Stella Maxwell
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Op-ed: What We Need to Do to Lift LGBT Women Out of Poverty

Op-ed: What We Need to Do to Lift LGBT Women Out of Poverty

The number of LGBTQ women at risk of living in poverty in the U.S. is roughly the same size as the number of people living in my home state of Colorado. To put it another way, that’s two Chicagos or 100 Yankee Stadiums packed to capacity. Regardless of what way you look at 5.1 million, it’s an enormous number of people by anyone’s standards, and it’s appalling. It also defies an unfortunate stereotype that we LGBTQ folk are all upper-middle-class and that poverty isn’t really a problem for our community.

For example, women of color are up to three times more likely to be poor than their white counterparts. As we explore intersections within this statistic, we see even more stark differences: Transgender women of color are especially likely to live in extreme poverty ($10,000 or less per year), with black transgender women facing rates seven times higher than that of the general population. 

This picture of poverty is revealed in vivid detail in a new report spearheaded by the Movement Advancement Project and the Center for American Progress, Paying an Unfair Price: The Financial Penalty for LGBT Women in America, which shows that our nation’s LGBTQ women face a quagmire of inequality — and for women of color the addition of the scourge of structural racism —which negatively impacts every aspect of our lives, from the workplace to walking down the street.

The need to meet the challenges that the report reveals becomes even more urgent when you consider that almost half of LGBTQ women under 50 are raising children — and this figure is higher for LGBTQ black, Latina, Asian, and transgender women.

We face a patchwork of laws that actively discriminate against who we are, who we love, what housing we can access, and what health care we need. Far from creating any semblance of economic security, this mix puts all LGBTQ women and our families at risk of poverty. And it puts those who are most vulnerable — women raising children, older women, women of color, immigrants, transgender women, and those women and families who are already living near or below the poverty line — at even more risk.

Take a black lesbian working as a store manager in Mississippi making barely minimum wage; let’s call her Allison. She makes much less than the other shop manager, Joseph, who is a straight white man. She and her partner of 10 years want to have another child but have been denied reproductive health care by her employer because of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision. Unlike Joseph, who is married with kids, she can’t access the Earned Income Tax Credit because she can’t legally adopt her own kids in Mississippi and her relationship is not recognized for tax purposes. Her employer suspects she is a lesbian and fires her, which is legal in Mississippi. She loses her income and her benefits. Another person is added to the number of LGBTQ women living in poverty in a vicious cycle of economic instability.

Sadly, Allison’s experience is not exceptional, as the new report reveals. In fact, LGBTQ women struggle to find and keep good jobs, and face discrimination, harassment, low pay, and few opportunities to advance. We face higher health costs for substandard health insurance that can exclude comprehensive reproductive health care and the physical and mental health needs of transgender women. Denied care reduces our ability to be healthy for work. And, as our relationships are often not recognized by law —both federally and in most states — we are excluded from rights, programs, and benefits that are designed to help people on low incomes stay out of poverty.

Clearly there are several things that can be done to change this picture:

On jobs, we need Congress to pass a strong federal non-discrimination law to help end the scourge of discrimination against all LGBTQ workers. LGBTQ people should enjoy the same nondiscrimination protections as other protected groups in federal laws such as Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. We need equal and fair pay that Congress can help deliver by passing the Fair Paycheck Act and the Minimum Wage Fairness Act. We must “queer our taxes” and reform our tax code to make it fairer and more accessible for LGBTQ same-sex couples with families. And with the advent of politicians pushing legislation to allow religion to be used as an excuse to discriminate, we must push back on efforts that could provide a free pass for bias at the local, state, and federal level.

In a post-Ferguson world, we must also intensify our efforts to address structural racism and racial injustice in every aspect of our lives. For example, we need to pass the End Racial Profiling Act, restore the protections in the Voting Rights Act, and strengthen affirmative action.

Of course, the frustrating thing about poverty is that it is almost entirely fixable and preventable — but only when we admit we have a problem. We clearly have a problem with poverty that we must act urgently to address.

REA CAREY is the executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund.

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