Figures that show LGBT income inequality are sobering.
Although 82 percent of U.S. same-sex couples are part of the labor force, only 29 percent of LGBT folks are thriving financially.
One in five LGBT people who live alone make less than $12,000 per year and a third of black transgender and gender-nonconforming people report incomes of less than $10,000 per year.
These figures are culled from several sources such as the National LGBTQ Task Force, the Williams Institute, the Movement Advancement Project, the U.S. Census Bureau, Gallop polls, a joint project several years ago between the Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality and more.
But there is good news. There are several deductions relevant to LGBT taxpayers they may not be aware of. At its Creating Change conference in January, the Task Force unveiled its new “Queer Our Taxes” effort, a public education and advocacy campaign focused on securing economic justice for LGBT people. Full details are online at queerourtaxes.org. We spoke with Meghan Maury, senior policy counsel and criminal and economic justice project director at the Task Force, about the initiative. Maury identifies as both queer and genderqueer. Her comments have been slightly edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: How long has Queer Our Taxes been in the works?
MEGHAN MAURY: Basically since I started at the Task Force about two-and-a-half years ago. It was kind of cooking up in my brain. I’d worked in tax preparation for eight years, so it was a lot of the things that my clients had been asking all along. What we found was that the information that was available for LGBTQ folks was almost exclusively about marriage. They had questions about claims, about adoption, about gender reassignment surgery and more. It was a lot more than just whether or not they could file jointly with their spouse. This guide helps you know the questions relevant to ask your tax preparer.
BLADE: So the same-sex marriage tax information was already fairly readily available?
MAURY: Yes. We’re not throwing stones at any other groups. We just found in researching that the LGBTBar, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Women’s Law Center, Lambda Legal — they all had little bits of information but it was mostly about how your tax returns would change when marriage was recognized. That’s hugely important, but we hadn’t found in any tax guide that existed anywhere anything broader that had been brought to our community.
BLADE: Didn’t the transgender agencies have trans-specific tax information?
MAURY: Not really. It’s one of those areas that feels big, scary and overwhelming for folks. It is and it isn’t. It’s pretty simple if you know the right questions to ask when you go to file.
BLADE: How hard was it to get all this information compiled?
MAURY: We had help from our law fellows program. Our law fellows work for us three to four months in the summer and a couple of them worked on it. There’s nothing mind-blowing here. It’s just compiling it all in one handy place. It took some time just to make sure we had all the technicalities worked out.
BLADE: How much of this varies from state to state?
MAURY: The information here is primarily federal but there are implications that will vary from state to state particularly stuff like earned income tax credits. Your state may have a state version of that. It helps you with the kinds of state questions you’d want to ask to claim that.
BLADE: Did you include marriage-related tax issues as well?
MAURY: Most of it is not particularly on the marriage piece although some of it is related to that. Your ability to claim a dependent does hinge on marriage. If you can get legally married, it’s easier to claim a stepchild. If not, it can be difficult to establish legal ties to a child to whom you’re not biologically related. If you can’t get married or don’t want to get married, there are some barriers that exist. In some places it’s difficult to do second-parent adoption. A little bit of it hinges on that, but most of the information is on non-marriage issues.
BLADE: How new are these laws?
MAURY: The transition-related surgery one came out of a tax case a decade or maybe a decade-and-a-half ago but it was not publicized. There were some news stories around it at the time but just wasn’t everyday knowledge in the trans community. There are other things like abortion expenses you can write off or other reproductive health care things that are just not things your tax accountant is likely to ask you about. Some of them relate to substance abuse care, some are child care and education related. The low income credits have been there for some time, who can claim them and how much they’re worth and so on. But it’s just not information that has been put out to the community in a way that’s acceptable or useful.
BLADE: What impact did Obamacare have on these surgery-related write-offs?
MAURY: If your health insurance covers your transition-related care, you can’t write it off. … But we have people who are enrolled in pretty good health insurance who are still struggling. I think it will be a persistent problem because surgeries are just so expensive. Having a deduction isn’t going to make it free, but it may make it more within reach for people for whom it was previously completely inaccessible. It’s part of an itemized deduction. If you’re already itemizing because you own a house, the ability to write off big medical expenses becomes a little easier. … The good news is that the tax software is pretty good at figuring it all out. You just need to know to ask them to put it in. Our report doesn’t really break down all the math. Our goal was just to give people the right questions to ask.
BLADE: Are there any tax preparation companies that are more LGBT-friendly than others?
MAURY: It’s super hit or miss. There are some smaller firms that have LGBTQ focuses but they’re aimed at people with higher incomes. A lot of places like Liberty or H&R Block vary not just from town to town but even from location to location. I worked at an H&R Block for many years in western Massachusetts and we started being recognized as the hub for LGBT people because several of us were really culturally competent. The next office over sent us clients. So it depends. If there’s an office that has a largely LGBT client base, they develop that competency over time.