Wage equality is a queer issue, too!

Yesterday I posted about Equal Pay Day, and the discussion was one that assumed heterosexual marriage as a foundation. But issues of wage inequality, and economic issues in general, are queer issues, too, and the gender wage gap is an interesting one.

Women typically earn less than men, so female-headed households are more likely to struggle financially than are male-headed households. In fact, 29% of families with female householders are officially poor. For female-headed households with children under 18, this jumps to 38%, and for female-headed households with young children (under five), the percentage that are officially poor is even higher: 47%.

How does this have anything to do with sexuality? For one thing, women are more likely than men to have low incomes, and female-headed households are more likely to be poor, so women in same sex partnerships are more likely to struggle than are their male counterparts, and women living alone are in even worse shape.

Remember the big push for marriage-supportive policies during the 1996 Welfare Reform and again during Bush’s “Faith-based initiatives” agenda? It seems that the Bush administration, especially, believes that if people would just “do the right thing” and get married (and stay married), we’d have a lot less poverty. And the data appear to support that conclusion on the surface. Only 5% of married-couple families are officially poor, and if you look only at married couple families with children, the percentage only jumps to 7%. Quite different from the situation of single mothers, for example.

But there is a correlation/causation problem here: it isn’t marriage as a state of being that makes a difference. Marriage makes a difference because of the way that it is defined and the way it is treated by the state. Married couple families are less likely to be poor and more likely to have higher incomes in part because they are by definition going to have a man’s income to add to the ledger, and they are quite possibly going to have two incomes to add together. And then there are the many rights and benefits that married couple families are given. Lesbian couples, women or men living alone, or not having the privileges of marriage, are not going to have the same chances.

Making income and poverty politically a “queer issue” is not necessarily easy. For one thing, once it’s seen as an issue for queer folk, it has the potential to divide gay men from lesbians. In fact, single straight women and lesbians have more in common, and even married-couple families have more common ground with lesbian couples on this issue than would gay male couples. (This is not to suggest that there is no poverty among gay men, or that gay men raising children don’t face many of the same challenges that opposite-sex couples or lesbians raising children will face, but just to point out that where wages and occupations are concerned, gay men tend to benefit by being men.)

There is another reason to consider income and poverty from the perspective of sexuality: people have more sexual agency when they are not constrained by poverty. Women and men make choices about whether or not to begin or end sexual relationships in part based on economic factors. They are more or less free to leave abusive relationships depending on economic options. They are more or less free to remain single. Constrained income options are also among the reasons some people perform sex work. And then, of course, people who have to work multiple jobs or take on lots of extra hours to make a living are less likely to have the time and energy to sustain a satisfying sex life in the first place.

Wage equity is an important step toward gender equality, but also an important step toward equality for queer folk. But there are a lot of other steps that need to be taken as well.

One of the most important things I think we need to do is to de-emphasize marriage as the basic ‘family’ structure, and a focusing on households. Policies that took households, instead of marriages, into account would help single moms, cohabiting lovers, polyamorous people, communal households, same-sex couples, and would level the playing field dramatically. But that would mean lending tacit social approval to people who have sexual and intimate relationships that challenge the dominant heteronormative model wherein marriage rules.

This is why I have mixed feelings about the same-sex marriage agenda. As long as marriage is the only family form that is given privileges, of course I want people to have access to it regardless of the gender of their partners, but as long as we keep marriage at the center of our definition of “legal family,” we will have to continue to deny recognition and rights to all those people who choose other forms of intimate commitment and interdependence.

Economic justice and social justice need to be considered together. Economic issues are queer issues. The politics of sexuality and the economics of family life are inseparable when it comes to social change.

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Here are some links to a couple of organizations that frame economic justice issues as queer issues:

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