, they had run out of money for basic necessities, and 54 percent reported that they had been forced to borrow money just to get by. [Return to text]
- In a country where women make 80 percent of what men earn for the same work, it should come as no surprise that lesbian couples have much higher poverty rates than either different-sex couples or gay male couples. See Albelda et al. [Return to text]
- Albelda et al.; A. Dang and S. Frazer, Black Same-Sex households in the United States: A Report from the 2000 Census, 2nd ed. December, 2005. (Washington: National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute and National Black Justice Coalition, 2005). [Return to text]
- Albelda et al. [Return to text]
- M. Billies, J. Johnson, K. Murungi, and R. Pugh, “Naming Our Reality: Low-income LGBT People Documenting Violence, Discrimination and Assertions of Justice,” Feminism & Psychology 19 (2009): 375-380; Welfare Warriors Research Collaborative, A Fabulous Attitude: Low-Income LGBTGNC People Surviving & Thriving on Love, Shelter & Knowledge (PDF) (New York: Queers for Economic Justice, 2010). [Return to text]
- See M.V.L. Badgett, H. Lau, B. Sears, and D. Ho, Bias in the Workplace: Consistent Evidence of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Discrimination (Los Angeles: Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law, 2007). A 2006 report found that when the official unemployment rate in San Francisco stood at 4.7 percent, more than 35 percent of the transgender community in the city was unemployed, and 60 percent were living in poverty. Forty percent did not have a bank account of any kind. Only 25 percent were working full-time. Sixteen percent were working part-time, and nearly 9 percent had no source of income. Over 57 percent reported experiencing employment discrimination. See San Francisco Bay Guardian and the Transgender Law Center, Good Jobs NOW! A Snapshot of the Economic Health of San Francisco’s Transgender Communities (PDF), (San Francisco: San Francisco Bay Guardian and Transgender Law Center, 2006). [Return to text]
- E. Birch, former executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, statement, Town meeting, 14 Apr. 1999. [Return to text]