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When we talk about LGBTQ+ rights, we’re far more likely to mention marriage than money—and yet financial inequality is a long-running through line in queer history.
For generations, a community of millions has endured employment discrimination and wage gaps at work, all while being legally barred from forming marriages, which, let’s not forget, are not just romantic bonds but economic units too. So when it comes to achieving financial stability and success, LGBTQ+ Americans are essentially running a race in which everyone else has gotten a hundred-year head start.
“It’s important to start by recognizing that we’re talking about a population that’s already economically disadvantaged before you can really even look at what financial protections exist [for them],” Karen Loewy, senior counsel at the LGBTQ+ legal advocacy group Lambda Legal, tells NextAdvisor.
Today, two of of the most fundamental financial protections the LGBTQ+ community has are the right to marry and protection under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA), a federal law enacted in 1974 that has since been interpreted to ban credit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Marriage allows many same-sex couples to more easily access health insurance benefits, be named together on loans, and receive the tax benefits that often result from being able to file jointly.
And for LGBTQ+ individuals, the ECOA has been successfully cited as a defense in securing loans and other lines of credit since June 2000, when a federal court ruled that a bank had engaged in sex stereotyping when it instructed a transgender person named Lucas Rosa to go home and put on different clothing when she asked for a loan.
In fact, President Joe Biden recently shored up the protections the ECOA provides to LGBTQ+ people by instructing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and other agencies to enforce a 2020 Supreme Court decision (Bostock v. Clayton County) which effectively stated that bans on sex discrimination also apply to sexual orientation and gender identity as well. This March, in a move praised by LGBTQ+ advocates, the CFPB released new guidance saying that it will enforce the ECOA in that fashion.
That guidance isn’t brand new—as Loewy notes, it’s “actually consistent with old guidance”—but she says it’s still monumental to see it “recognized plainly that those sex discrimination regulations apply to LGBTQ+ people at large.”
Before these more formal protections—which also include stronger non-discrimination guidance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development—the history of queer financial equality is hard to map because it is so murky. Without recourse, there has been wonton discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in financial settings for most of our nation’s history. Same-sex couples could apply for mortgages together and be turned away for no other reason. A transgender woman could ask for a loan and be denied, point blank. Two men could live together for years, decades even—and when one of them passed away, the deceased partner’s family could swoop in and divest the surviving partner of money and property.
Culturally speaking, LGBTQ+ people made inroads here and there—some banks were friendlier than others, some states had protections others lacked—but most advances were informal at best.
“It is hard to point to specific moments in time at which doors sort of open,” says Loewy. “But what that points to, actually, is an incredible amount of vulnerability and to the heroic measures people had to take to protect themselves and their families.”
Without marriage—and without the ability to readily secure financial help from lenders—LGBTQ+ people had to resort to a wide array of legal maneuvers to protect themselves, strategically writing wills, drafting partnership agreements, and titling property so as to secure survivorship rights. Even with those documents in order, lengthy and gut-wrenching court battles often followed. Protections were a patchwork.
“You had some institutions that were willing to recognize same-sex couples as an economic unit, separate and apart from marriage,” Loewy explains, “But it was sort of haphazard, and the ability to access those protections was often not guaranteed.”
Thanks to a string of Supreme Court decisions over the past decade, the financial landscape for LGBTQ+ people is changing rapidly. In 2013’s United States vs. Windsor ruling, the Supreme Court held that it was illegal to deny federal benefits to married same-sex couples and in the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision of 2015, same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide. Then, in last year’s Bostock decision, the high court held that anti-LGBTQ+ employment discrimination is illegal.
But while these decisions will certainly benefit a generation of young queer people who are currently coming of age, many millions of LGBTQ+ people grew up without the protections they now offer. Lambda Legal and other advocacy groups haven’t forgotten about that older cohort of the community.
“It is certainly the case that we are still trying to remediate people’s experiences of lifetimes of discrimination,” says Loewy.
One key issue looking forward is the denial of Social Security survivor’s benefits to people who were never able to marry their partners. In one emotional case, a Washington State woman named Helen Thornton had been with her partner Margery Brown for 27 years before the latter died of ovarian cancer before the legalization of same-sex marriage. The Social Security Administration denied Thornton survivor’s benefits, prompting Lambda Legal to file a lawsuit. Late last year, a federal district judge ruled in Lambda Legal’s favor—but the work of helping surviving same-sex partners gain access to those benefits has only just begun.
“We’re actually still spending a tremendous amount of time and energy to get the word out to folks who would be protected by those rulings,” Loewy says.
However painful the history of LGBTQ+ financial inequality has been, it’s important to note that the community has several protections in place now—protections we need to take advantage of if we want to accelerate our path toward greater security. If you’re discriminated against in a housing setting, you can file a complaint with HUD. If you’re discriminated against while seeking a loan, you can file a complaint with the CFPB. There are options available—and LGBTQ+ advocates have worked too hard for too long for them not to be used.
“Folks should know that there are avenues for redress when you’ve experienced these kinds of discrimination,” Loewy stresses. “That’s what I hope they will remember.”