Race, Poverty and LGBT rights

By Michelle Chen Jul 02, 2009

Is gay rights a white, middle class issue? Not if you’re a gay, poor person of color. Emerging research around socioeconomic status and the LGBT community underscores how the movement for LGBT equality operates neither in isolation nor at the expense of other civil rights struggles. The Center for American Progress notes that in civil-rights debates around same-sex marriage and anti-LGBT hate crime, access to these rights is seldom discussed in relation to how it impacts people’s everyday lives. “Despite recent advances,” writes Nico Sifra Quintana in a new issue brief, “LGBT civil rights are rarely addressed in policy debates surrounding poverty.” In a recent analysis of census data, the Williams Institute at UCLA law school examined the socioeconomic status of same-sex couple households along racial and gender lines. The study found that "After adjusting for a range of family characteristics that help explain poverty, gay and lesbian couple families are significantly more likely to be poor than are heterosexual married couple families." Lesbian couples and families face especially high rates of poverty.
When you add race to the mix, the disparities widen. Although in general, white male same-sex couple households have a lower poverty rate than heterosexual married couples, significantly higher poverty rates are seen in Black, Asian American and Latino same-sex couples. Poverty rates are higher for children living in same-sex male and female households. Compared to a child poverty rate of about 7 percent for white heterosexual couples, about 28 percent of children in Black male same-sex households are impoverished. For children in Black lesbian couple households, the rate is 32 percent. We can make some educated guesses about why poverty, race and sexual orientation overlap. The Williams Institute points to a litany of social and political factors:

–LGBT people are vulnerable to employment discrimination, and they have no legal recourse in most states. –Most same-sex couples are shut out of some institutions that enhance the economic position of families, such as marriage. –Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are more likely than heterosexuals to lack health insurance coverage, making them vulnerable to the economic consequences of a health crisis. –LGBT families are less likely to receive family support, which could translate into greater economic vulnerability. –Family conflict about coming out and violence in group homes results in high rates of homelessness for young LGBT people.

A separate report by the Transgender Law Center found that transgender people in California experience disturbing rates of workplace harassment and discrimination in getting medical treatment. About one in five people surveyed said they had experienced homelessness since first identifying as transgender. “The myth of gay affluence” encircling the LGBT community is a powerful and divisive one, driven by media portrayals and underlying patterns of social stratification. A closer look reveals that, even within a community that struggles with unequal treatment, race and gender privilege determine political visibility.