LGBT workers and families of color: On the bottom rungs of the low-wage economy

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In November 2013, a study revealed how queer people of color have the most stacked against them when it comes to getting by in the USA. They face the biggest challenges of any workers in the recession economy. The LGBT community is also more ethnically and racially diverse than the country as a whole.

The report, entitled “A Broken Bargain for LGBT Workers of Color,” was coauthored by National Black Justice Coalition, Service Employees International Union, Human Rights Campaign and others, and it outlines the hostile economic reality for queers of color.

While headlines celebrate public acceptance of LGBT people and passage of gay marriage, the study looks at the real life of queer and trans people of color — and how racial discrimination intersects with institutionalized homophobia and transphobia.

The study is groundbreaking because it’s a data-based look at what socialist feminists have long pointed out — that American capitalism has created layers upon layers of discrimination to keep wages low and sections of workers impoverished.

The story told in the charts and research is how the poverty of LGBT workers of color is connected to adversities at home and in school, as well as in the workplace.

Hostile homes, schools, and streets. Statistics show how even before they enter the workforce, young queer Blacks, Latinos, Asian/Pacific Islanders and Native Americans face a hostile school system and a much higher rate of poverty and homelessness.

Queer bullying and violence in schools make even basic safety a challenge. Many young LGBT people of color are driven out of school for survival.

They’re also driven out of their homes. Statistics are that 20-40 percent of youth in shelters identify as LGBT or believe they may be. And of those LGBT shelter youth, 44 percent are Black and 26 percent are Latino.

The shelter system can also be hostile. For example, trans youth usually have to navigate a sex-segregated shelter system that doesn’t have a safe space for them.

Queer and trans youth are more often arrested by police while on the streets. Criminalization turns into arrest records and then into a hard time getting a job. The failings of our school system force LGBT youth of color out of the formal economy and into the underground one.

The report also shows how adult LGBT people of color are more likely to be parents and supporting families, and live outside of cities. This means they have been impacted heavily by slow job growth in rural and suburban areas, and by the recent cuts to desperately needed social services.

Double discrimination. People of color as a whole deal with employment discrimination and lower wages, but homophobia and transphobia in the workplace make it doubly hard for LGBT workers of color.

Across the board LGBT Blacks, Latinos and Asians experience more homophobia and transphobia than their white LGBT counterparts.

Especially marginalized are Black transgendered workers, who experience four times the unemployment rate of the country as a whole. And on the job, an average of 50 percent of transgendered workers of color experience harassment — physical, sexual or otherwise.

It takes more than legislation. The report proposes positive legislative and institutional changes to defend LGBT youth and workers of color. Two examples are passage of the Employment Non Discrimination Act (ENDA) and explicit protections for LGBT homeless youth. These are sorely needed — but legislation only has an effect with a movement behind it.

For example, employment discrimination against women is illegal, but women still earn 23 percent less, on average, than their male counterparts for the same jobs.

What’s needed to win both legislation and lasting change is organization. Established union leadership is catching on that in our low-wage “McJobs” economy, young workers of color, LGBT among them, are already fighting back in the fast food and retail industries. See ”McJobs — not lovin’ it” [FS Vol. 34, No. 6].

Union leaders need to go further to support queer workers of color, because they are some of the best fighters. And the issues in their lives are faced by all workers in today’s sliding capitalist economy.

Crumbling schools that criminalize kids of color, especially LGBT ones, a threadbare social safety net, a federal budget that puts prisons and military spending over almost everything — unions need to address these realities to stay relevant and grow.

Also critical is a gay rights movement that takes up workers’ issues. Marriage and military service aren’t the main concerns of a young transgendered Black or brown person living on the streets.

It’s time the white, privileged gay agenda and organized labor’s to-do list are updated to include the real concerns of the multi-racial, working class queer population. With a movement pushing for big changes, LGBT workers of color can start demanding a system that makes good on its bargain.

Elias Holtz, a queer activist in New York City, works in television production. He can be reached at eliasholtz@gmail.com.

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