‘India loses more than 1% GDP through the exclusion of LGBT persons’ - Hindustan Times

Premium Interview | ‘India loses more than 1% GDP through the exclusion of LGBT persons’

Nov 27, 2023 08:49 PM IST

Economist MV Lee Badgett has studied the economic impact of not extending the social institution of marriage to same-sex couples. An interview

MV Lee Badgett, author of the seminal 2009 work, When Gay People Get Married, is a professor of economics and the co-director of the Centre for Employment Equity at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the United States. She was in Bengaluru recently for the release of the fourth edition of the Indian Workplace Equality Index, a tool created by Pride Circle, the Keshav Suri Foundation and Stonewall UK to help companies measure their efforts and progress on LGBT+ inclusion.

Lee Badgett spoke at an event organised at the Godrej DEI Lab in Mumbai (Photo credit: Harinath Govindan) PREMIUM
Lee Badgett spoke at an event organised at the Godrej DEI Lab in Mumbai (Photo credit: Harinath Govindan)

Badgett’s focus on the economic impact of extending the social institution of marriage also led her to write The Economic Case for LGBT Equality in 2020. Her scholarly work from the mid-90s has studied the consequences of social and economic exclusion, not just on the populations being discriminated against, but on the national economy as a whole.

Her 1995 work, ‘The wage effects of sexual orientation discrimination’ as well as her 2001 book Money, Myths, and Change: The Economic Lives of Lesbians and Gay Men offered significant data-oriented research on the subject at a time when not many economists were studying the impact of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) populations. Badgett is currently in Nepal for a project on economic empowerment and skill development of low-income LGBT people. She is slated to work on a project on LGBT inclusion with the Asian Development Bank which will look at the benefits of economic inclusion of LGBT people in Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan.

She spoke exclusively to HT Premium prior to an event hosted by the Godrej DEI Lab in Mumbai for corporates and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Read edited excerpts.

You estimate that India loses as much as 1% of its GDP because of homophobia and transphobia. How did you arrive at this number?

That’s a very good question. I took research that I could find about India, looking at experiences of discrimination at the workplace, in education and healthcare, and picked the things that I could put a monetary value on. That wasn’t possible with everything but I found a lot of pretty good data on health in terms of experiences of anxiety and depression, HIV, and suicidal thinking in the LGBT community in India.

I used global data on the impact of those conditions on LGBT people and on the economy. It was hard to put a monetary value on discrimination in the labour market, and the losses that occur as a result, so I had to use estimates based on studies from other countries. It may not be exactly the same in India but the situation is not likely to be better. It might, in fact, be worse. I added up the losses and used different estimates of how many LGBT people there might be in India. I got a range of figures — 1% is somewhere in the middle. What India loses could be more than 1%.

Did you also conduct interviews or have field researchers working for you in India?

The World Bank had done some surveys and focus groups in India, so I drew on that data.

Is this your first visit to India?

Yes, this is my first visit. I thought I would come a long time ago. I almost came four years ago to one of the Pride Circle events but I got sick. This year, I am the President of the International Association of Feminist Economists. Many Indian economists are part of it, so I kept hoping that somebody would organise a conference in India and I would travel for it. Prof Jayati Ghosh from India, who taught for decades at Jawaharlal Nehru University, is my colleague at UMass Amherst. We have many Indian students on campus. I am working with Hiya Rajput, a PhD student from India on analysing labour force survey data related to the ‘Other’ gender category in India that goes beyond the male-female binary. And I did a study called ‘The Economic Cost of Stigma and the Exclusion of LGBT People: A Case Study of India' with the World Bank in 2014. I feel like I have been engaging with India and Indians for a while.

To what extent can data help with advocacy?

For starters, it helps LGBT people estimate what they lose by not being able to participate in the economy on the same terms as everyone else. That results in losses, nationally and internationally. Data is also appealing for certain kinds of people — national policymakers, for instance — to understand what’s at stake. For an organisation like the World Bank, getting data that would support economic inclusion in countries is very much a part of their job.

Why do you think governments tend to be more receptive to the economic case for equality as opposed to arguments that are couched in human rights discourse?

I think that some of them do get the human rights arguments but there is a perception that human rights arguments come from the West. That can be contested because the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had contributions from various countries and cultures. I guess economics seems a lot more universal to policymakers around the world than human rights.

Many activists do not like making an economic case because it comes across as an endorsement of capitalism. Among people on the Left, capitalism is not very popular as an ethical framework. But the economic case is useful because, to some extent, it takes the emotion out of the issue. When the conversation doesn’t get heated up, people are more receptive to what’s at stake not only for LGBT people but for everyone else. Showing the economic effects of discrimination is one way to show how connected we all really are.

Recently, the Supreme Court of India refused to legalise same-sex marriage. How can corporations lead the way for inclusion in a society when courts let people down?

Corporations have a lot of control over their own policies. They can recognise the relationships of LGBT people to folks they are not allowed to marry. Visibility is very powerful. It recognises that LGBT people have relationships and families, love and heartbreak in their lives. Not everyone may have someone from the LGBT community as a close friend or family member but they could have co-workers. There is data from different cultural contexts to show that when people who are not LGBT get to know people from the community, they become more open-minded and inclusive. Apart from this, making a public statement is a way for corporations to show that they recognize the worth of LGBT people and are committed to principles of equal treatment and respect towards all employees. When judges see greater acceptance in society, they are likely to approach court cases differently.

Apart from recognising same-sex relationships, housing assistance and paid vacations for same-sex couples, what can companies do in the absence of marriage equality?

They can look at financial inclusion in terms of home loans and joint bank accounts. In addition to their employees, they need to think carefully about the customers they are serving and make their marketing inclusive. If they want to entice same-sex couples to buy products, the message they are sending out has to be open and relevant for different types of families. Some companies might like to make clear public statements supporting marriage equality. This has happened in Taiwan, Ireland, and Australia. There are companies that engage with governments on these matters because they are interested in regulation but not very openly.

Opposing views about marriage equality have created rifts within the LGBTQIA+ community in India. Many people argue that this issue is taking up resources that could be used towards addressing challenges related to housing, employment, healthcare, and education. Outside India, what strategies have worked to bridge such divides?

It’s harder than it looks. It’s possible to talk about multiple issues at the same time. It might seem like advocates of marriage equality are thinking only about one thing but that’s not true. Divides can be bridged through understanding people’s perspectives in a more nuanced way. That requires patience, time and continued engagement. For instance, among lesbian and bisexual women, who also identify as feminists, there are conversations about how marriage can be a very patriarchal institution and also what can be done to make it more gender-equal.

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