“Why is welfare a gay issue?” As coordinator of the Queer Economic Justice Network, representing dozens of New York’s queer and anti-poverty organizations, I am often asked that question–not just by gay activists, but welfare-rights advocates as well. It is remarkably difficult, even for people who have dedicated themselves to fighting for poor New Yorkers, to acknowledge poverty in the queer community.
The myth of gay affluence gained prominence in the 1980s, in no small part due to some highly publicized marketing surveys of the readership of gay magazines. The existence of gay people with lots of disposable income was an appealing pitch to make to advertisers, and it was quickly used by some gay political leaders eager to flex the community’s developing muscles.
However, the magazine’s subscribers were predominantly white men. Our community also includes people of color, who, like their heterosexual counterparts, generally make less money than do white men. And in a country where women still make 80 cents for the same work that men earn a dollar, it should come as no surprise that lesbian-headed households often struggle economically. Transgender people find it difficult, if not impossible, to obtain employment at all. Finally, according to the Hetrick-Martin Institute, queer youth make up 40 percent of the homeless youth living on the streets of New York City. By including these populations, we can see a more accurate and complex picture of the economic make-up of the gay community than we can from surveys of the white male readers of the Advocate.
In some ways, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community has been affected by welfare reform of 1996 just as other minority populations have been. Hunger and homelessness have increased among our poor. The Metropolitan Community Church, the largest gay church in the world, has reported that demand for food at their New York food pantry has doubled since welfare reform hit. The Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center has reported that the number of clients at its addiction program who identify as homeless has tripled in that time.
In addition, queer people have been affected by welfare reform in other ways that are specific to their identities. Rules requiring mothers who seek benefits to provide the names of fathers, and for caseworkers to then track down the fathers to collect child support, leave lesbian mothers open to abuse from exes. According to the Lambda Treatment and Recovery Program, queer substance users who seek benefits are being mandated into recovery programs that are homophobic. Transgender people have been so severely harassed at workfare sites that the Gender Identity Project has reported that the vast majority of their clients have given up their welfare benefits and returned to working the streets as sex workers, where they feel safer.
The list goes on. In order to obtain government support, homeless youth must provide proof that they are not receiving support from their parents, and this proof must come in the form of a signed letter from the parents. Many have extreme difficulty providing such documentation, the Urban Justice Center has found, not surprising given the fact that many queer youth are homeless because they were thrown out by their parents.
Given that so many in our community have had to depend upon welfare assistance, one might expect organizations that advocate for the queer community to make poverty and welfare reform issues a priority. Unfortunaetely, with few exceptions, this has not been the case. Most of the larger organizations are not addressing poverty issues and policies in any substantive way.
Equally maddening has been the fact that most anti-poverty groups are not addressing the needs of the city’s poor who are queer. Any organization that claims to represent poor people must put forth an agenda that represents the needs of all poor people. For example, no welfare rights organization seems to know how a non-biological lesbian mother would be treated by the city with regard to workfare exemptions for mothers with infants. Similarly, a lawsuit that was successfully brought against the city concerning the sexual harassment of women at workfare sites did not address the similar sexual harassment of transgender workfare workers.
The welfare reform law expires in 2002. It is vital for welfare-rights advocates, as they prepare for the national debate that will surround the reauthorization of this law, to understand that this is also a gay issue. As little political clout as the queer community may have, it still has more than welfare rights organizations do. By working with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organizations and getting them on board for this battle, the fight for welfare rights can be stronger. But in order to win these organizations as allies, anti-poverty organizations must acknowledge and serve those poor who are also queer. It is time that both recognize that welfare reform is a queer issue.
Joseph DeFilippis is firector of SAGE/Queens and coordinator of the Queer Economic Justice Network.