The Quiet Crisis Among Queer Women

At a time when same-sex marriage and gay equality are on the march, a new poll of LGBT Americans shows women lagging in several disheartening respects.
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It’s easy to assume that queer Americans are thriving today. A year out from the Supreme Court decision striking down DOMA, 55 percent of Americans favor legalizing same-sex marriage legalization—an all-time high. State bans continue to knock around the lower courts, Wisconsin’s and Indiana’s being the ones most recently scrutinized in federal appeals courts. Queer people, research shows, are happier in their marriages than heterosexuals; in the June 2013 Atlantic cover story, Liza Mundy explored the possibility that queer unions lend themselves more readily to relationship-sustaining egalitarianism by avoiding the potential marital pitfalls of sticking too strictly with traditional gender roles.

Yet a new Gallup poll investigating LGBT well-being shows that queers aren’t doing so well—especially women. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans report significantly lower well-being than non-LGBT Americans, averaging a well-being index score of 58 against straight citizens’ 62. Queer women widen the well-being divide more so than our gay male compatriots; with an index score of 57, lesbians and bi women notably lag behind straight women, who average a score of 63.

What’s getting us down?

It’s not that there’s no good news. In terms of sexual and romantic partnerships themselves, queer women seem to be doing just fine. In addition to fostering some successful marriages and being great parents, queer women have sex less frequently but for much longer durations than straight couples do. And a recent study from the Journal of Sexual Medicine reports that lesbians have more orgasms than literally everybody else, be they man or woman, straight or queer. (Take that, lesbian bed death!)

The biggest struggles for queer well-being appear, for the most part, to begin where our lived experiences play out in the wider world around us. That’s to say—most everything else we’ve got going on besides each other.

Financial woes loom particularly large. Queers are 10 percentage points less likely to consider themselves thriving financially than non-LGBT folks, queer women sporting a slightly higher average and queer men, slightly less. Same-sex couples’ vulnerability to poverty remains one of the most ubiquitous menaces to queer well-being, especially for queer women of color, trans women, and trans women of color. Impoverishment—fueled by factors from employment discrimination to inequitable health-care coverage to familial rejection resulting in homelessness—threatens to permanently entrench the community’s most marginalized members. One of many alarming statistics: Single LGBT adults raising children are three times more likely to live at or near the poverty line than their heterosexual counterparts.

While queer women and men alike take hard hits for financial well-being, across many other categories of the Gallup poll, queer women lag behind straight women where queer men do not lag behind straight men as much—or even at all.

Differences in physical well-being between straight and queer men, for example, are too small to be statistically significant; the overall deficit in physical well-being for the LGBTQ community at large is driven entirely by the low scores of queer women (24 percent to straight women’s 36 percent). Gallup indicates that reportedly high levels of smoking and drinking among lesbians and bi women could be a potential contributor to the discrepancy. I’ve seen from accompanying girlfriends on many a smoke break outside of bars how cigarettes and alcohol remain an obstinate fixture of queer girl culture.

Further, where queer men assess their communities with close to as much contentedness as straight men, queer women feel less connected to where they live than their straight female counterparts. Just 31 percent of queer women feel they are thriving in terms of community involvement, safety, and security, a full 9 percent less than straight women.

A recent national survey from Stop Street Harassment helps explain why queer women feel unsafe. The major finding—that two-thirds of American women have experienced street harassment at some point in their lives—is bolstered by two smaller key findings: Seven in 10 LGBT people have experienced street harassment by age 17, compared to 49 percent of straight people, and 41 percent of people of color say they experience street harassment regularly, compared to just a quarter of white people. Queer and trans people of color are the subsection at highest risk. Queer men report 9 percent more street harassment than heterosexual men, largely due to homophobic and transphobic slurs.

American women across the sexuality spectrum, however, are united in the frequency of their harassment in public spaces—86 percent have experienced an incident more than once—but they are not necessarily harassed equally in method, even as they are in measure. Walking around my city in short shorts in the August heat this summer, I identify with my straight female friends, since the unsolicited comments I receive are about my body, and what strange men on the street would like to do with it; straight women, especially femme-presenting ones, receive a slew of the same. But if I’m walking arm-in-arm with my girlfriend, I am conscious of being sexualized and even vilified by leering onlookers in a way my straight friends simply aren’t. “I have a boyfriend” is not a stratagem queer women can employ to dissuade aggressive strangers—quite the opposite; two women holding hands is often interpreted as an invitation.

The most depressing category of well-being is also perhaps too abstract to address directly: the substantial gap between queer and straight women who report a strong sense of purpose in life. When it comes to having an inspiring leader, daily activities, goals, and strengths, queer men and straight men are on the same page of satisfaction: 33 percent across both groups feel a thriving sense of purpose. Queer women, however, fare eight percentage points lower, at 32 percent, than straight women, at 40 percent. There’s no obvious supporting statistic to explain this; one hopes we will soon experience social shifts that will legitimize and celebrate queer womanhood—in politics, in media, in streets, and schools, and homes—so that more queer women can start feeling like they lead lives of value and beauty.

The Gallup poll shows that even in today’s cultural climate—which so often pumps out the narrative of same-sex marriage as the pot of gold at the end of the quest-for-queer-rights rainbow—queer Americans continue to battle a diverse array of demons. Sometimes, where queer men have found their footing, queer women remain set back. As bell hooks wrote, “There was never and is no simple homogenous gendered identity that we could call ‘women’.” By extension, there was never and still is no simple homogenous queered identity that we could call LGBTQ America.

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Shannon Keating is a business fellow at Quartz. 

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