An image of prosperity served the gay community well in its fight for civil rights by helping to persuade political and corporate America to treat its issues seriously.
But with marriage equality now within reach, along with reliable medical treatments for HIV/AIDS, some leaders of the community think it’s time to face a quite different reality.
Contrary to the perception of affluence, LGBT Americans are actually more likely to experience poverty than heterosexuals, an emerging body of data shows.
From foster care to homelessness to food stamps, LGBT individuals are over-represented in relation to their proportion of the general population, research indicates.
For that reason, a Chicago organization is now trying to take the lead in making poverty the next national frontier for LGBT activism — and the object of its charitable giving.
The emphasis on gay affluence worked, said Rev. Stan Sloan, CEO of Chicago House, founded in 1985 as the Midwest’s first provider of supportive housing for AIDS patients.
“But it worked too well,” Sloan continued. “Because somewhere along the way not only did we convince mainstream America of our wealth, we actually drank our own Kool-Aid and thought it was true, when we are actually far more likely to live in poverty, and with almost a third of us living in food insecurity.”
Rev. Stan Sloan is CEO of Chicago House, the Midwest’s first provider of supportive housing for AIDS patients. | Provided
Sloan was making this pitch to potential funders on behalf of a coalition calling itself the LGBTQ Poverty Collaborative. The coalition also includes the Center for American Progress, Williams Institute at UCLA and Center for Gender and Sexuality at Columbia University.
Gathered in front of Sloan around a law office conference table overlooking Lake Michigan were representatives from many of the city’s major donors: MacArthur Foundation, McCormick Foundation, Polk Bros. Foundation, Crown Family Philanthropies, Prince Charitable Trusts, Alphawood Foundation and Chicago Community Trust, among others.
Attending something like this was a first for me, and I was curious in part just to watch it unfold.
Alphawood executive director James McDonough started the meeting by announcing his organization, founded by Newsweb Corp. chairman Fred Eychaner, was committing $100,000 over the next two years to get the project off the ground. Eychaner put up much of the money behind last year’s successful campaign to legalize same-sex marriage in Illinois.
Chicago lawyer Jay Paul Deratany followed up McDonough’s announcement with his own commitment of $50,000.
These pledges brought applause from the others, who seemed to be there mostly to assess and report back.
Sloan and his partners explained the group’s goal is to make visible this “invisible community” of gay, lesbian and transgender individuals and couples living in poverty.
Many are racial minorities, experiencing what I would call the double whammy of prejudice for both their race and sexual orientation or gender identity.
The coalition intends to launch an annual fundraising drive and awareness campaign to coincide with the city’s Pride Parade — with the proceeds going toward research, policy advocacy and direct assistance to agencies working with the LGBT poor.
Sloan said he envisions a “Gay UF” along the lines of the Jewish United Fund, helping gay individuals and families in need in much the same way JUF serves the Jewish community.
Sloan acknowledges this will require educating some members of the community — such as those congregated in the Halsted Street bars — about what they have in common with the young black kids on the streets outside. Many of the latter were kicked out of their homes because of their sexual orientation, starting them on a cycle of poverty.
Sloan admitted the goal is “crazy ambitious.”
Maybe a little too ambitious.
In a Friday follow-up with attendees, Sloan said that based on feedback from the meeting he is now looking to start with Chicago as a pilot project, putting the national aspirations on hold for now.
By partnering on public policy with others already involved in fighting poverty, the coalition believes its impact will reach beyond the gay community.
“We have at our fingertips a very powerful tool, and that’s the power of the gay community,” McDonough said.
Added Deratany: “There are a lot of folks that are looking for the next big important issue.”
Here it is.