Our society’s image of the gay urban dweller is often white, educated, and financially comfortable. But despite the patina of social progress, there’s a tale of two cities for queer New York, too.
In a comprehensive needs assessment of the city’s LGBT population, the advocacy organization Legal Services NYC finds that low-income LGBT New Yorkers face stunning levels of economic insecurity, employment discrimination, and violence at the hands of community members, intimate partners, and police, as well as barriers to healthcare. These issues often intersect with structural racism and feed a constant undercurrent of discrimination, along with the attendant anxieties of knowing that even in a “gay-friendly” city, structural barriers persist, especially for folks who can’t buy their way around them.
Achieving equality in civil-rights laws and integration into celebrity culture have been defining advancements for the whole LGBT community. But that incremental progress may have come at the expense of attention to poverty issues in mainstream LGBT activism. Adam Heintz, director of Pro Bono Services at Legal Services, tells The Nation, “If we just focus on fighting discrimination against LGBT people…it wouldn’t be sufficient to make their lives healthy and whole.… So if you’re not taking on the fight for affordable safe housing, if you’re not talking about the importance of a living wage, if you’re not talking about protections from violence and harassment from intimate partners, then you’re not going to actually reach a place where low-income LGBT people are safe and lead healthy, full lives.”
Marriage equality is no shield against economic inequality: Poverty nationwide is slightly higher among single LGBT people than it is among their straight counterparts. Despite reforms that strengthen LGBT families’ social and financial rights, surveys show that single LGBT parents and LGBT couples raising children are three and two times more likely, respectively, to have incomes close to the poverty line compared to straight peers.
Economic vulnerability brings exposure to violence. Legal Services’ survey of poor LGBT New Yorkers, about 70 percent of them people of color, revealed that over the past year nearly 40 percent of respondents “reported being verbally harassed in public because they are LGBT; 9 percent reported being physically harassed or assaulted; and 5 percent reported being sexually assaulted based on their LGBT identity.”