The Economic Case For LGBT* Equality

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Jun 13, 2020
by Klaus Mueller with help from Kathryn Lipka
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The Economic Case For LGBT* Equality

Salzburg Global Fellow Lee Badgett discusses her new book which adds a financial argument for LGBT* equality Lee Badgett introduces her book project to Fellows at the 2017 program of the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum

Over the past three decades, Salzburg Global Fellow Lee Badgett has researched how homophobia and transphobia generate enormous costs for economies worldwide. Her latest book, The Economic Case for LGBT Equality: Why Fair and Equal Treatment Benefits Us All, builds on these arguments and lays out new findings. Badgett, a professor of economics, spoke with Klaus Mueller, Founder and Chair of the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum, and revealed, “This book is a product of the LGBT* Forum’s magic.”

Klaus Mueller (KM): Lee, your new book further develops your research on how we all could benefit from the full and equal participation of LGBT* people in our economies and how LGBT* exclusion in education, health, social, and political settings are very costly to us all. What are your main findings? 

Lee Badgett (LB): I found extensive evidence from many countries that LGBT* people face stigma and discrimination in three important settings: schools and universities, employment, and health. The consequences for LGBT* people themselves are clear. In educational systems, they experience bullying from other students and discrimination from teachers and school systems, and as a result, we see lower grades, higher dropout rates, more absenteeism, and lower levels of education. In the labor market, LGBT* people face harassment, often earn less, and have a harder time getting and keeping a job. Their health is poorer because of stigma, and they often experience poor treatment in health care settings.

What’s less obvious is [at] the heart of my book. These harms to individual LGBT* people also mean that our economy is deprived of the creativity, skills, and knowledge of LGBT* people, diminishing our economies and everyone’s well-being. Losing out on education wastes the potential of LGBT* people. Discrimination at work makes people less productive, and their skills aren’t fully used. Poorer health pulls people out of work and also makes them less productive.

KM: Do you see a potential tension between a moral and human rights argumentation for LGBT* equality and an economic argument for LGBT* inclusion, or are these two sides of one coin? 

LB: It’s not an either/or. I think these two arguments fit together and support each other, both in principle and in practice. We need strong economies to meet the ambitious goals of our global human rights agenda, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights itself points out. And we need a firm foundation of human rights to make our economies strong, as my book argues. In practice, people working toward full inclusion of LGBT* people need ideas that will help them open new doors. The economic case is opening the doors of development agencies, financial institutions, economic policymakers, and businesses to discuss and act on LGBT* rights. We need those actors on our side, and my book has examples of how that has worked in many countries. Showing that this idea works in practice was one of the other key findings of the book.

KM: What surprised you most in examining the consequences of anti-LGBT* practices across multiple countries?

LB: I was surprised how much it costs economies when you add it all up. We’ve tried to do just that in India, the Philippines, Kenya, and South Africa. Overall, when you look at how much people power those countries lose from the effects of homophobia and transphobia on health and the labor market, it’s about 1% of Gross Domestic Product. If we could better measure the educational costs, that would make it even higher. In other countries like Canada, we have pieces of that cost exercise, or we know that countries had much to gain economically from letting same-sex couples marry, for instance. The scale of the loss is shocking—in a sense, homophobia and transphobia are putting our economies in a permanent recession.

KM: Lee, it is an amazing achievement to engage into a book project and actually get it done. A big congratulation from us. You also state that the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum helped you on this journey: can you explain?

LB: I am so grateful to the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum for making this book possible! Having written other books, I knew how much time—and the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears—go into one. Before committing to it, I needed to know if it was going to matter or not to the people whose opinion I valued most: LGBT* activists doing the hard and dangerous work on LGBT* rights around the world.

Participants at the 2015 Global Forum meeting seemed interested in the work I presented, but that wasn’t enough. In the closing session of the 2017 meeting in Salzburg, you asked us all: where do we go from here? You invited us to ask the group for help with our projects, so I did, with a pounding heart and dry mouth. And an amazing thing happened—I heard a wave of support for the book and many pledges of help. In a very real way, this book exists because of that support, so it’s dedicated to all of the Salzburg Global LGBT* Fellows. As I say in the acknowledgments, “A week in a gorgeous setting with many thoughtful, committed people from all over the globe created just the right atmosphere of idealism and sense of purpose.”

KM: This is wonderful to hear. Thank you. Can you describe how you worked with some of our Fellows and give us an example of the stories you were able to include?

LB: The problem with economics is that it’s sometimes too quantitative. People’s stories give meaning to numbers and convey the texture and context of people’s experiences. Fellows sent emails or told me in interviews about their own lives and their activist work. Some (Bradley Secker, from the UK/Turkey) and a Fellow from the Middle East who used a pseudonym) pushed back on my premise by pointing out that their negative experiences shaped their lives - so that they ended up contributing something unique and wonderful to the world, which forced me to rethink some parts of my argument.

Others, like Juan Pigot (from Surinam) and Irene Fedorovych (from Ukraine), told me about how they used the cost of homophobia and transphobia argument to encourage businesses to have inclusive policies. Ying Xin (from China) told me her life story that put her strategic use of research in context. Negede Gezahegn and Noël Iglessias (both from Ethiopia who joined the 2015 Forum session anonymously as Mr. X and Mr. Y ) described their backgrounds and activism that put their later experiences in context. Pema Dorji (from Nepal) told me I could use his story that appeared in the Forum’s Five Year Report. After drafting the chapters with these stories, I sent them back for each person’s approval or revision. Finally, Kasha Nabagesera (from Uganda) wrote a blurb for the book.

So from start to finish—commitment, dedication, content, and commentary—this book is a product of Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum magic.

* LGBT: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. We are using this term as it is currently widely used in human rights conversations on sexual orientation and gender identity in many parts of the world, and we would wish it to be read as inclusive of other cultural concepts, contemporary or historical, to express sexuality and gender, intersex and gender non-conforming identities.