I’m coming out. Not as queer — everyone knows I’m lesbian. I’m disclosing something even more personal: my income is low. I’m one of many in the LGBT community who live in or near poverty. Why am I telling you this? Because 50 years ago, Lyndon Johnson in his State of the Union message declared “an unconditional war on poverty.”
“We shall not rest until that war is won,” Johnson told Congress on Jan. 8, 1964. “The richest nation on Earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”
Decades later, the “war on poverty” is still ongoing. This struggle is particularly intense within the LGBT community. Yet, you rarely see people like us in movies or on TV. Our faces seldom appear – our voices aren’t often heard in the media. Say “gay,” and many will think of Cameron and Mitchell of “Modern Family” planning their wedding; the upper-middle class lesbian couple raising their kids in “The Kids Are All Right” or wealthy gay men and power lesbians spearheading queer fundraising galas.
I’m a fan of “Modern” and of “Kids,” and I don’t mean to disparage LGBT fundraising. But, if you looked beneath the glossy media surface into our community, you’d find people from eight to 80 – your relatives, parents, children and friends – struggling with poverty and income inequality.
I write this not to seek pity but to encourage us to care about what many of us would rather not have on our radar screens. Poverty isn’t sexy. It doesn’t walk down the red carpet like a star at an awards show. Yet millions of us in the LGBT community and our families feel its impact.
Many Americans, especially people of color and other marginalized groups, have been hurt by unemployment, lack of health insurance, discrimination, lack of affordable housing and education. Take women. Nearly 42 million women live with economic hardship, according to a new report on the status of women, co-authored by Maria Shriver of NBC and the Center for American Progress.
“These are not women… wondering if they can ‘have it all,’” Shriver writes in the study, released on Jan. 12, “… they and their families can’t prosper and that’s weighing the U.S. economy down.”
The LGBT community, historically and now, has been among the groups hit the hardest by poverty.
“As poverty rates for nearly all population increased during the recession, lesbian, gay and bisexual Americans remained more likely to be poor than heterosexual people. Gender, race, education and geography all influence poverty rates among LGBT population, and children of same-sex couples are particularly vulnerable to poverty,” according to a June 2013 report from the Williams Institute, a UCLA think tank on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy.
Among the study’s findings:
• African-American same-sex couples have poverty rates more than twice the rate of heterosexual black Americans.
• Almost one in four children living with a male same-sex couple and 19.2 percent of children of a female same-sex couple are in poverty, compared to 12.1 percent of children living with married straight couples.
• And 14.1 percent of lesbian couples and 7.7 percent of gay male couples receive food stamps, compared to 6.5 percent of married heterosexual couples.
Transgender people are among those most impacted by poverty. According to the National Transgender Survey, 90 percent reported having been harassed or discriminated against in the workplace; and nearly one in five had been homeless during periods in their lives.
There are myriad reasons why poverty in the LGBT community is so extensive. Despite the great progress that’s been made in winning our equality, many of us still experience employment and other forms of homophobia-based discrimination. A number of us encounter hardship because of age or disability, racism or transphobia.
The war on poverty won’t be easily won. But let’s keep fighting the battle.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.