US economist Lee Badgett shows the costs of homophobia

Economist has made a career debunking myths about homosexuals, and showing that intolerance of gay people also puts a brake on growth

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 June, 2014, 11:57pm
UPDATED : Monday, 23 June, 2014, 9:36pm

Economist Professor Lee Badgett says equal treatment for gays and lesbians can benefit economies the world over. For the past two decades, she's mined data in her quest to prove it.

"My long-run goal has always been the same; it's using research to help create a more just world," said Badgett, 54, director of the Centre for Public Policy and Administration at the University of Massachusetts in the United States. "When policymakers can pick out their favourite myth about gay people to hang their policy on, it's pretty hard to argue against."

Policymakers can pick out their favourite myth about gay people

The World Bank is collaborating with Badgett to analyse homophobia as a hurdle to development in emerging markets.

She's been called as an expert witness before congressional subcommittees in the United States, and in a court case that found California's same-sex-marriage ban unconstitutional. Colleagues credit her with publishing the first research tackling gay and lesbian issues as economic rather than sociological.

"Lee was absolutely a pioneer," said Dr Gary Gates, a research fellow with the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, which focuses on sexual orientation and gender-identity law and public policy. "There was no one in economics who was really thinking about these issues."

This week, Badgett's work for the institute was widely cited by American and international news outlets after the White House said US President Barack Obama planned to issue an executive order that would bar federal contractors from discriminating against gay or transgendered employees.

The change would cover 14 million more workers in the US than state laws did, she found.

The World Bank also has a new initiative focusing on social inclusion, to help end extreme poverty. As part of this, Badgett created an economic model that she applied to India in a case study presented at the bank in March.

Preliminary findings showed that discrimination related to homophobia lead to less education, lower earnings, poorer health and shorter lives.

The lost workplace productivity and health problems connected with homophobia cost India between US$2 billion and US$31 billion in 2012. The range was wide because data on sexual minorities was scarce, she said.

Though a lack of statistics on gays remained a challenge, Badgett said academics and society had become more attentive to sexual-minority issues and saw the need for further research. The World Bank was working to gather better data in India, bank consultant Phil Crehan said.

Badgett's expertise was also recognised when she was called as a witness in the case of Perry vs Schwarzenegger, which found that California's Proposition 8 banning same-sex weddings was unconstitutional.

She broke into her field with a 1995 paper debunking the idea that gay men are richer than their heterosexual counterparts. She had been studying sexual and racial discrimination as an assistant professor at the University of Maryland when she read a newspaper article that labelled gays a marketer's dream, citing their above-average affluence.

"I thought: 'This is really interesting. I know a lot of LGBT people - I am one - and this doesn't characterise the people that I know,'" she said. "I needed better data, so that was really the quest. Marketing data wasn't going to cut it for economists."

Badgett used the National Opinion Research Centre's General Social Survey to show that gay and bisexual male workers made between 11 and 27 per cent less than heterosexual men in the same region with similar experience and education.

"Lee's seminal research on the economics of sexual orientation was critical," said Professor Marieka Klawitter, a University of Washington economist in Seattle who has published studies on gays. "The myths that gays were all rich, carefree, without families, led to the perception that they didn't face discrimination."

Badgett's interest in social equity started in the 1960s in the state of North Carolina where "even as a kid, I could notice the vestiges" of racism, she said. Her Girl Scout troop was desegregating, yet "the world of black and white people intersected in very few places".

She was expected to behave differently from boys and experienced "a kind of discrimination" because she enjoyed sports and "didn't like to wear dresses to school, but had to".

Her family moved when she was 11 to Chicago, where she fitted in more easily. She was interested in politics, and in high school began working on campaigns. She quickly realised "there was another angle that covered everything, and that was money. Power went with money."

She followed that observation to the University of Chicago, where she studied economics before graduating in 1982 into a recession. Jobs were hard to get, and she took a clerical position at a warehouse. She learned that male employees working in the stock room earned more.

"Just that assumption - that women will be in the office, men will be in the warehouses and pay will reflect that difference - was really interesting to me," she said. Studying wage inequality "kind of became a quest".

Badgett headed to the University of California at Berkeley in 1984 to explore labour economics, focusing on discrimination. She completed a PhD in 1990.

After graduating, she moved to Maryland to be an assistant professor. She had been there about a year when she saw the newspaper piece that spurred her to study economics related to sexual minorities, she said.

"She took an enormous risk by doing this work," Klawitter said, because homosexuality was stigmatised in academia, so her research could have damaged her career.

Badgett said it was difficult initially to spread her findings. One journal rejected the study without sending it for peer review. When a different journal published the research, some gays challenged it.

One camp didn't believe the results. Others thought it was "really important" to have numbers showing gay people had a lot of spending power, she said. Even among economists, she encountered a few who made hints that homosexual people might deserve lower pay because they were morally wrong.

"She was a little bit early, but she eventually caught the wave of increasing sympathy for gay rights," said Professor William Dickens, one of Badgett's advisers at Berkeley and now a labour economist at Northeastern University in Boston.

From the outset, Badgett wanted her studies to shape policy. She and her colleagues founded a research group on gay issues in 1994, as she was working on her first related study.

"We started creating publication outlets, we networked with media and policymakers to get the work out," she said.

In 2006, the organisation merged with the Williams Institute. Her work there has shown that gay couples without the option to marry miss out on tax and insurance benefits, and states that don't allow same-sex marriage lose incremental revenue. The state of Virginia could realise as much as US$60 million in the first three years from spending on weddings and tourism, April research showed. While the impact is relatively small - Virginia's gross domestic product totalled US$426 billion last year - it does contribute to the economy.

Badgett has "argued persuasively that legalising gay marriage offers important economic and social - as well as personal and symbolic - benefits to non-traditional couples", wrote Nancy Folbre, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a mentor of Badgett's.

Same-sex marriage also has personal relevance for Badgett, who wed Elizabeth Silver, a lawyer, in 2005.

Badgett says her goal is to continue "providing facts and analysis that policymakers need and that the public needs".

Heidi Hartmann, president of the Washington-based Institute for Women's Policy Research and a former co-author, said she sees this in Badgett's work. "She's a person who is really dedicated to the data, on how to make sure you tell the truth with data."