Why are there so many poor LGBT people in America’s most queer-friendly city?


Part one of a two-part series.

Philadelphia remains the poorest of the top 10 most populous cities in the United States, according to census data released in September. While poverty rates have decreased in the nation overall, Philly holds that dubious designation for the 10th consecutive year, with 25.99 percent — more than 400,000 Philadelphians — living in poverty and 36.4 percent earning $25,000 or less.

Philadelphia also has the highest rate of people living in what is called “deep poverty” — with earnings of $12,060 or less than 50 percent of the $16,643 federal-poverty level. More than 12 percent — nearly 200,000 Philadelphians — live in deep poverty.

It’s a stark contrast to the glowing Dec. 6 story in GQ Magazine titled “Philadelphia is the City of the Year,” which lauds this town as one of affluence and excellence.

How many LGBT people are in one or both of those demographics?

According to studies from the Williams Institute of the Law School of UCLA and a new study by Legal Services New York City on LGBT poverty, LGBT people are at least twice as likely than their heterosexual counterparts to be living in poverty, depending on gender, education and locale. Lesbians and trans women face the most risk, but LGBT people overall suffer from significantly more poverty than their heterosexual peers, whether as individuals or in couples.

In a 65-page study, LSNYC stated that poverty puts LGBT people at risk of discrimination, violence and even death, with threats to their health, employment and housing. More than 62 percent were unable to pay for a basic need such as food, housing, clothing or medication in the past year.

Who are the LGBT poor?

They are young people thrown out of their family homes for being LGBT; trans women who struggle to find work; older lesbians and gay men in long-term relationships who lose half their incomes — and maybe their homes — when a partner dies.

“I was always told being a gay man meant you’d be rich one day. It never happened for me. I’ve been poor all my life,” said Jack, 61, who grew up in South Philadelphia and still lives there, with his elderly mother in an East Passyunk-area rowhome in a gentrified neighborhood.

“You’d hear that there were people — older, closeted gay men — who would introduce you around. You’d meet people who would help you achieve your dreams. What a fairy story,” he laughed wryly, adding, “Literally, I guess.”

Jack said he met older gay men when he was “young and pretty” and hanging out at clubs in the Gayborhood of the 1970s. But his dreams of finding a man who would help him make it big as an entertainer, like renowned South Philly singers Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell, never materialized.

Instead, Jack worked across the river at Camden’s Campbell’s Soup plant while he sang at clubs in Philadelphia and New Jersey.

Now, he lives on a meager disability check and food stamps. He cares for his mother, who has dementia. His longtime partner died several years ago and, ever since, Jack’s financial situation has become increasingly bleak. He’s not sure what will happen when his mother dies and her Social Security check is no longer part of the monthly household income. He fears being old, gay and homeless.

Jack leads the kind of month-to-month existence that nearly all poor Philadelphians experience. The poorest big city in America is also home to the largest number of LGBT people living in poverty.

Yet, just as Philadelphia’s poor remain hidden from the Center City retail, real-estate and restaurant booms that keep the city in the national spotlight as a great place to live, so does the LGBT segment of Philadelphia’s poverty-stricken remain hidden from local government’s representation of the city as upwardly mobile with a thriving — and wealthy — gay community.

The myth of gay wealth belies the truth about how poor LGBTQ people really are. Andrea Johnson, 58, the fourth and youngest child of a hard-working single mother who put all her children through college, has been “between jobs” for more than a decade, moving between couch-surfing and shelters with no fixed address.

A graduate of Girl’s High, Johnson won a scholarship to prestigious Radcliffe College at age 17. But it was at Radcliffe that her life began to unravel rather than soar.

“It wasn’t an easy place to be black and gay,” she said of what was then Harvard’s Seven Sisters adjunct. Johnson had expected to be a star of her class, as she had been at Girl’s High. But, by her junior year, she was plagued with recurrent and increasingly devastating bouts of depression. She managed to graduate, then spent what she described as “my sleep year” in the back bedroom of her mother’s Olney rowhome, where she’d grown up.

“I never officially came out,” she said. “We’d had such a strict religious upbringing and my mother would never have allowed me to live with her if I told her I was a lesbian.”

And so she read lesbian books, spent time with a lesbian writer friend of one of her older brothers, worked as a freelance copy editor and translator and kept hoping to find a steady partner.

Johnson also turned to alcohol and drugs to cope with her isolation and depression. She became poorer, and ultimately was among what Project HOME statistics cite as 15,000 Philadelphians accessing the shelter system. About 1,000 Philadelphians are chronically homeless and living solely on the streets, without accessing the shelters.
“I never expected to be the person who calls people in the middle of the night and asks for money to get to a job interview,” Johnson said. “At a certain point, people look at you and wonder why you’re having such a hard time keeping a job. And then you can’t get work at all. When I turned 40, none of my siblings would talk to me; I had maybe three friends and I didn’t have anywhere to live.”

Her mother came home unexpectedly one afternoon to discover her daughter with another woman. She threw her out of the house.

Johnson spent her 41st birthday at the Mercy Hospice for Women on 13th Street — ironically, right in the heart of the Gayborhood, with which she’d had such a complex relationship in her teen years as she hung out at Giovanni’s Room bookstore, hoping to meet other lesbians.

Johnson’s experience of LGBT poverty checks all the boxes: She suffers from mental illness, has substance-abuse problems with both alcohol and drugs, and has experienced discrimination in both her family of origin and at various places of employment. As a butch-presenting black woman, she said she felt forced to dress and act a certain way in the publishing houses for which she worked in her first decade after college — the only time she had steady, in-office work.

The links between poverty, mental illness and being LGBT have been well established through various studies over the past 25 years. The American Psychological Association and the Williams Institute have found causal links between mental illness and poverty and mental illness — notably, depression and anxiety — and being LGBT. Higher rates of major depression, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and substance use or dependence in lesbian and gay youth often leads to higher rates of anxiety, mood and substance-use disorders, as well as suicidal thoughts, among those ages 15-54 with same-sex partners.

In April 2018, The Journal of Feminist Economics found that lesbian couples, as opposed to their heterosexual counterparts, were the most likely to suffer from poverty, despite having “higher levels of education and labor force participation and their lower probability of having a child in the home,” the article stated. “The role of gender — above and beyond sexual orientation — is clear in the greater vulnerability to poverty for lesbian couples.”

Andrea Johnson, therefore, is a prototypical statistic. But she’s a number in a story that is not being told.
Next week: Identifying and addressing the needs of Philadelphia’s LGBTQ poor.