LGBT #RealPay

April 8th recognizes part of the economic disparity women struggle with, and our #RealPay campaign has tried to suss out how race and other societal realities put women at a considerable financial disadvantage. But there is another layer to the way pay discrimination works: LGBT-identified individuals are much more economically vulnerable than their straight counterparts.1

Like the gender pay gap, these problems affect different racial populations differently, and are generally exacerbated for people of color who also identify as LGBT.

Since this is one entry in a blog series on #RealPay, let’s start by looking at the wage gap between LGBT and straight, cisgender workers. There isn’t a lot of data on this form of wage discrimination, but according to a Williams Institute meta-analysis, gay and bisexual men earn on average anywhere between 10 to 32 percent less than straight, cisgender men. The gap between straight and lesbian or bisexual women was less clear, with some research indicating that lesbians make slightly more than straight women. But women of every sexual orientation still make less than straight cis men. This means that families led by a same-sex couple are at a significant economic disadvantage.

Though the evidence isn’t very clear, trans men might actually experience a wage boost after transition.2For trans women, though, with transition comes a significant wage penalty. The same study that found that trans women’s pay dropped nearly one-third following transition.

These folks also experience a benefit gap. A major point of the push for marriage equality was to make more benefits available to LGBT workers. Although the spread of equal marriage has assuaged this issue for some, 33 states still don’t have equal marriage, and therefor don’t provide equal benefits to families led by LGBT people. Freedom to Marry outlines what benefits are denied to LGBT families living in states that bar marriage equality here.

But even getting these lower-paying jobs with fewer benefits is harder for the LGBT population. A survey conducted in California in 2009 showed that 14 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexuals were unemployed, compared to 10 percent of heterosexuals. Trans and gender non-conforming people are twice as likely as the general population to be unemployed. Rates for trans and gender non-conforming people of color are four times the national average.

The worst part of all this–LGBT folks getting paid less, having access to fewer benefits, and finding fewer job opportunities–is that it’s perfectly legal for employers to discriminate against LGBT-identified people. Twenty-nine states have no laws prohibiting workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and 33 states do not protect against gender identity discrimination.

Federal law isn’t much better. Though the EEOC does include sexual orientation and gender non-conformity in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, because there is no explicit ban on this kind of workplace discrimination, protection is dependent on the whims of a judge’s interpretation. This kind of uncertainty is often too much for people who are already part of a vulnerable population and fear retaliation. The Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) would hopefully end this ambiguity, but it has failed to get any real traction in Congress for years. Even if the bill did pass, its vast religious exemption would severely limit its effectiveness. In too many places, employers can fire workers simply for discovering their sexual orientation or gender identity doesn’t conform to the employer’s expectations.

In other words, LGBT people can be fired for being themselves.

Because it is legal to deny LGBT folks equal pay, equal benefits, and equal opportunity to employment, and many employers don’t feel compelled to treat their LGBT workers fairly, the US isn’t the safe haven many would like to imagine. These economic realities force many members of these communities into sickeningly vulnerable positions.

Everyone who falls under the LGBT umbrella is more likely to experience poverty. LGBT families are twice as likely to live at or below the poverty line. Trans people are four times more likely to make less than $10,000 per annum.

Unlike the picture Fox News likes to paint, being poor isn’t a cake walk, especially when you don’t have anywhere to stay.

Forty percent of homeless youth are LGBT. Seventy percent of these kids were abandoned after coming out to their families. In the same California study mentioned earlier, nearly 1 in 5 trans people surveyed reported experiencing homelessness. A 2011 report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey shows that trans and gender non-conforming people who lost a job due to bias were four times more likely to be homeless than those who didn’t have a bigoted employer. Shelters are often unwelcoming places for these folks, subjecting them to harassment, denying them beds, or sexually assaulting them. Even if a trans or gender non-conforming person was in the position to afford housing, 1 in 5 trans people have been turned away because of who they are.

Being denied a safe place to sleep, being denied traditional employment, being on the outside looking in, means that desperate decisions must be made. Trans and gender nonconforming people who were fired due to bigotry were incarcerated 85 percent more, twice as likely to work in the underground economy, and twice as likely to contract HIV than those who were not fired due to bias. Involvement in the underground economy is also racialized, with about 50 percent of black, 34 percent of Hispanic/Latin@, 16 percent of Asian and 11 percent of white trans people having participated in this kind of work. For trans people forced into illegal work, their physical safety and freedom are put at risk.

Oppression endangers the lives of the US’ LGBTQ population every day. Access to economic opportunity allows for access to stability and safety. By denying LGBTQ humanity, the straight, cis community forces these people into the most reviled sectors of our society. No one should be denied work, housing, or basic human dignity for identifying outside the binary, or for loving people of the same sex.

#RealPay is more than just being able to afford extra baubles or to pay off a little credit card debt. It is about enabling the type of stability wherein desperate decisions are few and far between. This is a dignity the US desperately owes all of the people within its borders, whether they are undocumented, racial minorities, or LGBTQ.


1. Unfortunately, most the research I was able to find does not explicitly include queer people, so to include them in the following analysis could lead to false conclusions. Genderqueer or gender non-conforming people were included in some of the data, and I will make it clear when I am referring to these populations. The relative lack of data on most forms of LGBTQ discrimination when compared to other forms of oppression is an oversight that does reflect how LGBTQ people can often be erased from conversations on inequality.

2. Though the analysis seems silent on this, it is likely this boost is contingent on how well a person can “pass” as a cisgender male. Trans people who don’t pass have very different experiences from those who do.

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