“As we marshal resources and new strategies to fight COVID-19, we must do the same to fight homophobia and transphobia”

Imagine an insidious, dangerous affliction that crosses borders and takes root, undermining the health of vulnerable people and sapping economies. Although that description has an all too familiar and timely ring, COVID-19 is not the only threat to a country’s health and economy. Alongside racism, sexism, and xenophobia, another social malady that stalks every country’s people and economy targets lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. My new book, The Economic Case for LGBT Equality: Why Fair and Equal Treatment Benefits Us All, shows how homophobia and transphobia – the process of stigmatizing and excluding LGBT people – results in harm to our economies as well as violations of LGBT people’s human rights.

Violence and discrimination against LGBT people happens all over the world. While ‘LGBT’ terms are not used in every country, every country has a group of people defined by their socially stigmatised gender identities or sexual behaviours.

And even though some countries seem to be approaching full equality – with 29 now allowing same-sex couples to marry – every country is still a developing country when it comes to the full inclusion of LGBT people.

We don’t always hear about the costs to LGBT people and our economies of that treatment though. When Pema Dorji was growing up in Bhutan, going to school was “like going to war,” in his words. Now a young gay activist, Pema still vividly recalls the bullying he experienced from other students and even teachers. A 2016 UNESCO report documents similar challenges faced by young LGBT people in 94 countries, with psychological bullying, violence, and discrimination an all too common experience in schools.

These harsh lessons teach LGBT young people that they are not fully valued or safe, and that lesson has consequences for all of us. Many studies show that bullying is associated with poorer health outcomes for LGBT students as well as a heightened risk for dropping out, skipping school, and lower grades. So LGBT students are getting a lower quality and quantity of education. Non-LGBT students are hurt too. Some might be perceived as LGBT if they don’t conform to narrow gender expectations. And overall, students who attend schools with more bullying also tend to have worse educational outcomes.

Our economy also gets short-changed when students lose out in their schooling, since less education means diminished skills. With less schooling or less effective schooling, LGBT young people will be at a disadvantage when they enter the labour market. They have less to offer employers filling better paying jobs, meaning many LGBT people will end up in lower wage work or, in some countries, the informal sector.

Labour market discrimination

Even those with high levels of schooling may face discrimination in the labour market in many countries. The EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency just released new survey results showing that one in five EU residents reported discrimination at work in the prior year for being LGBTI (I stands for intersex people). Shockingly, that number was slightly higher than in a similar survey conducted in 2012, when 19 per cent reported discrimination. Other evidence suggests discrimination against LGBT people contributes to an 11 per cent pay gap for gay and bisexual men compared to heterosexual men. Taken together, discrimination on the job means that LGBT are treated unfairly to the detriment of our economies, since employers are turning away qualified workers who have much to contribute.

The kind of stigma experienced in jobs and schools takes its toll on LGBT people’s bodies as well as on their paychecks and report cards. Psychologists call the extra burden faced by LGBT people, and all stigmatised people, ‘minority stress’. For example, actual discrimination and fears of discrimination make many LGBT people hypervigilant and encourage them to hide their sexual orientation or gender identity to avoid unfair treatment. Even in the most open country in the EU, one-third of Dutch LGBT people are rarely or never open about being LGBT; the least open was Lithuania, where 84 per cent of LGBT people were rarely or never open. Lack of openness contributes to poorer health by using up psychological resources and by making it harder to connect with other LGBT people who might be a source of support.

For Pema Dorji, the scars of his treatment at school included depression and two suicide attempts, mirroring the research on health disparities that find higher rates of health problems for LGBT people in many different countries. Chinese activist Ying Xin runs the Beijing LGBT Center, where she sees many people walk in the door with psychological issues caused by the stigma that they face.

A cycle of stigma reinforces and exacerbates the harms of homophobia and transphobia.

Poor health makes it harder to find and keep jobs or to finish school. Being unemployed or working for lower pay reduces resources to stay healthy and get an education. Being closeted keeps LGBT people from being themselves at work and requires its own energy to maintain secrecy. This cycle keeps LGBT people from achieving equality and keeps them from fully contributing to our economies.

It’s no surprise, then, that countries with more LGBT-inclusive laws and people tend to have stronger economies. Adding up the various losses to LGBT people shows how much they lose in earnings from discrimination and poorer health: case studies of India, Kenya, and South Africa suggest that around 1 per cent of GDP may be lost to the poorer health and labour market impediments that LGBT people face.

In a sense, homophobia and transphobia put our economies in a permanent recession and a permanent pandemic. Just as we are marshalling resources and new strategies to fight COVID-19, we must do the same to fight homophobia and transphobia. We must improve laws and policies to require equal treatment and full inclusion, and develop new allies and tools to ensure the full inclusion of LGBT people.