By Diane Silver
I’m not feeling particularly rich these days. Every time the Dow Jones average plunges and new unemployment figures are released, my stomach churns. I go into terror mode as I contemplate my economic future. I suspect I’m not alone. Worry over the crashing economy has got to be darn near universal.
Along with other LGBT Americans, though, I’m particularly vulnerable to economic downturns. Our problems don’t come from stupidity, lack of education, or picking the wrong careers. Our problems come from state and federal laws that stack the deck against anyone who isn’t heterosexual.
The range of economic liabilities facing LGBT folks is breathtaking.
Because I’m a lesbian, it’s easier to keep me from getting a job or to boot me out of one, even if I’m the best worker a company ever hired. Today only 20 states and the District of Columbia prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. Of those, only 13 prohibit discrimination based on gender identity. Many cities and counties provide protection, but most don’t.
In an economy where 651,000 people lost their jobs in February, this lack of protection paints targets on the backs of millions of LGBT workers.
We can’t even fall back on the old recession-fighting strategy of joining the military. We’re banned from serving openly. Despite his campaign promise to end the ban, President Barack Obama has yet to make any meaningful move to do so.
And then there’s the issue of marriage. As financial advisor Suze Orman noted in a Valentine’s Day message on her TV show, “You will save thousands, tens of thousands of dollars, all kinds of money, if you are allowed to marry.”
That’s a right that same-sex couples don’t have in 48 states. For us, and our children, that means the more than 1,100 legal and financial benefits that heterosexuals receive are simply out of reach.
Even in Massachusetts and Connecticut, where we can marry, the hideously named Defense of Marriage Act deprives us of, among other things, Social Security spousal benefits, health insurance, tax breaks and disability and death benefits for spouses of federal employees, veterans and public safety officers. When we do get to participate in the benefits offered to spouses at our partners’ workplaces, we face taxes heterosexuals never see.
For couples like Dorene and Mary Bowe-Shulman, those taxes literally take money away from their children. Together for 14 years and married in Massachusetts, the couple’s kids are Emma Jae, 10, and Olivia, 7. Dorene is a stay-at-home mother and a two-time cancer survivor. After they married in 2004 and added Dorene to Mary’s health insurance policy at work, they received a shock. Dorene’s portion of the insurance was taxed as if Dorene wasn’t part of Mary’s family.
Under DOMA, Mary’s employer must tax every benefit provided to a same-sex spouse. Today, the couple loses about $140 a month because of that tax. That’s money they would have put into their daughters’ college funds. Because they can’t file federal taxes as a married couple, Mary and Dorene also take a financial hit. In 2006 alone, the family paid $3,332 more in taxes because of DOMA.
Mary and Dorene, by the way, are among the eight same-sex couples and three surviving spouses who just filed suit challenging DOMA in federal court.
Stereotypically, all of us gay folks are supposed to be rich. We’re all supposed to have fancy apartments, fast cars and no kids. While some members of our community live the wealthy life, many of us don’t.
In a December 2007 study, UCLA’s Williams Institute reported that the annual earnings of men in same-sex couples in the United States were $43,117, compared to the $49,777 taken in by married heterosexual men. The median income of same-sex couples with children was $46,200, or 23 percent lower than the $59,600 median income of married heterosexual parents.
We need to pay close attention to the ongoing efforts to stimulate the economy. Crashes hurt everyone, but they cut deeper into our community because we’re already hobbled by financial handicaps. We need to push for economic plans that can work, and rail against those that make no sense.
But we also can’t back off on our ongoing effort to win equality. Already our families are being left behind.
Because of DOMA, Obama’s plans to stimulate the economy through mortgage breaks or tuition tax credits for families can’t be extended to our households. Because Congress has yet to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act or get rid of the ban on gays serving openly in the military, LGBT workers face a greater likelihood of unemployment.
As frightening as the economy is now, it will rebound. The question is whether LGBT Americans will be part of that recovery or not.