Serving Without Shame: Food Insecurity in the LGBTQ+ Community

June 08, 2021  |  by Cody Gohl   |  

This Pride month, we here at Food Bank For New York City are turning a critical eye to the pervasive issues of poverty and food insecurity in the LGBTQ+ community. Though Pride is certainly a time for celebration, it’s also a time for acknowledging the work still needed to be done to achieve true equity for the LGBTQ+ community.  

Part of that work necessitates addressing the immense hunger needs of LGBTQ+ individuals. According to a 2020 report from the Williams Institute27% of LGBTQ+ folks across the United States are currently facing food insecurity. Even before the pandemic, one in five LGBTQ+ individuals were already living in poverty, a rate 76% higher than the national average. It’s no wonder then that LGBTQ+ people also participate in social safety net programs like SNAP (formerly food stamps) at much higher rates than their straight counterparts.  

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Though many states (including New York) have implemented widespread non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ folks, the reality is that many non-straight people still experience rampant discrimination in the realms of housing, employment, education, and healthcare. Therefore, when we talk about food insecurity in the LGBTQ+ community, we must recognize how it intersects with other challenges that make it difficult for non-straight people to secure the resources they need to survive. We must also acknowledge that hunger and poverty disproportionately impact those most marginalized within the LGBTQ+ community itself, namely trans people, non-binary individuals, seniors, people of color, and those living with HIV 

Even in communities with strong non-discrimination protections, these vulnerable groups still face higher rates of poverty than the general public, due in large part to certain stigmas they may face in society. SAGE (an NYC-based organization dedicated to serving the needs of older LGBTQ+ adults and a Food Bank member agency) recently released a study that illuminated these disparities, finding that one-third of LGBTQ+ seniors in New York City are living at or below 200% of the federal poverty line. The report also found that 52% of respondents were being forced to deny or hide their identities from their healthcare providers and that 67% of LGBTQ+ seniors in New York City feared neglect from long-term care specialists.  

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To support our LGBTQ+ elders, we partner with SAGE to provide food for its meal program. In addition to our work with SAGE, we’re proud to partner with a wide range of other community-based organizations that tailor their programming to serve the unique needs of LGBTQ+ New Yorkers. One of these groups is GMHC, an organization founded in the early 1980s to uplift New Yorkers living with HIV. In addition to offering mental health services, housing assistance, and immigration support to its clients, GMHC has also long provided a safe space for folks living with HIV to gather and share food.  

As GMHC’s Director of Nutrition & Meals Josie Thiele explained to me, the GMHC Meals Program was a vital lifeline for New Yorkers living with HIV in the 1980s and 90s. At that time, folks who showed visible signs of the virus were often barred from eating in public spaces, so GMHC became one of the few spots where they could safely come together. The program provided nutritious free food, yes, but it also provided a place in which those living with HIV could simply exist without shame, stigma, or judgment.  

And though the Meals Program has evolved over time, Thiele says this shame-free approach to service is what has allowed the organization to better support and understand its diverse array of clients, many of whom identify along the LGBTQ+ spectrum.  

When folks can feel comfortable expressing who they are, it makes it easier for them to access the services they need,” Thiele said. “Our clients know that when they walk through our doors, there’s no judgment. We work to make it a safe space for everyone. As staff, we always introduce ourselves with our pronouns so folks know they can express that as well. In general, we want to make people feel comfortable in a way that in many other places they might feel afraid or stigmatized.”  

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By breaking through these stigmas, GMHC is able to establish trust with its clients, which allows it to engage folks with a wide range of services to meet their unique and varied needs. As Thiele told me, GMHC endeavors to serve its clients holistically by recognizing that food insecurity is hardly ever just about food 

“For most of our clients, there’s a variety of things that are going to lead to food insecurity,” Thiele said. “So, we have food services, including our congregant meals, food pantry, and nutrition counseling with registered dieticians, but we also offer course development programs for clients looking to write a resume or learn new computer skills.  We also have legal services to help folks navigate immigration and housing laws as well as mental health and substance abuse services.”  

“By focusing on all of these different things, we can help our clients achieve their goals and feel fully supported,” she continued. “Giving people food is great, but helping them to find stable housing or a stable job helps to minimize the food insecurity in general.” 

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At the end of the day, the LGBTQ+ community is no monolith, and fighting back against hunger and poverty within it requires a nuanced, specific, and dynamic approach. It requires acknowledging that many people’s queer identities intersect with other identities that may further complicate their lived experiences, which means that a cisgender white gay man, for example, will likely have very different needs than those of an immigrant trans woman of color. Responding to these needs requires listening. It requires persistence. And it requires serving others without shaming them for being who they are.  

As Tyrone Hanley of the National Center for Lesbian Rights said in an interview with the Food Research & Action Center last year: “When people are already dealing with the vulnerability of being poor, and then on top of that adding worries about being discriminated against based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, that can prevent people from receiving the services they desperately need.”  

To learn more about how Food Bank serves the LGBTQ+ community all year long, click this link 

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