Spotlight Scholar

Fighting for LGBT Rights

Groundbreaking economist measures the cost of discrimination
  • UMass Amherst Professor M.V. Lee Badgett, hands clasped, sits in Crotty Hall conference room

“Our culture still has a hard time dealing with people who don't conform to gender expectations.”

–Lee Badgett

When economist M.V. Lee Badgett published her 1995 study on the wage gap faced by gay men and lesbians, there was nothing like it in the field. In fact, conventional wisdom held just the opposite.

"My first summer after grad school, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about how wealthy the gay market was,” says Badgett, professor in the UMass Amherst Department of Economics and former director of the university’s School of Public Policy. “That didn’t mesh with the experience I’d seen.” Badgett’s research led her to data that confirmed her hypothesis: on average, gay and bisexual men earned between 11 and 27 percent less than their heterosexual counterparts. In other words, discrimination, not privilege, was the norm.

Badgett’s research was the first to look at LGBT realities through an economic lens. As an economist, she understood that money and power were intertwined. “I thought this was a really useful perspective to study issues of social justice,” she says. “It provided the tools to see what problems exist and the tools to make those problems better.”  

Her findings drew a lot of attention—not all of it positive. “There definitely was some resistance,” she recalls. “Some journals wouldn’t even review my articles, some of my advisors were worried about my career. Many people had never seen or known LGBT people, and didn’t see why it was interesting.”

Thankfully, Badgett received enough support to move forward with her work, becoming an instrumental figure in the LGBT rights debate as it exploded in the 1990s. Following her efforts to debunk stereotypes—the focus of her first book, Money, Myths, and Change: The Economic Lives of Lesbians and Gay Men (2001)—she turned her focus to the hot-button issue of gay marriage in her 2009 text, When Gay People Get Married: What Happens When Societies Legalize Same-Sex Marriage, which argued that marriage brings enormous benefits to same-sex couples without harming the institution of marriage.

But Badgett has never been content to leave her research on the page. “For my work to make a difference, I had to do more than write journal articles,” she claims. That led her to work with state and national policymakers to connect her findings with issues playing out in the real world. Badgett expanded her network, built think tanks such as the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies (which merged with the Williams Institute), and testified in support of life-changing legislation and litigation—most notably as an expert witness in California’s Proposition 8 trial in 2010, where her testimony was cited by the judge as a factor in his ruling supporting same-sex marriage. The decision set off a cascade that quickly spread to the rest of the country.

Such rapid change in attitudes has made the need for hard data even more critical, says Badgett. “I get a lot more work,” she laughs. “Businesses are clamoring for more information. They’re looking at how they can improve their bottom line by treating LGBT employees equally. Many see it as the right thing to do, of course, but it’s also nice for them to be able to share that data with their shareholders.”

Badgett and two sociology colleagues from UMass and the University of Houston recently got a U.S. Department of Labor grant to study employment discrimination charges brought by LGBT employees. These charges will provide insights into discrimination related to sexual orientation and gender identity. “At what sort of employers and companies can you predict a charge occurring?” she asks. “Our culture still has a hard time dealing with people who don't conform to gender expectations, such as men with earrings. Attitudes like these can put everyone at risk.”

That includes populations around the world. Along with participation in the creation of a UN-sponsored LGBT inclusion index, Badgett is “looking at the global economic cost of homophobia,” she says—information she’s been asked to present to the World Bank, USAID, and other global actors. “This data is helping us see the big picture and understand how all the pieces work together. Do countries with better protection for LGBT people do better economically? What do we lose out on when LGBT people aren’t treated fairly in the workplace? What would the world look like if gender weren’t constraining people?”

Now Badgett is using her expertise to help other scholars put research into action. Her latest book, The Public Professor: How to Use Your Research to Change the World, offers “concrete tools to help people think strategically about getting their work out in the world,” she says. Those tools range from using social media to limiting jargon to understanding the inner workings of policymaking—all skills that reflect her experience engaging the public to further the common good.

Nowhere is that reflected more strikingly than in Badgett’s work with colleagues to create the new UMass Center for Employment Equity, which links scholars, policymakers, and citizens to generate action that targets discrimination, shapes policy, and improves enforcement. “To know my research matters has made all the hard work worthwhile,” she says. “To train people who are not afraid to think differently, to create space within the economics profession for young scholars to enter this growing field, to help persuade people that policies of fairness and equality are really important--I can’t imagine a better place to be doing this work than at UMass.”

Ellen Keelan