Emily Allen Published

Report Examines Discrimination For Gay, Transgender West Virginians

The Williams Institute places West Virginia at the bottom of an index, ranking states on their public opinions of laws protecting lesbian, gay and bisexual residents.
The Williams Institute places West Virginia at the bottom of an index, ranking states on their public opinions of laws protecting lesbian, gay and bisexual residents.
Williams Institute

Researchers in California, working with a researcher at WVU, published a report Tuesday on discrimination against gay and transgender West Virginians.

The report focused on discrimination faced by roughly 57,800 gay and transgender adults in West Virginia. It was prepared by the Williams Institute, a UCLA think tank for laws dealing with sexual orientation and gender identity.

Reporter Emily Allen spoke with Christy Mallory, the legal director for the Williams Institute, about the report and how West Virginia compares to other states that researchers observed.

ALLEN: Just jumping into the report, you mention a social and political climate index for LGBT people in the U.S.

On this index, West Virginia is in a three-way tie for last place. Can you talk about what this index is and how it works, what it means?

MALLORY: What that index does is, it looks at social acceptance of LGBTQ people using basically public opinion attitudes towards LGBTQ people and LGBTQ rights.

So they [study participants] were asked questions like, “Do you support marriage for same sex couples?” “Do you support adoption rights for same sex couples?” “Do you think LGBTQ people should be protected from discrimination in the workplace?”

Using answers to those questions, we were able to develop this state-by-state index, to really see what’s going on across the states in terms of social acceptance.

I want to say, it’s been a while since we were able to do that analysis because the data was older. I think [the data] has probably changed now, and I think that what we’re seeing is all states moving to become more accepting.

ALLEN: So how does West Virginia differ from other states that you’ve looked at, in terms of the laws we have? How many gay and transgender residents do we have, what are their experiences?

MALLORY: Our findings are pretty consistent across the states we’ve looked at so far.

I will say that the economic outcomes for all people in West Virginia, but especially LGBTQ people, were quite surprising. We see very high percentages, for example, of LGBTQ people in West Virginia experiencing economic insecurities like food insecurity, or low household income and other things like that.

ALLEN: The report lists about a dozen incidents where gay and transgender adults experienced discrimination either while trying to obtain a driver’s license, employment, access to housing and health care. So with all that in mind, what does discrimination in West Virginia look like?

MALLORY: We saw consistency in this report with our other reports, which is that trans people tend to face higher levels of discrimination than LGBT people. That’s consistently found in national studies and statewide studies. And we’re seeing it again here, reflected in West Virginia.

Discrimination doesn’t just mean that people are being turned away from needed health care services. It can also mean that people are afraid to seek out those services in the first place, even when the health care doesn’t have anything to do with who they are or their gender identity.

We might see, for example, trans people avoiding going to hospitals, because they’re afraid of discrimination. Now is really an important time to make sure that’s not happening to anybody.

ALLEN: Economically, you and other researchers in this [report] paint a picture of what West Virginia loses, you know, when gay and transgender members don’t have the support that they might need. What do those losses look like?

MALLORY: This research that we’ve done builds on a body of research, finding that stigma and discrimination against people, no matter who they are, leads to health disparities and economic insecurity.

So for example, research has found that discrimination can lead to increased prevalence of certain coping behaviors, things we think people engage in, because they’re stressed out or upset. Things like binge drinking, and smoking and also mental health issues like depression.

That’s why when we examined these health outcomes in this report, we were really looking for health behaviors that are tied to experiences of discrimination, and also economic insecurities that are tied to discrimination in employment, for example, leading to lower wages and having a low income household.

ALLEN: The report also goes kind of in-depth with what some of these disparities look like for young people in West Virginia who are gay or transgender. (The Williams Institute reports there are 10,300 gay and transgender people under 18 who are living in West Virginia.)

What should West Virginians, as we’re looking at a non discrimination-type law, consider for young people affected by this?

MALLORY: There’s definitely laws and policies that can be enacted to really get at what’s going on in schools, as well. For example, anti-bullying laws can be expanded to protect specifically LGBTQ students by adding the characteristics “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the list of characteristics from which students are protected from bullying and harassment.

And our research actually shows that when states make that move and add characteristics like sexual orientation and gender identity to their anti-bullying laws, it helps not only LGBTQ students but all students. We see that where states have those enumerated anti-bullying laws in place, risk of suicidality among all students decreases bullying and harassment for all students decreases and other positive outcomes.

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.