The story of LGBTQ+ rights in the 21 century U.S. has been one of unprecedented triumph. On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the protests against police harassment at the Stonewall Inn, the movement for LGBTQ+ rights has achieved legal rights and social visibility at an astounding speed for a once-vilified minority group. Even in the face of political backlash from a hostile Trump administration, LGBTQ+ advocacy continues to expand as more and more politicians, corporations, and voters provide support and resources for those facing discrimination on the basis of their sexualities or gender identities.
During the same period that these victories have been won, the overall LGBTQ+ population has endured the skyrocketing economic inequality that has come to plague the vast majority of people in this country. Today, working people — queer and straight — are poorer, have less control over their conditions at work, and bear exorbitantly higher health-care costs than they did a generation ago. Queer cis-women, trans people, and people of color in particular suffer startling rates of unemployment, food insecurity, and inability to pay rent. Even more, our new age of inequality exhibits little discrimination in the extent of its impact. The gap between the wealthiest 1% and the bottom 99% is now as wide as it was before the Great Depression.
Now is the time for LGBTQ+ advocates to build on recent rights victories by championing egalitarian economic reforms. While legal protections against discrimination are important, they are unable to fully provide queer people the means to live meaningful, fulfilling, and equal lives. In the post-Stonewall era of the early 1970s, many activists in the gay liberation movement understood that economic inequalities inherently posed major obstacles to sexual and gender autonomy. LGBTQ+ advocates today should heed this legacy and attack the roots of inequality and exploitation. They should do so in political campaigns and organizations that link the struggle for gender and sexual freedom with all those who strive to create a more just society.
One way of realizing this vision would be to pass Medicare for All legislation that would guarantee free and universal health care. Doing so would simultaneously address the needs of all people as well as those specifically or disproportionately faced by LGBTQ+ people. An inclusive version of this legislation would cover the nearly 25% of LGBTQ-identified adults who are unable to afford health care, in addition to providing gender-affirmative treatments for trans people and medication and care for people living with HIV.
Laws that strengthen the labor movement, guarantee federal jobs, and mandate a living wage also have a significant role to play. As an emboldened socially conservative majority on the Supreme Court gears up to rule on federal civil rights employment law and LGBTQ+ rights, we have an opportunity to recouple the fight for antidiscrimination with the right to a well-paying job that echoes the demands of the Civil Rights Movement’s 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedoms.
Organized labor has played a historic role in the struggle for queer rights that should inform how we pursue this project. As early as the 1930s, the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union formed a militant multiracial and sexually-diverse union. In the 1970s, teachers’ unions fought against those who sought to bar their gay and lesbian members from the profession. More recently, labor unions have combated discriminatory trans bathroom access bans.
Confronting the pernicious effects of deepening economic inequality will require a mass-movement politics that benefits the many and not the few. The struggle for equality will at times require the usual antidiscrimination legislation and litigation that currently comprises the LGBTQ+ movement’s agenda. But to achieve a truly egalitarian future, we must also fight for the protection of marginalized persons as part of a larger program that centers universal public goods such as health care, labor rights, employment, and shelter.
Joanna Wuest holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Pennsylvania and will be a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer at Princeton University in the fall. Carly Regina is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Pennsylvania. Both are members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).