–Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks
While the America we live in today is more tolerant and accepting than decades and centuries past, we still have a long and arduous road ahead. Despite false claims that we live in a “post-racial” society, African Americans still face prejudice and systemic racism regularly. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people still combat discrimination and are denied access to basic protections. When you exist at these intersectional identities, simply trying to provide for yourself and your family becomes a battlefield.
At the National Black Justice Coalition, we have been fighting for over a decade to help LGBT African Americans live fully empowered, authentic lives. We know that Black LGBT people can struggle to find acceptance not only in mainstream America, but also within their own LGBT and African American communities. Now we have the figures to back up what we witness firsthand daily.
In 2012, NBJC released a landmark report, LGBT Families of Color: Fact at a Glance, which highlights the specific challenges faced by LGBT families of color. Now the Williams Institute at the University of California Los Angeles has crunched the numbers from three nationwide surveys — the U.S. Census, the Gallup Poll, and the American Community Survey — to shed more light on the lives of the more than one million LGBT African Americans in America today and paint a fuller portrait of our Black family.
Approximately 3.7 percent of all African Americans identify as LGBT, with 84,000 African Americans living in same-sex couples and roughly a third of those couples raising children. Black individuals who identify as LGBT are disproportionately young and disproportionately female: 58 percent of Black LGBT people are women.
Where do they live? Washington, D.C., tops the charts with the highest percentage of Black LGBT individuals and couples, most likely thanks to the high number of African Americans who live in the District of Columbia. The Williams Institute report finds that Black LGBT individuals live, for the most part, where other African Americans — not other members of the LGBT community — live. More than a quarter of all Black LGBT individuals live in Georgia, New York, Maryland, and North Carolina.
If some of these places strike you as less than gay-friendly, just consider that the top ten states where Black LGBT couples live include Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Alabama.
Discriminatory state policies may help explain why Black LGBT people are struggling more than their white LGBT or heterosexual Black counterparts. More LGBT African Americans (15 percent) are unemployed than the general population of African Americans (12 percent). When you compound two historically marginalized identities — Black and LGBT — the blow of discrimination strikes this community twofold.
Likewise, the Williams Institute reports that fewer individual LGBT African Americans have completed college than non-LGBT African Americans — 17 percent compared to 25 percent. Interestingly, it is more likely that a member of an African American same-sex couple will have a college degree than a member of a heterosexual African American couple — 41 percent versus 33 percent. LGBT African Americans are also less likely to have health insurance and less likely to partner with another African American. Without access to the same educational and health care opportunities as their heterosexual Black counterparts, LGBT African Americans aren’t given an equal shot at thriving — professionally, physically, mentally or emotionally. Their well-being is compromised.
How you’re doing as an LGBT African American also depends a lot on whether you have children and whether you are in a male same-sex couple or a female same-sex couple. Our 2012 report found that same-sex couples of color are more likely to have children or to be foster parents than their white counterparts. Why does this matter? In general, African Americans in same-sex couples with children fare less well demographically than both African Americans with kids in heterosexual couples and other LGBT African American couples without kids: they are less likely to have completed college, less likely to have health insurance, and report lower median household incomes.
Family is the epicenter of the Black community. For Black LGBT people, this rings just as true. But the sad reality, according to LGBT Families of Color: Fact at a Glance, is that 32 percent of children being raised by Black male gay couples live in poverty, compared to 13 percent of children being raised by married heterosexual Black parents and just 7 percent being raised by married heterosexual white parents.
The statistics are worse if we look at our Black sisters. Existing gender disparities in income are exacerbated in two-female households. For example, the median income of a same-sex African American couple is $59,200 compared to $61,000 for a heterosexual African American couple. There is a far greater difference between the median incomes for Black gay households and Black lesbian households — a difference of more than $20,000 (it is even higher — close to $30,000 — when you compare average household incomes between gay and lesbian households).
Perhaps even more interesting, African American females in same-sex couples are three times more likely to enter the military than non-LGBT counterparts — nine percent versus only three.
These statistics speak volumes about the Black LGBT community and the disparities we face in America. However, the work of the Williams Institute has begun to strip away the veil of invisibility. We finally have a clear picture and frame of reference for where we are and where we need to go.
Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks serves as the Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), which is a national civil rights organization dedicated to empowering black LGBT people. NBJC’s mission is to end racism and homophobia. As America’s leading national black LGBT civil rights organization focused on federal public policy, NBJC has accepted the charge to lead black families in strengthening the bonds and bridging the gaps between the movements for racial justice and LGBT equality.