Poverty weighs greater on lesbians

It's a double whammy - combining prejudice against gays and historically lower pay for women.

Posted: July 10, 2013

Maria Aviles believes she's poor because she's a lesbian.

The pharmaceutical firm where she was a data-entry worker fired her several years ago, he said, because bosses weren't comfortable having her and her lover on the same staff.

Now Aviles, 50, a mother of two teenagers, is unemployed and living in poverty in North Philadelphia. Her lover is long gone.

"It's harder if you're a lesbian," said Aviles. "And my children are depressed. We're really struggling."

In the movies and on television shows that shape how people see American culture, lesbians and gays are often portrayed as middle- and upper-middle-class people, sophisticated and secure. Reality can be quite different.

For lesbians, historically lower pay for women and prejudice against gays can converge to negative effect.

Nationwide, a higher proportion of lesbians live in poverty (nearly 23 percent) than heterosexual women (about 21 percent), heterosexual men (about 15 percent), and gay men (almost 21 percent), according to a recent survey by the Williams Institute, a national think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law.

No comparable data exist for transgender people, although those who change genders are believed to earn very low incomes, the Williams Institute reports.

The patterns of poverty hold among couples. Lesbian couples are nearly twice as likely to live in poverty as gay couples - nearly 8 percent vs. about 4 percent, the survey said. About 6 percent of married heterosexual couples are poor.

The institute's findings were based on data from the U.S. Census American Community Survey, the Gallup Daily Tracking Poll, and other sources.

The national survey, released in June, has resonance in the Philadelphia region, according to people connected to organizations dedicated to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

"It's certainly true that lesbian couples have higher rates of poverty here than heterosexual and gay couples," said Brian Green, a director at SafeGuards LGBT Health Resource Center in Center City. He added that no comprehensive Philadelphia numbers exist.

"And there are no programs here that target the LGBT community based on poverty, which is unfortunate."

In Philadelphia, many lesbians are minorities with low incomes, adding to the numbers living in poverty, Green said.

Lesbians are hampered in part by something that affects all American women: "Women earn less than men," said Gloria Casarez, appointed by Mayor Nutter as director of LGBT affairs for Philadelphia. "And in a household headed by two women, you'd earn less than heterosexual- or gay-headed households."

Women working full-time are paid 77 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts, according to the National Women's Law Center in Washington.

Women in same-sex couples have a median personal income of $38,000 compared with $47,000 for men in same-sex couples and $48,000 for men in heterosexual couples, the Law Center says.

Putting further strain on lesbians' finances are children. Law Center figures show that lesbians are more likely than gay men to support children - 49 percent of lesbian and bisexual women have at least one child, compared with 19 percent of gay and bisexual men.

In Philadelphia, discrimination also plays a role in keeping lesbians in poverty, Green said. "There are no state statutes guarding LGBT employees, and we can be discriminated against in the workplace," he said.

Green said that many lesbians are "steered" to certain jobs, such as waitressing and bartending. Restaurants and bars are "more tolerant of lesbian and gay people being out," Green said.

But service industries pay lower wages, and many don't offer health-care benefits, keeping LGBT people in lower income brackets, Green said.

Sexual orientation can impede careers, according to Lee Carson, research associate with the Philadelphia Health Management Corp., a nonprofit institute for public health.

"If a lesbian presents as more masculine in the workplace, her employment options may be limited, because she does not dress and behave like the workplace says a woman should," Carson said.

Lesbians will often refrain from seeking promotions for fear that higher-profile jobs will expose them to discrimination, noted Ted Martin, executive director of Equality Pennsylvania, a statewide LGBT advocacy organization in Harrisburg.

In many cases, lesbians and gays can't advance at work because they dropped out of high school or college because of harassment and bullying, Carson said.

Indeed, among homeless young people in Philadelphia, 40 percent are LGBT people, often escaping family rejection, said Sister Mary Scullion, considered the city's leading expert on homelessness.

Many elderly lesbians and gays can also find themselves in poverty without children to support them or spousal Social Security survivor benefits to help sustain them, experts say.

Ultimately, poverty is a hidden problem many LGBT people face - lesbians most of all, said Martin of Equality Pennsylvania.

In fact, he added, "for lesbians, it's a double burden."

Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

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