Poor LGBTQ fight for recognition even in their own community

Part two of a two-part series.

Daniela Porter is succinct:

“Let me say first that I am grateful for government aid. I was happy to pay taxes to support the safety net when I was able to work. I just didn’t realize then that poverty is a full-time job. Poverty means no errors, no emergencies, no extras, no energy.”

Porter, 59, represents one of the LGBTQ community’s most-hidden members: She’s a disabled lesbian.

She once had a thriving career in theater, with a secondary profession as a critic, until she started losing her eyesight in her 40s due to a rare and untreatable genetic anomaly similar to glaucoma. Her condition also gives her ocular migraines.

Porter worked as long as she could, but sight was essential to every aspect of her careers. Now, like 3.3 million other blind Americans, she lives on disability in a small apartment zoned for Section 8 housing. By default, her income is below the federal poverty level — a situation that financially isolates and traps her, and with no apparent way to escape.

The Social Security Administration, which controls and disburses government-based disability payments in the United States, restricts SSDI recipients to receiving between $700-$1,700 per month. (The average disbursal for 2018 was $1,197.)

The Centers for Disease Control states that one in five Americans has at least one disability, making the disabled the largest minority in the country.

It’s an often-brutal existence.

“If you get any kind of government assistance, savings are not allowed,” Porter explained. “You can’t put a little aside each month against some future catastrophe, because savings are counted against any help you get.”

Furthermore, those who receive disability payments from other sources will get a reduced SSA payment. Recipients can’t have more than $2,000 in what the administration calls “cashable or countable assets.” These don’t include one’s home or car, but do comprise all cash and money in bank accounts, including savings.

It’s a situation that puts the poor into a Catch-22.

“Ever wonder why poor people are so frequently missing teeth?” Porter posed. “One reason is that Medicaid only covers extractions, and when a tooth is extracted, the teeth on either side start to loosen, and pretty soon what would have been a simple repair means lots of gaps. That’s not just humiliating — although it certainly is. No, now you have more and more trouble chewing solid food, and you find that the softer food you can eat is either more expensive or less nutritionally valuable.”

According to Feeding America, the largest agency in the USA tracking hunger and providing food to the poor, one in eight Americans — 12.5 percent of the population — is food insecure, which means they are not getting enough to eat.

In Philadelphia, that number is exponentially higher, with nearly one in four residents classified as food insecure. In November, a U.S. Census report found that while the percentage of food-insecure people decreased nationally in 2017, it increased in Philadelphia — to nearly 23 percent of city residents.

It’s worse for LGBT residents: One in three is estimated to be food insecure.

In May 2018, the National LGBTQ Task Force released data from a study by the LGBTQ Poverty Collaborative entitled “Intersecting Injustice: A National Call to Action, Addressing LGBTQ Poverty and Economic Justice for All.” The 155-page report corroborates Porter’s experience and cites that poor LGBTQ individuals are neither being served by mainstream anti-poverty organizations nor by LGBTQ advocacy groups. Issues of food insecurity, housing instability, low-wage earning potential and unemployment are all worse for LGBTQ people than for their heterosexual counterparts.

Tyrone Hanley, policy counsel for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, is one of the authors of the report. He cited data for PGN in a press release from the National LGBTQ Task Force, noting, “One in four LGBTQ people — approximately 2.2 million people — did not have enough money to feed themselves or their families during some period in the last year.”

Mateo Santiago grew up in Camden, N.J., home to a significant poor population. He left home at 16 because the fights over his obvious gayness were stressful, and he moved in with someone he described as “a daddy” in Philadelphia.

The relationship didn’t last, and Santiago found himself living on the streets, along with a significant number of other teens who move between couch-surfing at the homes of acquaintances and sexual partners and staying at local shelters.

Nationwide, about 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ and, like Santiago, are frequently ousted from their families of origin. Homeless advocates in Philadelphia put the number higher in the city than the national average.

In September 2017, Project HOME dedicated a plan for 30 new housing units specifically for those ages 18-23, with an emphasis on LGBTQ homeless.

Sister Mary Scullion, who cofounded Project HOME in 1989, has always included LGBTQ homeless in her ministry, recognizing the impact of discrimination on LGBTQ people. She explained that the youth-oriented housing, for which funding is still being raised, would be the first in the country and that it would also be permanent housing with an adjunct to education.

“Homelessness among young adults is on the rise and over 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ,” Scullion told PGN. “The Philadelphia Foundation, with its high standards for operational quality, integrity and accountability, will help us shine the light on this growing tragedy.”

Santiago, now 20, exemplifies how poverty and discrimination derail the lives of homeless LGBTQ teens. He never finished high school and has found it difficult to find work other than day labor. He has no fixed address and no savings.

For the past year, Santiago has shared a series of temporary apartments in Kensington with four other people, all gay and trans Latinx, all under 25, none with regular incomes. They have had to move several times when they haven’t been able to pay rent, but they have stayed together as a group and Santiago thinks of them as family.

Dr. Lourdes Ashley Hunter, executive director of Trans Women of Color Collective and one of the LGBTQ Collaborative report’s authors and editors, said in a press release provided to PGN that black and brown people — particularly those who are transgender — are at greater risk for poverty.

“The average black trans person earns less than $10,000 a year,” Hunter cited. “Black and brown trans people are disproportionately impacted by state-sanctioned violence, which is rooted in the lack of sustainable socio-economic growth that many of our lesbian, gay, cis and predominantly white counterparts benefit from. This [Trump] administration now threatens that livelihood.”

The creation of sustainable economic growth feels out of reach to most people living in poverty.

“You can’t save no money because everything you get, you use right away — you need food, or we got to pay rent, or somebody’s sick,” Santiago said. “You’re always, always behind. It hurts. It really hurts.”

Porter echoed Santiago, explaining how the simplest life choices are limited by not having even the smallest amount of extra money.

“Mistakes are disasters,” she said. “Say you decide to try something new for breakfast. You see a cereal you’ve never tried, and think, Why not? I’ll tell you why not. Because if it turns out you hate the new cereal, you can’t just give it away or throw it out. You’ll eat that cereal until it’s gone, and never make the mistake of trying something new again.”

Lack of funds also limits social interaction.

“A friend asks to meet for coffee, and you think that if you start putting away a little each month, you’ll be able to cover a small coffee in three months,” said Porter. “Spontaneity is not a part of poverty. Extras are pretty much impossible, and you can’t help becoming a little grasping — the very worst kind of frugal.”

Once an avid reader, Porter now watches TV with descriptions for the blind and listens to audio books from the library. She no longer has the luxury of buying books. She also spends time on social media to stay connected to other people, as going out is expensive.

For those as young as Santiago and his housemates, the lack of access to cash has led to sex work.

“Nobody wants to,” he said, “but everyone has to. It’s the only thing you got to sell.”

There’s always a buyer for the young gay men and trans women walking under the El along the various Kensington prostitution strolls, Santiago noted.

Homelessness and poverty put LGBTQ people at higher risk for violence and even death. The majority of trans women murdered in the USA last year were sex workers. The danger is directly related to the desperation of poverty that Santiago and Porter describe so vividly.

For LGBTQ people who have been most threatened by the Trump administration, poverty and discrimination are inextricably linked.

“The Trump administration’s shameful attacks on LGBT Americans because of who they are will exacerbate poverty in America, leaving families vulnerable to discrimination and violence,” Melissa Boteach, senior vice president of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress, told the LGBTQ Task Force in May. “The administration’s assault on struggling families through gutting basic labor standards, access to healthcare and more will disproportionately threaten the economic security of LGBT families who are more likely to live paycheck to paycheck.”

Santiago and his housemates are living in deep poverty, defined as less than half of the federal poverty level. For Santiago, living paycheck to paycheck would be an improvement — one for which he yearns. When asked if he had any New Year’s resolutions, he said he was determined to get his GED, which he hoped would in turn help him get a steady job and also help his friends.

The answers to LGBTQ poverty are limited and prescriptive; they involve real commitment from the community.

“As we work to advance equality for the LGBTQ community, poverty must be a central issue in that fight,” said the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ Hanley.

Meghan Maury, policy director at the National LGBTQ Task Force, said of the LGBTQ Collaborative data: “This report gives a voice to the creative solutions queer and trans people have built to address systemic oppression.”

But as Santiago and Porter explained, the needs of poor LGBTQ people are real and urgent, and studies are not enough. Santiago and his housemates need steady work that doesn’t put their health and lives at risk.

“Poverty is not easy,” Porter said. “Poverty is exhausting. Every purchase requires thought, planning, research and fear. You think about money all of the time, and that changes you as a person, and not in a good way.” 

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.