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Why Economic Justice Is Central to LGBT Rights

in WORLD, 08/05/2012

At the recent Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID) international forum on economic rights, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights advocates from around the world highlighted the urgent need to link economic justice and LGBT rights.

As one representative of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission noted, the United States LGBT rights movement has focused largely on civil and political issues, including hate crime legislation, partnership benefits, gay marriage, and repeal of the shameful military policy "Don't Ask/Don't Tell." The link between economic justice and LGBT rights, however, in both the United States and abroad, has received considerably less attention.

In general, there is a dearth of data regarding poverty within the LGBT community. This must change so that organizations can design effective interventions to assist LGBT people who disproportionately suffer economic marginalization because of homophobia and transphobia.

The limited economic statistics we do have regarding how the LGBT community experiences economic marginalization are cause for alarm. In the United States, for instance, children in same-sex households experience rates of poverty double those of children in heterosexual ones. Transgender people in San Francisco have a 35 percent unemployment rate. Nearly 24 percent of lesbian and bisexual women live in poverty, compared with 19 percent of heterosexual women. I confronted equally disturbing economic realities during a research project my students and I conducted on employment discrimination against the transgender community in Lebanon.

The stories of economic exclusion we heard in Beirut were sobering. Common experiences included blatantly discriminatory hiring practices. "Aziza," a transgender woman from Algeria, found it impossible to find a job as a nurse in Beirut despite having a university degree and 16 years of work experience. Once employers realized she was transgender, they refused to hire her. When Aziza finally did secure employment as a home caregiver, her employer assigned her to long shifts and refused her days off, knowing she would have little choice but to accept this treatment because her employment options were so limited. Experiencing this sort of flagrant discrimination resulted in some transgender people stating they had stopped looking for work altogether.

Transgender individuals we interviewed who were able to secure employment faced levels of exploitation and harassment by employers and coworkers that often drove them from their jobs. When "Ramona" began transitioning from male to female, her boss immediately lowered her salary. When "Gloria" enlisted in the Lebanese military, the constant sexual harassment she endured as a transgender woman from supervisors and other enlistees was so unrelenting that she pretended to be suicidal in order to be discharged.

We also learned that transgender youth often experience abuse from teachers and classmates that can lead to early exits from school, making them less qualified and prepared to enter the job market. In addition, transgender individuals with disapproving families may be driven from their homes, losing their families' financial support and their place of residence, dramatically increasing their vulnerability to poverty.

Advocates at the conference from China, Kyrgyzstan, Namibia, the Philippines, South Africa, the United States, and other parts of the world, made it clear that LGBT people in their countries also disproportionately experience economic discrimination, underemployment, and unemployment. They all agreed that there is a need for more research on how LGBT people experience poverty. Such data is essential in designing effective interventions for economic empowerment.

One such innovative intervention highlighted at the conference was the Coalition for Advancement of Lesbian Business in Africa (CALBiA), which was established in 2011 and seeks to economically empower African lesbians and transgender people by assisting them with start-up capital for small and medium businesses. Interventions such as the CALBiA model that seek to advance the financial independence and security of LGBT people are much needed. We cannot ignore the ways in which poverty and economic stigmatization disproportionately affect LGBT people, especially during these difficult times of global economic malaise and injustice.

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