This past Monday, the Chronicle of Philanthropy published an article by Raymund Flandez entitled, "As Wedding Bells Ring, Charities Seek Support From Newly Visible Same-Sex Couples."
Despite the title, the article has little to do with the freedom to marry. It focuses on the idea that gay couples are wealthier than straight couples and have "extra cash" that nonprofits should pursue. It leads with a quote from Stephen Phelps, a gay donor who says, "No matter who you are, you are missing an opportunity if you're not reaching out to this diverse group because gay men have money and lots of it. Lord Dorothy, we've got money."
The idea that gays are wealthier than straights is an inaccurate stereotype that undermines the struggle for equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. The best data we have on this is from a study conducted by Gallup in partnership with the Williams Institute, based on interviews with more than 120,000 people--the largest survey of LGBT Americans ever conducted, and by far the most robust methodologically. This study found that LGBT people are poorer than the population at large: 35 percent of LGBT adults have incomes of less than $24,000 a year, compared to 24 percent for the general population.
It's unfortunate that the Chronicle didn't include a caveat about the evidence of high levels of poverty in LGBT communities, and instead cherry-picked data from the Census indicating that gay couples earn more than straights.
I'm sure Flandez and the Chronicle meant no malice. To be fair, the statistic they cite is true: same-sex couples in which both partners work do indeed have higher median household incomes than straight couples in which both partners work. But the specificity of the statistic is a sign that it doesn't tell the full story about gay people and wealth.
The Census is not the best source for understanding the LGBT population, since it only captures those who are in couples--and often reveals more about gender inequality than anything else. For example, lesbian couples (unmentioned in the Chronicle piece) have lower household incomes than straight couples. That's not surprising at all, since women on average make less than men. Census data also show that gay men in couples have lower individual incomes than do men in straight couples.
The most pernicious thing about the gay-wealthy stereotype is that it has been used for decades to rationalize the systematic marginalization of LGBT people. Just a few weeks ago, when the Supreme Court heard arguments on the Defense of Marriage Act, Chief Justice Roberts asked, "You don't doubt that the lobby supporting the enactment of same-sex-marriage laws ... is politically powerful, do you?" His implicit assumption is that gays are wealthy and powerful, and therefore do not warrant what jurists call "strict scrutiny" in cases of equal protection. The stereotype that gay people are wealthy is serving as a potential rationalization for continued discrimination.
The same damaging stereotype is undoubtedly one of the reasons that philanthropic support for LGBT communities is so dramatically low. After all, why would a foundation want to invest its precious resources in a community that's (allegedly) already wealthy? According to our research at Funders for LGBTQ Issues, only one-quarter of one percent of foundation grant dollars went to LGBT communities in 2011. Given that LGBT people are 3.4 percent of the population--and 5.1 percent of the low-income population--that makes us one of the groups most under-funded by the philanthropic sector.
A related--and equally false--stereotype about LGBT communities is that we don't have families or raise children. More than one foundation staffer has told me, "Oh, we don't fund LGBT. We fund families." Again, the myth is not borne out by facts: in the U.S., about two million children are being raised by LGBT parents. All foundations that care about families have a duty to make sure that those two million children have a safe educational environment and opportunities for healthy, fulfilling lives.
As the movement for LGBT equality continues to gain momentum, it's time for the Chronicle and the philanthropic sector to get beyond stereotypes and start looking at the real and urgent needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities:
• LGBT youth make up forty percent of homeless youth--largely because of family rejection.
• Gay and lesbian couples raising children are more likely to be poor than straight couples with children.
• LGBT seniors,especially women, are poorer on average than straight seniors, in part because marriage inequality prevents same-sex couples from receiving the spousal social security benefits that straight couples get.
• Transgender Americans face double the unemployment rate of the general population, and 90 percent report harassment or discrimination on the job.
These are not just LGBT problems, they're American problems. If philanthropy hopes to achieve its noble goal of the betterment of humanity, then we need to recognize and address the unique needs of LGBT communities.