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Dispatches from AWID 2012: Queer Economics

Posted in Sexuality on November 1st, 2012 by

What does our sexuality have to do with our economic freedom and power? A lot, but it’s complicated. In the panel, “Highlighting the InterSEXions: Sexuality, economy, and LBGT Rights,” queer rights advocates and researchers from the United States, Uganda, and the Philippines spoke about specific ways in which hetero-normative and capitalist, patriarchal society keeps the GBLTQ community down, and largely poor.

Kasha Jacqueline, Founder and Director of Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG), spoke about the challenges of being a gay rights activist in her community and also making money, since the community at-large accuses activists of being money-driven.

“They look at this group of people who are small, unemployed, and marginalized, and they think we are driving this [gay rights] agenda to get paid.”

In reality, most activists have already been edged out of jobs, schools, and families because of their sexual identity – for many, activism is the only community they have left.

“We need to do something about the stereotyping that we are only out there to get money. Sponsors only want to see us out there changing policy, with their names on the banners; but we as activists, we need income.”

On that point, one audience member, from Pakistan, noted that many queer activists there are relegated to sections of the job market that are sexuality-focused – like HIV/AIDS outreach worker or counselor – as if their sexuality is all they are, and is the total sum of what they have to offer the economy.

Dissonant poverty among GLBTQ communities in the US is a pressing issue as well. Jessica Stern, from Queers for Economic Justice in the United States, reflected on how the American GLBTQ community’s agenda rarely prioritized economic justice and empowerment, instead focusing on policies like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and same-sex marriage. Yet statistics show that queer families, and queer people of color, in particular, are disproportionately economically disadvantaged when it comes to mortgages, wages, and staying above the poverty line.

For example, poverty rates for children from same-sex families are twice as high as those from hetero families. Transgender persons in San Francisco have an unemployment rate of 35 percent, while the total city average is just a fraction of that. These and other data raise the question as to what is the benefit of expanding normative policies like marriage? Or as Professor Gita Sen posed to all 2,500 of us at the AWID opening plenary, “who wants a bigger piece of a poisoned pie?”

The key point here is that economic independence and empowerment – even financial literacy – is not an after-thought or luxury for an individual, but rather central to his or her agency as a human. Denying or ignoring this component keeps marginalized people on the margins. Susie Jolly of the Ford Foundation, pointed out that,

“Those with non-conforming desires are included in and exploited by capitalist market economies and we can’t ignore this.”

The intersections of queer sexuality, power, and economic justice are complex but significant. “These intersections are not invisible,” said Stearns, “it’s just that none of us are looking for them.”

Anne Lim, a lesbian and sexuality activist from the Philippines, representing the group Galang, discussed the difficulties of focusing on those intersections in her country. On one hand, poverty in the Philippines is pervasive, while on the other hand, “sexuality” is seen as a “bourgoie issue.” The intersection of the two is almost unimaginable. GLBTQ groups in the Philippines lack political clout, especially in relation to the immense power of the Catholic Church, and are “kept down by a web of power” that doesn’t include them, but still affects them. Homosexuality is not criminalized in the Philippines, but stigma nevertheless leads to economic repercussions. For instance, Lim says queer people often do not get hired because of the way they look.

Sexual and reproductive health and rights in the Philippines, more broadly, are in peril. Lim says, “condom access is a matter of life and death.” For years the official stance of the national government was one of “natural family planning,” while modern contraception was flat out banned for several years in the capital, Manila. This is owing, in no small part, to heavy pressure on the government from the Catholic Church.

The ill-fated Reproductive Health Bill – which has languished in the Philippines Congress for nearly two decades and is the country’s best hope at a breakthrough in sexual and reproductive health and rights – does not include any specific provisions for GLBTQ groups. Lim said, however, that it would at least serve as a starting platform for moving these issues forward.

The intersections raised in this panel were equally diverse, urgent, and should collectively serve as a starting point for deeper and broader discussions among rights and justice advocates. And yet sometimes, beginning to understand such intersections can be as simple as saying out loud, “I’m queer, and I also benefited from welfare.” Those are discussions we need to start having.


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