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.
Time and again, we have watched a narrow definition of the “gay issues” lead to failure to win campaigns or to a disregard for issues that have important implications for the overall position of LGBT and queer politics. Indeed, this lack of strategic vision was apparent in 1995-1996, when the Clinton administration dismantled large parts of the social safety net under the guise of welfare reform. Many elements of welfare reform—abstinence-only sex education, marriage promotion, fatherhood initiatives, and charitable choice programs—had significant implications for queer people, and especially for low-income queers. But our national LGBT organizations did not have a single word to say on the subject at the time. The fallout, however, was far more sweeping than just ignoring large parts of the queer community. LGBT people of all economic classes should have been concerned about a sweeping piece of national legislation that was more concerned with ending “illegitimate families” than with ending poverty, as was the expressed purpose of welfare reform legislation. The failure of LGBT organizations to see how queer families might be lumped into the category of the “illegitimate” by both right-wingers and liberals determined to regulate the sexuality of poor people, women, and queers, was a political and strategic failure.
The lack of vision can also be seen in our national organizations’ approach to hate crimes. Hate crimes against queer people are a very real problem, and they absolutely deserve the attention that we have given to them. The solutions we have embraced in hate crime legislation, however, have been misguided. Enhanced prison sentences that send convicted assaulters into the most homophobic institutions in the country will do nothing to solve the problem of anti-gay violence. Our national organizations chose to embrace conservative, “lock them up” values and tactics during the exact period in history when other social justice movements were working to reform or dismantle a criminal justice system that is profoundly racist at every step. Is it any wonder that so many potential straight allies on the left do not take our movement seriously?
However, as a number of articles in A New Queer Agenda show, there remains a wide range of opportunities for reframing our understanding of issues in ways that support coalitions and expansive progressive movements. For example, we could reframe “marriage equality” in terms of the right to form a family and share household resources inside and outside marriage, instead of focusing exclusively on the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry. Consequently, we have missed a huge opportunity to build alliances with senior citizens, immigrants, single people, women’s organizations, workers, HIV-caregiving networks, and other communities that create households and share resources outside of marriage. The creativity and ingenuity that queer people have shown in creating multiple kinds of families have been profoundly absent from the vision of national LGBT organizations that should be protecting the many family formations that we actually live in instead of proposing the couple form as a one-size-fits-all solution.
Some advocates of marriage equality have even proposed that same-sex marriage will help reduce poverty among queers, taking a page from marriage-promotion policies aimed at single mothers on welfare. But the decade-long experiment in heterosexual marriage promotion has utterly failed to put a dent in poverty rates. Like single mothers, many queer people simply do not want to get married, and their access to the social safety net and other state benefits and rights should not come attached to marital status. Whether we are single or partnered, we have the right to basic economic security. Marriage should be a personal choice based on cultural and religious preferences. It should not be the way to secure economic benefits for yourself and your family.
Universal health care represents another such opportunity to forge a progressive coalition that includes and benefits LGBT people, and learns from our experiences. But so far, national LGBT organizations have done little to take up the fight for health care for all. Even with (or perhaps especially after) the passage of President Obama’s health care reform package, health care remains one of the hottest issues in American political life. Here we are faced with the opportunity to make a common cause (with labor unions, progressive health care organizations, HIV/AIDS groups, and other social justice movements). If we take up the vision advocated by the new queer agenda and organize around the most expansive possible definition of “queer issues,” we will have the chance to work on an issue that could substantially improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people (including our own widely uninsured communities) in real, life-and-death ways.
Fortunately, if you look below the radar, you will find queer organizations across the country that understand the importance of making connections between our causes and are actively creating opportunities to build such links. Small local groups have been working for years on the real issues facing the less financially privileged segments of our communities. Organizations like Queers for Economic Justice (QEJ), of which I was the founding director, work with low-income and homeless LGBT people on vital issues crucial to their basic survival. I offer a brief history of QEJ because I am very proud of how our formation can serve as a model for other progressive queer groups across the country.
In 1998, when I was in graduate school, I wrote my master’s thesis on the impact of welfare reform on LGBT people, during which time I discovered that there was not a shred of research on the subject. When I became director of SAGE/Queens, I created a coalition of local antipoverty and LGBT organizations to address the impact that welfare reform had had on LGBT people. For three years, the queer movement and the antipoverty movement were working together (for the first time ever), to exchange information and engage in advocacy and public education about how LGBT people were impacted by poverty issues such as welfare reform, homelessness, the shelter system, and the criminal justice system. By working together under the umbrella of the Queer Economic Justice Network, some LGBT organizations were able to encourage each other to begin addressing these issues for the first time.
During this work, many of the people involved in the network decided that despite certain advantages that came from working as a coalition, a gap still needed to be filled. As great as it was to see these organizations take steps to broaden their work, it was clear that LGBT groups were never going to prioritize poverty and that antipoverty groups were never going to prioritize queer people. There was very clearly the need for an organization that could concentrate on these issues full-time, with a mission, resources, and staff whose priority was to address the needs of LGBT people in poverty.
As we started planning the organization that would become Queers for Economic Justice, we realized that our group of activists on the steering committee was too white and middle-class. So we stopped the process completely in order to make sure that before we moved forward, we represented the identities and issues that were central to our vision and mission. Eventually, we had a steering committee that brought together a seasoned group of activists and community leaders with personal experience and expertise in various poverty and economic justice issues (welfare, homelessness, prison reform, labor, etc.) and/or experience working in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities. The majority of the steering committee’s members were people of color or people with first-hand experience of poverty. We then began to identify the issues that we wanted to begin working on first (welfare reform, prison reform, and homelessness), but there were also other issues that we wanted to address, such as immigration, access to health care, labor/employment issues (including “underground” labor such as sex work), access to education, class tensions within the queer community (such as the kind of gentrification conflict that is taking place in the West Village right now), poverty in transgender communities, reproductive freedom (beyond the narrow focus on abortion), and sexual liberation. We committed to starting small, but always keeping all of these issues—and their interconnections—in mind. The following is our mission statement:
Founded in 2002, Queers for Economic Justice (QEJ) is a progressive non-profit organization committed to promoting economic justice in a context of sexual and gender liberation. Our goal is to challenge and change the systems that create poverty and economic injustice in our communities, and to promote an economic system that embraces sexual and gender diversity. We are committed to the principle that access to social and economic resources is a fundamental right, and we work to create social and economic equity through grassroots organizing, public education, advocacy and research. We do this work because although poor queers have always been a part of both the gay rights and economic justice movements, they have been, and continue to be, largely invisible in both movements. This work is always informed by the lived experiences and expressed needs of queer people in poverty.
QEJ’s current programs include our Shelter Project, our Welfare Organizing Project, our Building A Queer Left Project, and our Beyond Marriage Project. All of these projects are rooted in the desire to do work on issues that matter the most to the people in our communities who are the most disenfranchised. All of these projects are executed in a way that makes connections with other social justice movements.
And QEJ is not alone. There are other organizations that have also made the issues and agendas of low-income queers central to their work. They work on issues ranging from health care to immigration, from prison reform to living wages, from reproductive justice to gentrification, from antidiscrimination to antiviolence—and they do it all through a queer lens. They do so through grassroots community organizing, leadership development, legal advocacy, and public education. Many of these organizations are led by people of color or low-income people. As opposed to our prominent LGBT national organizations, these organizations are all small, progressive, grassroots, and/or underfunded. Some examples of the kind of groups I am talking about include: Affinity Community Services (Chicago, IL), ALLGO (Austin, TX), American Friends Service Committee’s LGBT Recognition & Rights Project (Michigan), the Audre Lorde Project (Brooklyn, NY), the Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project (New York, NY), Community United Against Violence (San Francisco, CA), District 202 (Minneapolis, MN), El Centro Hispano (Durham, NC), The El/La Transgender Latina HIV Prevention Program (San Francisco, CA), Equality Utah (Salt Lake City, UT), Esperanza Peace and Justice Center (San Antonio, TX), Fairness Campaign (Louisville, KY), FIERCE (New York, NY), GenderJUST (Chicago, IL), GenerationFIVE (Oakland, CA), The Highlander Research and Education Center (New Market, TN), Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network (Jacksonville, FL), National Coalition for LGBT Health (Washington, DC), National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (Washington, DC), the Peter Cicchino Youth Project (New York, NY), Q-Team (Los Angeles, CA), Queer & Trans Jail Stoppers (Seattle, WA), Queers for Economic Justice (New York, NY), SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective (Atlanta, GA), Southerners on New Ground (Durham, NC), SPARK Reproductive Justice Now! (Atlanta, GA), the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (New York, NY), Transgender, Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project (Oakland, CA), and Women With A Vision (New Orleans, LA).
Some of these organizations have been asked to contribute pieces to this issue, some of them are regular partners with QEJ, and some of them have never worked with QEJ at all. But all of them are doing work that understands queerness through an intersectional lens. They recognize that for queer people who are poor (or people of color, or immigrants, or incarcerated, or homeless), a “gay agenda” cannot be limited to marriage, hate crimes, and antidiscrimination laws. They understand that race, class, gender, citizenship, and health cannot be removed when you talk about sexual orientation and gender identity. And consequently, our agenda must address those issues.
But these groups are underfunded as millions of dollars instead continue to pour into the fight for gay marriage—an issue that was put at the top of our movement’s agenda primarily by people who are not facing the harshest economic realities. It is time that our national LGBT organizations prioritized the needs of the rest of our community, of the financially struggling or impoverished. As the current crisis moves more of us into that category, it is time that our national leaders open the newspaper to something other than the wedding announcements.
If they do not, we will work without them. I believe that the 30 organizations I mentioned above, and others like them around the country, have the potential to become another LGBT movement—a progressive queer movement, as opposed to the current mainstream gay one. A queer movement that is actually about building a real social justice movement, and not just relying on a handful of national leaders, funders, and lawyers to set our agenda. It is time for a new queer agenda. A queer agenda that actually reflects the lives and concerns of people of color, poor people, women, transgender people, immigrants, sex workers, homeless people, incarcerated people, old people, youth, disabled people, people with HIV, and working-class people. In other words: a queer agenda that reflects the concerns of the majority of us. “Building A Queer Left” is the name of one of our projects at QEJ, and it is exactly what we are trying to do. The potential to do so is exciting, and when I contemplate what could actually happen if we all created a queer movement that actually addressed the real issues facing most queer people … well, it takes my breath away. Join us.
- 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]
- According to a survey released in 2010 by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 46.3 million Americans, or about 15.4 percent, did not have health insurance coverage in 2009, and nearly 60 million, or one in five, had gaps in coverage that year. Between 2000 and 2009, the percentage of firms offering coverage fell from 69 to 60. See Kaiser Family Foundation, Employer Health Benefit Survey (Menlo Park: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2009). For the queer community, it is even worse. According to a Harris Interactive nationwide poll (May 19, 2008), nearly one in four gay and lesbian adults lacks health insurance, and gays and lesbians are nearly twice as likely as their heterosexual counterparts to have no health insurance coverage. See Harris Interactive Poll, (May 19, 2008), quoted in LGBT Health: Community Cares (PDF), PFund Foundation (2009). Other surveys show an even greater disparity between heterosexuals and gays/lesbians. See A. Birkey, “Disproportionate share of LGBT Minnesotans are excluded from health care system,” Minnesota Monitor 9 Apr. 2008. Transgender people disproportionately lack any health care at all; some surveys report that 50 percent lack health insurance. See S. Mintor and C. Daley, Trans Realities: A Legal Needs Assessment of San Francisco’s Transgender Communities (PDF) (San Francisco: National Center for Lesbian Rights and Transgender Law Center, 2003). Also, nearly all US health care insurers exclude trans health services such as hormonal therapy and sex reassignment surgery See Eliminating Disparities Working Group, An Overivew of U.S. Trans Health Priorities (Washington: National Coalition for LGBT Health, 2004). [Return to text]