A Q&A with M. V. Lee Badgett
What if production in factories, shops, restaurants, and other services suddenly sank by one percent? If the downturn lasted long enough, economists would call it a recession, and policymakers would rush to course correct. But what happens when the economy is dragged down for decades, caused by society’s prejudices and hostilities toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people? Not much. And that needs to change.
In The Economic Case for LGBT Equality: Why Fair and Equal Treatment Benefits Us All, economist M. V. Lee Badgett asserts that homophobia and transphobia not only harm individuals in many aspects of their lives—education, health, employment—but also damage economies in costly and often invisible ways. She presents data and real stories to show that the exclusion of LGBT people from full and equal participation in society reduces everyone’s well-being and that it is in all our interests to fix it. Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with Badgett to chat about her book and what we can learn from it during our current administration.
Christian Coleman: What was the inspiration behind writing The Economic Case for LGBT Equality?
M. V. Lee Badgett: The inspiration came from the many LGBT activists I’ve met and worked with who wanted to use the economic case to promote human rights. I have been making that economic case for LGBT equality for a long time and have seen the argument also appeal to policymakers, businesses, development agencies, and other groups. I decided to write this book to reach all of these audiences with the evidence and stories that show how stigma and discrimination against LGBT people hold back economies. The book gave me room to present a wide range of evidence about those links, and I could show how this idea is helping to expand rights for LGBT people.
CC: You’re a professor of economics and co-direct the Center for Employment Equity at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Tell us a little about your background and what interested you in focusing on economic inequality for LGBT people.
MVLB: My main professional identity is being a feminist labor economist, and I mostly study inequality and discrimination against LGBT people. The roots of my choice of profession and research are in my own experiences. As a cisgender white woman, I’ve experienced discrimination and seen race and gender segregation in the workforce—even today in my male-dominated profession. As a lesbian, I had some on-the-ground knowledge that made me question economic stereotypes about LGBT people as affluent, educated elites. Those experiences led me to study what happens to LGBT people in our economies and to learn how we can move toward equality.
CC: You write that human rights declarations and compliance processes haven’t been enough to stop discrimination and violence against LGBT people. Do you get any pushback from people who resistant to thinking about LGBT rights in the context of business and the economy? I can imagine some would be turned off by the idea that fair and equal treatment is dependent on businesses thinking about their bottom line.
MVLB: Some people prefer to make human rights arguments for LGBT rights, and those are excellent arguments for change. In my view, though, the economic case makes the human rights argument stronger. It adds up the harms of human rights violations in concrete terms and shows how our economy suffers as a result. The economic case can start conversations and open doors in places that aren’t likely to be motivated by human rights concerns, like businesses or economic development banks.
CC: Was there any research that took you by surprise as you were writing the book?
MVLB: The volume of research on LGBT people available now is much broader and deeper than I realized! The academic study of LGBT people has really blossomed over the last decade or two, especially in North America and Europe. In addition, many LGBT organizations in a wider range of countries have started collecting data about the LGBT people they work with. Those studies sometimes use different methods than academic researchers do, but they produce incredibly important insights into the lives of LGBT people in those countries.
CC: You cover not only the effects of homophobia and transphobia on our economy, but also on economies outside the US, including Canada, Australia, India, and Philippines, and the UK. Why was it important for you to bring in a global perspective?
MVLB: I think globally about this issue for several reasons. For one thing, every country has a lot of work to do to ensure full inclusion of LGBT people, including the US. Many of the people I talk with about using the economic case live in countries with little protection of LGBT human rights; they often live in low-income countries where economic development is crucial. Furthermore, we are all connected to each other globally, as we’ve learned with the COVID-19 pandemic. So positive news about one country allowing same-sex couples to marry might be seen in another country as an inspiration (to LGBT people) or a threat (to opponents of LGBT rights). Finally, LGBT issues are on the agendas of multilateral bodies, such as the UN and World Bank and multinational companies.
CC: What are some business organizations taking a stand against anti-LGBT policies, locally or globally, that have caught your attention?
MVLB: Some large multinational businesses, like IBM, are speaking out on LGBT issues in multiple countries against anti-LGBT policies. Businesses are also coming together in coalitions to push for change, as in the Open for Business initiative or Out Leadership. For example, marriage equality is an issue that has been supported by both multinational and local businesses in countries like Australia, Ireland, Taiwan, and the US.
CC: What would you like readers to take from the book, especially as we continue to learn about how the current administration tries to axe nondiscrimination protections for LGBT Americans?
MVLB: While we’ve made big strides on some LGBT issues in the US, like marriage equality, we’ve been slow to enact explicit laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination. Among other anti-LGBT actions, the current administration has been trying to weaken and dismantle nondiscrimination protections policies that protect LGBT people in schools, health care settings, public housing, employment, and other areas. This political moment is a good reminder that the economic case for LGBT equality does not mean that change is inevitable or permanent. As the book shows, the economic case can be used to argue that inclusive policies will be good for our economy, but the converse also works: regressive changes that enhance inequality will be bad for our economy. We have to keep making the case.
About M. V. Lee Badgett
M. V. Lee Badgett is a professor of economics and the former director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is also a Williams Distinguished Scholar at the Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law & Public Policy (UCLA School of Law), where she was a co-founder and the first research director. She has also taught at Yale University and the University of Maryland. Connect with Lee Badgett at leebadgett.com and follow her on Twitter at @LeeBadgett.