Queer Labor Now

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Queer laborers face discrimination around the world. Countering it will require  nondiscrimination policies not only in employment but also in healthcare and education.


As we remember collective labor movements from the past and reflect on the gains earned by workers as well as the distance left to travel, I aim to assess the current state of queer labor. Discrimination is persistent around the world, with trans workers and queer people in less accepting countries suffering significantly. Our ability to assess these issues and any improvement is also poor, with very limited data. I will briefly review economic theory to frame the situation, provide evidence of queer discrimination in the labor markets of high-income countries, try to provide compelling evidence from middle- and low-income countries, and conclude with the assertion that to improve labor market outcomes for queer workers we must attend to issues that begin in schools and homes.


The Fairy Tale

People expect a laborer’s earnings to reflect the value of her labor. When economists expect it, we call it the marginal revenue productivity theory of wages: you will be paid the same amount that you benefit your firm, which operates in a perfectly competitive market. Setting “perfectly competitive” to the side for now, this theory has several practical implications that are borne out in the data. On the one hand, we have compelling evidence that investing in your own health, education, and experience (so-called “human capital”) is associated with higher incomes. On the other hand, the theory fails to predict other consistent empirical evidence such as wage gaps between male and female laborers when they work the same non-physical jobs and have the same human capital.

One reason for this failure takes us back to those perfectly competitive markets—they aren’t. That means a few mistakes and a little discriminatory hiring do not threaten firms’ survival. Another reason is that hiring managers across competing firms may have similar discriminatory preferences. This means that passing over a potentially productive worker is unlikely to lead to another firm making the more competitive and profitable choice of hiring them.

With just a peak behind the front cover of this fairy tale, we can see that it does not apply for queer workers.

We might look for inspiration to the progress on reducing the women’s pay gap that has included early interventions such as empowering young girls and increasing women’s bodily autonomy… Progress on gender equality has taken several decades, required immense collaboration around the world, and is still unfinished.


No Data, No Problem?

The plight of queer workers is not well-understood around the world. Even the collective of queer people is not clearly defined across the world. Many studies refer to Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual individuals (LGB) and some include Transgender (T), Intersex (I), and Queer (Q) people. In addition to these designations, we should acknowledge that a queer person’s experience may also be related to other identities she holds. To learn more about intersectional analysis of LGBTQIA+ identities and collectives, see Roderick Ferguson’s  One Dimensional Queer, Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, and Patricia Hill Collins’s Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory.

While some countries have collected data about sexual orientation and gender identity,  many have not. Researchers have looked for proxies, like household cohabitation, which can misidentify individuals and make it difficult to draw conclusions about single people. For example,  inferring sexuality may overstate wage gap estimates for lesbians. Online surveys, taken in private and with no connection to employers or governments, may elicit more candid responses but may not be representative of larger populations.

My review of the data highlights an overrepresentation of high-income countries and those that are more accepting of queer identities. Even in these areas, we will observe significant labor market penalties among LGBTQI workers.


Rich Countries, Poor Data: LGB Workers

A 2014 meta-analysis of 31 studies from the US, Canada, Australia, the UK, the Netherlands, France, Greece, and Sweden found that lesbians earned 9% more, while gay men earned 11% less, than their heterosexual counterparts. A 2020 Canadian study found bisexual men earned 17% less than heterosexual men, bisexual women earned 11% less than heterosexual women, and those gaps are larger for single men and partnered women. These results are consistent with other studies that compare LGB workers to non-LGB workers with similar characteristics like age, race, education, and citizenship. Then what causes the gaps?

The two main explanations studied are labor supply choices and labor market discrimination. Mirroring the lesbian advantage and gay penalty, US lesbian women work more, and gay men less   than their heterosexual counterparts, both in hours worked and the probability of working at all. Accounting for these and   similar labor supply choices narrows estimated earnings gaps but does not eliminate them. Apparently, discrimination remains.

One avenue of discrimination is through gender stereotypes. For example, so-called masculine traits like ambition and assertiveness tend to  disadvantage heterosexual but not lesbian women . But the effect of gender stereotypes is not only fixed to the applicant’s gender and sexual identities, it is also dependent on the job context. When applying for work with so-called feminine characteristics,  a UK study found that lesbian women faced more discrimination.

That discrimination has also changed over time. Consider the following results from a US study finding that the earnings gaps for gay and lesbian workers have shrunk but progress for gay men is stalled.

Wage Advantage Shrinking for Lesbian Workers
Wage Penalty Plateauing for Gay Workers

Both panels show years along the horizontal axis and percentage differences along the vertical axis.

Figure 5a on the left shows that lesbian women earn more than heterosexual women, as measured by wages, earnings, income, and hourly wages. In 2001, lesbian women earned an average wage premium of just over 15%. The premium shrank to about 10% by 2009 and has not changed much since.
Figure 5b shows that gay men earn less than heterosexual men using the same measures. In 2001, gay men experienced an average 12% wage penalty. That penalty grew to 17% in 2004, shrank to just over 8% in 2014, and then hovered around 11% in 2018. Jepsen, C., & Jepsen, L. K. (2020). Convergence over time or not? US wages by sexual orientation, 2001-2018.

Jepsen, C., & Jepsen, L. K. (2020). Convergence over time or not? US wages by sexual orientation, 2001-2018.


Badgett, Carpenter, and Sansome found similar evidence after controlling for age, race, ethnicity, education, citizenship, disability, and location.

What explains this limited progress? It may be related to social acceptance and legal protections. A 2020 study found that gay men’s earnings were lower in US  states with more prejudice and concluded this impact was driven by prejudice among managers rather than among customers or coworkers. The same researcher assessed the impact of employment nondiscrimination laws in a 2018 study and found that they made an impact. States with employment nondiscrimination protections for LGB employees had smaller gaps (including lower lesbian advantages).


What about Trans Workers?

The outlook for trans men and trans women is considerably worse than for men and women who are cis (“cis” describes a person whose gender identity aligns with the sex assigned at their birth). While “trans” refers to people with a variety of gender identities that do not match the sex assigned at birth, many results are specific to trans women and trans men.  The 2015 US Transgender Study surveyed almost 28,000 trans individuals and found troubling patterns. While the national rate of poverty was 12%, the rate among trans individuals was more than double, at 29%. This matches the unemployment story, in which trans individuals were 3 times more likely to be unemployed. These patterns were even stronger for trans people who are also racial or ethnic minorities. And disabled trans workers had even worse outcomes: 24% were unemployed and 45% were living in poverty.

Unemployment Rates Higher for Trans Workers of Color
Figure 9.1 shows the unemployment rate among various groups of US trans workers. Shaded blue bars represent households who answered the US Trans Survey (USTS). Unshaded bars represent the US average. The national average unemployment rate was 5% and the national average among white individuals was 4%. The rates were higher for trans individuals overall and worst for American Indian and Middle Eastern trans adults.

The unemployment story mirrors the income story and is magnified within households.

Trans Income Penalty Stronger Among Coupled Households
Figure 9.4 shows the proportion of US households that fall into each of the income brackets listed on the horizontal axis. Shaded blue bars represent households who answered the US Trans Survey (USTS). Unshaded bars represent the US average. Respondents to the US Trans Survey are more likely to fall into low-income brackets and are less likely to fall into high ones in comparison to national patterns. A graph of individual incomes shows the same pattern with smaller gaps between USTS respondents and US averages. The  US median household income in 2014 was $53,657.

Graph Source: 2015 US Transgender Study

US household income among trans men is 17% lower than households of cis-gendered men. A 2020 study investigating the cause of trans wage gaps found that while age, race, ethnicity, education, marital status, having children, and geography explain some of the gap, 64% of the employment gap and 43% of the wage gap could not be explained with these characteristics.

A 2003-2012 Dutch study of 300 transgender adults before and after they transitioned found that trans men faced a wage penalty associated with transitioning, but it was offset by their newfound gender advantage, resulting in earnings 8% higher than before transitioning. Trans women, on the other hand, faced both a gender penalty and a transition penalty, resulting in earnings 20% lower than before they transitioned and a 20% gap from cis men’s earnings. These results, graphed below, are especially useful to consider because they are measured within a person from before they transitioned to afterward. That means that many characteristics, like race and ability, were unlikely to have changed or caused these results.

Trans Workers’ Earnings Between Cis Men’s and Cis Women’s Earnings
The two bars on the far left show the gender pay gap, with cis women earning 59% as much as cis men. The middle two bars show the situation for trans men. Pre-transition men’s earnings are similar to cis women’s and rise to be similar to cis men’s earnings after medically transitioning. The last two bars show that while pre-transition women have annual earnings similar to cis men’s, they earn only 82% as much as cis men after transitioning.

Source: 2003-2012 Dutch study, graph generated by author.

There is still significant self-reported evidence of discrimination. The  2015 US Transgender Study asked trans adults to self-assess reasons for leaving jobs and found that Gender Identity or Expression was most common. Fifteen percent of respondents reported quitting a job in the last year to avoid discrimination.

Reasons for Labor Market Pains among US Trans Workers
Table 10.3 displays self-assessed reasons for Not Being Hired, Being Denied a Promotion, and Being Fired among  2015 US Transgender Study respondents.

The Global Search for Data

When we can find data about LGBTQI people from other parts of the world, it generally confirms similar trends to those found in rich countries. The table below shows that trans job applicants in Southeast Asia are much more likely to receive a negative response. The discrepancy is especially stark in Vietnam and Malaysia while the gender difference is most dramatic in Thailand.

LGBTI Discrimination in Southeast Asia


The graphs above show the percentage of applicants who received a negative response across all job sectors and each graph refers to a country. All graphs show a much larger portion of trans applicants (red boxes) received a negative response than cis applicants (shorter grey boxes).
Source: UNDP Denied Work report, 2018

While accessing good data is a challenge in high-income countries, it is more difficult elsewhere. Consider the graph below that reports the LGBT+ population proportions and notice how many countries have no measure.

2021 LGBT+ Population Estimates
These estimates are drawn from an online survey of nearly 20,000 individuals. Most of the previous discussion was informed by data from the US, Canada, Australia, the UK, the Netherlands, France, Greece, and Sweden. Most of those countries report about 9% LGBTQ+ people.

Source: Ipsos: LGBT+ Pride 2021 Global Survey, graph generated by author

While we know those countries without data do have queer populations, social and cultural denial of queer people leads to data blindness. Data blindness creates an obstacle to studying the discrimination queer people face in these areas.

In the face of this obstacle, we may be able to turn to other data that help us guess at the situation. For example, we can identify laws that restrict the rights of or criminalize the behaviors of LGBTQI people.

Criminalization of Consensual Same-Sex Sexual Acts, 2023
Compared to the graph above, this graph shows that countries with no data about LGBT+ Population %, like many in Africa and Southeast Asia, are more likely to punish same-sex sexual acts with up to 8 years in prison (most of the light orange shading) or with the death penalty at the most severe (in the darkest red shading).

Source: The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association  (IGLA World) Maps (follow this link for a larger graph).

Assessing obstacles to updating the sex marker on official documents may also reflect labor market discrimination against trans workers.

Gender Recognition for Amending Official Identity Documents, 2023
We see variation in legal gender recognition, which impacts trans people. African countries, for example, either have unclear policies or do not allow trans people to change their sex marker on official identity documents.

Source: IGLA World Maps

Even when officials try to collect the data, respondents are not always comfortable identifying themselves. For example, the LGBT population in Colombia may be 5 to 12 times larger than surveys suggest. It should not be surprising that some people choose to conceal their gender and sexuality identities when and where it may be unsafe to be out.

LGBT workers around the world vary in how open they are at work, which may be related to discrimination. Australia, where some of the earlier high-income earnings gaps are drawn from, has the most open workplaces of this set of countries, with 51% of LGBT workers Fully Out and only 12% Not Out.

LGBT Workers are Out Around the World
From 8% of Indian workers to 51% of Australian workers being Fully Out at work, all of these countries have higher rates than the Chinese rate of 5.4%.

Chinese LGBTI workers choose not to be open very often. Even at home, where it is most common, less than 15% of individuals are Fully Open. That may be related to rates of discrimination, which are over 50% from Family.

LGBTI Chinese People Face Discrimination and Are Not Out

Figure 17 on top shows that Chinese LGBTI people are much less likely to be Fully Open (blue) or Selectively Open (red) about their gender identity and sexual orientation than to be Not Open (green) at home, in schools, workplaces, and religious communities.
Figure 18 on the bottom shows that the same people experience the most discrimination at home, where they are most likely to be Fully or Partially Open. The lower levels of discrimination in other environments may be caused by peoples’ choices to be Selectively or Not Open.

Source: UNDP Being LGBTI in China, 2016

Toward Equity

The economic outlook for LGBTQI individuals around the world – even in high-income countries – is generally poor. The data that helps us understand these issues is also poor. What should we do to reach equity?

According to economic models, to improve labor market outcomes we need to invest in health and education. According to the last graph we considered from China, discrimination in homes and schools can be even more significant than what is experienced in the workplace. The path toward queer labor equity begins in homes and schools.

Legal advocacy, of course, is important. Not only did employment nondiscrimination laws in the US reduce the gay wage penalty, but the details of those laws mattered. However, laws about employment come too late to extinguish these disparities. Queer people need queer-affirming healthcare and education before they ever enter the labor market.

Results from the 2015 US Transgender Study  underscore this point: 17% experienced so much mistreatment in primary education that they left a school; 8% who were out to their family were kicked out of their homes; 10% were sexually assaulted in the last year and 47% reported being sexual assaulted at some point; 40% had attempted suicide in comparison to the 4.6% US average; and 23% avoided healthcare due to concerns about mistreatment based on their gender identity. A remarkable 21% of trans individuals reported being   homeless in the most recent year in comparison to the  0.11% US average. Employment laws come too late if our LGBTQI students are not healthy and able to invest in their skills and training.

We might look for inspiration to the progress on reducing the women’s pay gap that has included early interventions such as empowering young girls and increasing women’s bodily autonomy. The pay gap between men and women has narrowed over time while our understanding of it has improved. Globally, gender equality is a clearly articulated goal of the UN’s  Sustainable Development Goals and was included in the earlier 2000 Millennium Development Goals. International goals were outlined in  1975 at the UN’s World Conference of Women, including “Integration of women in the process of political, economic, social and cultural development as equal partners with men.” Progress on gender equality has taken several decades, required immense collaboration around the world, and is still unfinished.

The graph below shows a shrinking pay gap with less and less of that gap unexplained and possibly due to discrimination.

Shrinking Gender Pay Gap in the US and Growing Understanding
This graph shows the gender pay gap between men and women in the US over time and identifies the reasons for that gap. The length of the bars (measured in log differences) shows how large the gap was. In 1970, men earned 193% as much as women (women earned 51.8% as much as men) and by 2000 they earned 149% as much as women (women earned 67.2% as much as men). The solid black shading shows that in 1970, most of the gap was Unexplained, but by 2010, that portion had shrunk significantly. Explanations include Human Capital, such as differences in education, and labor market choices like Hours worked and Occupation. Just over half the 67.2% pay gap in 2000 was Unexplained. That means that after controlling for these other explanations, women earned about 81% as much as men.

Source: Mandel & Semyonov, 2014

These global goals have brought global progress, albeit uneven. Consider one SDG goal about political representation.

Share of Women in Parliament
This graph shows the progress made on one SDG goal about the share of women in parliament around the world. Progress has been slow and uneven, with the World average reaching 25.93% women in parliament in 2022.

Source: V-dem 2023 via Our World in Data. Follow the link to view specific data values.

To make progress toward equity for queer workers, we must collect the data and set international goals that are lofty from today’s perspective but simple in terms of equity. We need to advocate for nondiscrimination policies in employment, but also in healthcare and education. We need to acknowledge and seek to understand more deeply the role of intersectional identities in constructing our experiences in society. We need to provide additional support for LGBTQI children, especially in contexts that make family discrimination or disownment more likely. If we do, we will make progress that benefits everyone, as economist M. V. Lee Badgett argues  in The Economic Case for LGBT Equality.

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