Paying a Price for Sexual Orientation

Editor's note: In light of today's announcement of the Supreme Court's decision affirming the constitutional right of same-sex couples to marry, we thought our readers would find Christine Riddiough's article on the struggle for LGBT rights of interest.


By Christine Riddiough 

As this issue of Democratic Left goes to press, the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to rule on whether state laws preventing same-sex marriage are constitutional. Whatever the ruling, events in Indiana, Arkansas, and other states reveal that the fight for LGBT rights is not over. There is still no federal legislation forbidding discrimination against people because of sexual orientation. Such legislation, at this point, needs to be won on a state-by-state basis.


“Religious freedom” laws may be the entry point for such campaigns. These laws allow employers, landlords, and business owners to claim that their religious freedom is being infringed if they have to provide service to people who do things that their religion forbids. When Indiana passed such a law in March, nationwide outcry caused the legislature to add a clause forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. This was the opposite of what its supporters wanted and marked the first time that such anti-discrimination language had been put into state law. Activists hope to translate this victory into a broader anti-discrimination statute.


The need for anti-discrimination legislation is obvious, but even activists may not be aware of the full economic costs of discrimination, especially for women. A recent study by the Center for American Progress and the Movement Advancement Project entitled “Paying an Unfair Price: The Financial Penalty for LGBT Women in America finds that LGBT women of all races suffer financially compared to non-LGBT women of all races and all men. Nevertheless, African American and Latina women in same-sex couples are much more likely to be poor than white women in same-sex couples, and older women in same-sex couples have nearly twice the poverty rate of older married opposite-sex couples.


These cold facts translate into heart-rending detail. Take Stacey Schuett and Lesly Toboada-Hall, who were together for 30 years and legally married for part of that time. Tobaoada-Hall worked for Fed-Ex for 26 of those years, but upon her death the company refused to give survivor benefits to Schuett. Leyth Jamal, a transgender woman, worked for a department store where she faced harassment and was told to dress like a man and keep her “home life” separate from her “work life.” When she sued the company for discrimination, she was fired. Jacqueline Cote tried to enroll her wife, Dee, in the spousal health insurance benefits offered by Walmart, but was told repeatedly that Walmart didn’t offer health insurance coverage to the same-sex spouses of employees, even though the couple lived in a state that recognized same-sex marriage. The couple has had to pay more than $100,000 in medical costs, including treatment for Dee’s cancer.

The Defense of Marriage Act has been struck down, but state laws and corporate policies are still a patchwork of protections–or lack thereof–for LGBT people. Thus, without comprehensive civil rights legislation, same-sex couples are still denied rights that opposite-sex couples take for granted, and, of course, individuals continue to be discriminated against.

The combination of gender and sexual orientation hits women harder because many of them have children and are more likely to be in low-paying jobs or receiving lower pay than men with comparable jobs.

Given the current Congress, there is little hope for passage of any law protecting the rights of LGBT people. At the state level, though, in battles against “religious freedom” laws, in the fights for equal pay for equal work, to raise the minimum wage, and in immigration reform, there are opportunities to strengthen the rights of LGBT people.


ChristineRiddioughAID_100w_copy.png Christine Riddiough is an honorary vice chair of DSA and has been an activist for women’s liberation and LGBT liberation for 45 years. The full report is available here.


This article originally appeared in the summer 2015 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

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