Spotlight Scholar M.V. Lee Badgett fights for LGBT rights and measures the cost of discrimination

University of Massachusetts School of Public Policy (SPP) Professor 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.

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