The largest population-based study ever of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, released last week by Gallup and the Williams Institute, offers insight into why gay* and transgender families are among the most economically insecure in America today—and the answer lies in the demographics.
Data from the new study show, for example, that women make up a majority of the gay and transgender population, and people of color are more likely to identify as gay or transgender than whites. Gay and transgender women, and especially women of color, are also more likely to be raising children than their male counterparts. These data suggests that the “typical” gay and transgender family is likely battling sex and race discrimination in addition to the economic barriers unique to gay and transgender Americans. In other words, achieving social equality and economic security for these families cannot be accomplished by achieving only gay and transgender equality.
Specifically, the study found that 3.6 percent of women identified themselves as gay or transgender, whereas only 3.3 percent of men did the same. In younger cohorts the difference was much starker, with 8.3 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 29 years old identifying as gay or transgender, compared to 4.6 percent of men in the same age group. Perhaps more surprisingly, 4.6 percent of African Americans and 4 percent of Hispanics reported being gay or transgender, compared to only 3.2 percent of white people. Nearly a third of lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women reported that they are currently raising children, compared to only 16 percent of gay and transgender men.
Causes of economic instability among gay and transgender Americans
Gay and transgender Americans face considerable discrimination in the workplace. Studies have shown that anywhere between 15 percent and 43 percent of gay workers have experienced some form of mistreatment or harassment on the job because of their sexual orientation, and an astounding 90 percent of transgender people report similar experiences.
These high levels of workplace discrimination translate into lower salaries, lost wages, and other outcomes that reduce the economic security of gay and transgender workers and their families. Without a federal law explicitly prohibiting workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, gay and transgender employees are without legal recourse if they are wrongly fired.
The Defense of Marriage Act and the subsequent lack of relationship recognition for same-sex couples impose additional financial burdens on gay and transgender families. Spouses cannot file joint tax returns, for example, and this often means they pay higher taxes, compared to married heterosexual couples. In some cases, parents cannot claim tax credits and deductions—including those for child care or education expenses—that are designed to reduce the financial costs associated with raising children. The result is that gay and transgender families can pay thousands of dollars more in taxes than a family led by opposite-sex spouses. It’s unsurprising, then, that children with same-sex parents are twice as likely to live in poverty as children being raised by heterosexual parents.
Susceptibility to workplace discrimination and the many impacts of the lack of legal relationship recognition combine to compromise the economic security of gay and transgender Americans and their families. But the specific impact on lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women—especially those who are women of color—can be lost in these broad studies of the gay and transgender population.
The reality of being a lesbian, bisexual, or transgender woman
At first glance, previously existing data on the economic security of lesbians can be easily misinterpreted, with the notion that gay men have a larger income gap than lesbians, compared to each group’s straight counterparts. We know that gay men earn 10 percent to 32 percent less than straight men, for example. In contrast, lesbian and bisexual women earn the same or even more than heterosexual women.
The point that could be missed here is that lesbians still earn less than both gay and heterosexual men, bringing in an average of only 77 cents for every dollar a man earns performing the same work. Being a woman—regardless of sexual orientation—poses a bigger obstacle to pay equity than being gay or transgender.
According to Gallup, lesbians and heterosexual women are equally as likely to be raising children. About 32 percent of lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women and 32 percent of heterosexual women report having children under the age of 18 in the home. Forty-one percent of gay and transgender women of color reported having children under the age of 18. Gay and transgender men, in contrast, are half as likely to be raising children as heterosexual men and all women.
Justice for gay and transgender families extends beyond gay and transgender equality
Policymakers can immediately begin to alleviate the economic disparities faced by gay and transgender families. Passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act would protect all Americans from workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Repealing the Defense of Marriage Act would allow federal recognition of married same-sex couples, allowing them to access a wide range of programs and policies (the tax credits mentioned earlier, for example) that help strengthen family economic security.
In addition, since women are more likely to identify as lesbian, bisexual, or transgender and are twice as likely to have children as gay and transgender men, according to the Gallup poll, eliminating sex-based discrimination in the workplace is a significant step forward for the entire gay and transgender community. Lawmakers can begin by passing the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would prohibit employers from punishing workers who disclose their salaries with other employees. If passed into law, women could more easily identify pay discrepancies and employers could be held responsible for showing that such discrepancies are rooted in genuine business requirements. The law would also allow people of color, no matter what sex or sexual orientation, to hold their employers accountable for similar wage and income discrepancies.
Ensuring every gay and transgender family has an equal opportunity to succeed requires comprehensive progressive policy reforms that can help all Americans and cut across the boundaries of race, sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity. The new data from Gallup and the Williams Institute affirm the diversity of gay and transgender Americans. It’s now up to advocates and supportive lawmakers to use these data to fight for policies that are truly inclusive of all Americans.
Katie Miller is a Special Assistant with the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress. Jeff Krehely is the Vice President of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center.
* In this column, we use “gay” as an umbrella term for people who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.