Gay characters are all over prime time these days. But if they compose the only image you have of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender America, then your picture is a smidge incomplete. Those lawyers and fashion assistants and sexy bi doctors usually have expensive educations, career success and job security. In reality, though, employers in most of this country can legally fire someone, deny them a promotion, or refuse to hire them for being gay. Gays and lesbians live in poverty at much higher rates than their straight peers, while LGBT couples make less money, have to pay more of their paychecks to the government, and get less back in return, studies say.
Since the early days of the gay-rights movement, opponents like Jerry Falwell, Lou Sheldon and Pat Robertson "made a lot of money picturing gay people not just as threats -- they're pedophiles, they're depraved -- but as people asking for special rights, because they're already richer than everybody else," according to Karma Chavez, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and founder of the Queer Migration Research Network.
The perception of gay affluence isn't held just by opponents. When sympathetic producers first brought gays and lesbians to our TV screens, in shows like "Will and Grace," "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," and "Ellen," they wanted to make gay and lesbian life something that the middle-class viewer could relate to. So these characters had (upper) middle class jobs, (upper) middle class apartments and (upper) middle class problems.
Even now, LGBT characters like Eric on "Gossip Girl," Teddy on "90210," Emily on "Pretty Little Liars," and Kurt on "Glee" may be more well-rounded -- they've had to deal with teenage struggles around coming out, for example -- but their challenges are rarely economic.
Perception Versus Reality
Turn off the TV, though, and the reality can be starkly different. Almost a quarter of lesbian and bisexual women ages 18 to 44 live in poverty, compared with 19 percent of straight women, according to a recent report from The Half in Ten campaign, a poverty-reduction initiative from the progressive research group, the Center for American Progress. Gay men suffer a wage penalty, it says, between 11 percent and 30 percent by various estimates, compared with their straight counterparts.
A bill that would ban employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation has been submitted to Congress almost every year since 1994, with no success. And with both houses of Congress gridlocked, it shows no sign of passing in the immediate future.
In 2010, 87 percent of Fortune 500 companies had non-discrimination policies that included sexual orientation, according to the Human Rights Campaign, and 46 percent include gender identity too. "Corporate America and the business community has really led the way in adopting these protections," Ian Thompson, a legislative representative of the American Civil Liberties Union, told AOL Jobs. "It's not just something they're doing altruistically. I think they see it as being in the best interest of their companies."
But many more businesses across the country don't protect their LGBT employees, and Thompson sees their victims all the time. "I think that lower-income LGBT workers, as well as LGBT people of color -- it [workplace discrimination] disproportionately affects them," he says.
Twenty percent of LGBT employees say they've struggled to get a promotion because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, according to a 2005 survey by Lambda Legal & Deloitte Financial Advisory Services. Two-fifths of lesbian, gay or bisexual employees say they've been harassed on the job for their sexual orientation.
One study last October found that gay men were 40 percent less likely to get a job interview in the South or Midwest, if their resumes somehow indicated that they were openly gay. And while the vast majority of Americans support workplace protections for gay, lesbian and transgender workers, "there is a serious time lag of that common sense percolating down to the level of Congress," says Thompson.
The Lesbian Wage Premium?
Still, studies also have found that lesbians enjoy a wage premium over their heterosexual female peers -- as high as 32 percent by some measures. But this "has little to do with being lesbian," explains Gary Gates, a demographer at the University of California, Los Angeles. The lesbians sampled in these studies are usually white and middle class and more likely to be childless, "so they've probably had the least amount of labor force disruption."
More than half of black lesbian couples are raising a child, compared with fewer than a third of white lesbians, according to an analysis of 2000 census data by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Black Justice Coalition. Black lesbians are almost as likely to raise children as straight black women, and have them, on average, at a younger age.
Even with a wage premium, the gender pay gap means that lesbians still earn less money on average than men of any sexual orientation. Lesbian couples are hit twice by this penalty. According to The Half in Ten report, twice as many lesbian couples over 65 are below the poverty line as straight married couples at the same age.
Paying More, Getting Less
Not only do gay and lesbian couples earn less money, they also pay higher taxes. A married straight couple that makes $45,000 and files taxes jointly will receive a $50 refund, according to Melissa Boteach, the manager of The Half in Ten campaign. A gay couple with the same income will have a tax liability of $2,165. A gay partner is also ineligible for inheritance rights and child tax credits, as well as Social Security spousal and survival benefits.
The economic plight of the gay and lesbian community doesn't often get the national spotlight. Most members of Congress don't spend a lot of time with the low-income LGBT Americans most affected by discriminatory laws. "You'd be surprised how many members of Congress operate on the assumption of 'we don't have LGBT people in our district,' " says Thompson.
Nine out of 10 Americans also already think it's illegal to discriminate against gay Americans in the workplace, according to a June 2011 poll by the Center for American Progress. This might be why Congress, even when it's been controlled by Democrats, has failed to make the Employment Non-Discrimination Act a priority.
But it is a priority for many gay and lesbian Americans, who have to cope with job insecurity every day of their lives. "This touches the LGBT community in a way that some of the other issues might not," explains Thompson. "Not all LGBT people will eventually serve in the military. Not all LGBT people will or have the desire to get married. But you'd be hard pressed to find one that didn't, at some point in their life, have a job."
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