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Poverty and Pay in the Community

With the country’s unemployment rate rising to its highest level since 1983 (8.5 percent), talk of bankruptcy for General Motors, and billions of bailout funds for businessmen, money is on everybody’s mind these days. It was certainly a major theme in news affecting the LGBT community.

There is the recent publication of a new report on poverty by the Williams Institute, the LGBT-focused think tank operating out of the UCLA School of Law.  Their research focused on same-sex couples, and their findings included the following:

•             More lesbians and bisexual women experience poverty than straight women (24 percent to 19 percent).  They are also more likely to receive public assistance and food stamps.

•             Lesbian couples have a higher poverty rate (6.9 percent) than straight couples (5.4 percent) and gay male couples (4.0 percent).

•             Twenty percent of children living in a same-sex couple family are poor, compared to 9.4 percent for kids in opposite-sex couple families.

•             African-American same-sex couples have a poverty rate nearly three times as high as white same-sex couples.

•             Rural same-sex couples are twice as likely to be poor as same-sex couples living in metropolitan areas.

This is not an inclusive study since transgender people were not included in the research  due to the lack of data and single individuals were not counted in many cases.  Despite these failings, there are some important conclusions to be drawn from the report.

The higher degree of poverty for women is evidence of the continued wage gap between women and men.  I know that President Obama has made efforts towards correcting that discrepancy, but there is a long way to go.

Similarly, people in rural areas don’t have the same level of economic opportunities as their counterparts in big cities.  I do not know if there are organizations or programs for outreach to rural LGBTs, but we should remember that we don’t all live in metropolitian areas with the option of having a “gay ghetto.”

The most important one is that the idea of the LGBT community as uniformly rich needs to cease.  Many antigay foes use the allegedly high income of LGBTs as proof that we are asking for “special” rights, but our media perpetuates this myth also.   The image that we receive from LGBT magazines and television shows is generally focused on upper income people with a taste for high-end fashion, expensive commercial products, and luxurious international vacations.

I am not saying that so-called “A list” people exist in our community, but they are not the majority.  Our media needs to show a more realistic picture of LGBT people, and we aren’t all having the fabulous lifestyles of the characters on the L Word, Will and Grace, or Noah’s Arc.  Most gay people I know are making it check to check or have moderate bank accounts. I think it’s ironic that the “wealthy homosexual” image was created by LGBT media to attract advertising, but it’s now become something they can’t control.

You can read the Williams report at the following site:

While the Williams Institute was studying poverty, the Washington Blade looked into the pay of some of our most visible community leaders.  They conducted a salary survey of 30 LGBT and AIDS organizations, hoping to shine some light on the touchy subject of non-profit compensation.

Heading this list was Craig Schiderman of Food & Friends, which provides meals for homebound people with HIV/AIDS in Washington, DC.  His total compensation was $382,000.  The top five was rounded out by Joe Solomonese (Human Rights Campaign, $338,400), Lorri Jean (Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, $327,000), Kevin Cathcart (Lambda Legal, $290,916), and Eliza Byard (Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, $283,644).  You can view the entire list on the Blade’s website at

Critics cried foul when these figures were published, stating that these groups were not delivering the kind of results that could justify such high salaries.  Others felt that it was wrong for people to make a living from activism and outreach work, essentially saying everyone should volunteer their services.

I’ll leave each person to determine if these groups are effective, given their resources. But I do take issue with the idea that everyone in the movement needs to be a volunteer.

It is true that in the early days of gay liberation, there were no professional activists.  However, as activism moved away from spontaneous street actions to the more structured avenues of politics and corporate-styled organizations, the qualifications community leaders were expected to have changed.

I do not have the transcripts of all the people in the Blade survey, but I’m willing to bet that they all have advanced degrees and experience in handling (multi)million-dollar budgets.   The truth is they could probably make more money working for private companies, but have chosen to work on behalf of the LGBT community.  I do not think it’s fair to expect them to hold side jobs to pay the bills while so much of their time is devoted to activism.  After all, even Martin Luther King received some compensation for his work.

From “Blackout” for 4/6/09 by Anthony Rucker


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