Making the Next Normal More Equal for LGBTQ People

July 2020

This article argues that if we want a healthy population and a fully functioning economy, then we must create a more equal society for everyone—including LGBTQ people. It appeared in Ms. in July 2022.

After watching 2.3 million Americans get COVID-19 and our economy collapse around us, many people are anxious to get back to normal life. But what do we want normal to look like?

This pandemic confirms that if we want a healthy population and a fully functioning economy, then we must create a more equal society for everyone—including LGBTQ people.

States are not asking people about their sexual orientation or gender identity when they get tested for the virus. But if we had data, it would likely show that LGBTQ people have more than their fair share of coronavirus cases.

LGBTQ people started out this pandemic more vulnerable to getting sick. Persistent health disparities in physical and mental health are well-documented and are related to the social stigma and discrimination they face. The same kind of disparities have contributed to African Americans’ high rate of infection and death—so it’s reasonable to expect inequities would also affect LGBTQ people’s risk of getting COVID-19.

Some groups of LGBTQ people are even more at risk. Transgender people often lack health insurance and have high poverty and unemployment rates, along with having chronic diseases that increase their risk. Discrimination in the health care system exacerbates those challenges for receiving good health care. Black LGBTQ Americans are also likely to be especially vulnerable, given they face multiple sources of lifelong stigma.

At the economic end of this global double whammy, our economic dive will also disproportionately affect LGBTQ people. Forget that stereotype of the gay man sheltering in place on his pricey designer sofa in a cozy upscale home—the more likely image is the lesbian mother, or transgender woman of color in her car waiting for a box of food from the local food bank.

Research shows that LGBTQ people are more likely to be poor and food insecure than heterosexuals. Discrimination remains a common experience, although last week’s Supreme Court ruling that LGBT employment discrimination is illegal will help. And now LGBT people, particularly low-wage workers, have lost jobs and face economic distress due to the pandemic.

It’s clear that our return to the old normal is just a recipe for continued inequities. Worse yet, that lack of fairness will inhibit our collective return to health, both in the physical and economic sense. Inequality puts extra burdens on LGBTQ people, and my new book shows how those burdens hold back our country’s whole economy.

Health disparities take LGBTQ people out of the labor force and make those who are in the labor force less productive. Bullying, harassment, and discrimination prevent young LGBTQ people from getting the education they want and need, which diminishes the skills our economy has to draw on. And “de facto” discrimination in the labor force means that LGBTQ people are kept from working in jobs where they can be fully present and productive.

Perhaps surprisingly, many big businesses have discovered a link between fair policies and productivity at the local level. They know—and several academic studies confirm—that equality for LGBTQ people makes companies more profitable and productive.

We can learn from those businesses. Consistent and enforceable federal policies that promote equal treatment would be an excellent start. We need to set a high bar for all employers, businesses, schools, health care settings, and social services to stop discrimination.

We also need to expand our toolbox to find ways to reduce prejudice and root out discrimination embedded in big institutions. It’s a necessity to gather more data on the health and well-being of LGBTQ people to better understand which inequalities to target.

Post-Pride Month, let’s make a commitment to making sure that we end up with a fairer society and economy than the one that we started with when COVID arrived. Greater equity would improve the lives of LGBTQ people, the profitability of businesses and the performance of our overall economy.

That’s a new normal worth working for.

Making the Next Normal More Equal for LGBTQ People