The LGBT Experience at Home in America


When people talk about home, usually they have in mind the place where they cook their food, store their belongings, relax and recover from the day’s activities, bathe, and lay their heads to sleep. But for many, this isn’t right. For them, home is quite a different thing. It is where they can live without fear and loathing and avoid the hatred of others. It is a place where they can comfortably be who they are.

I was supposed to write a blog post about LGBTQ housing discrimination. That was it. Then Orlando happened and it made me focus directly on the many meanings of home, though I guess I’ve always known it on some level. Reading about Omar Mateen, the man who killed 49 and wounded 53 at a nightclub catering to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community on June 12, these past few days, and how angry and unsettled he was in his acquaintances’ recollections, I keep coming back to an old James Baldwin quote from the Jim Crow 1950s.

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly,” he said, “is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

I see it all around us. I see it in the stories I read about Omar Mateen. I see it in the presidential election, and the calls to discriminate against this or that kind of person. I see it in state laws being passed around the country to allow companies to deny services to LGBT people. They allow employers not to hire them, landlords not to rent to them, and doctors not to treat them.

I do not think, if James Baldwin were here today, he would be surprised to see what is happening. Disappointed, but not surprised. He was a gay black man at a time when it was not safe to be either gay or black. He knew hatred, and he knew pain. He knew them so well that he fled from them, all the way to Paris, where from the age of 24 to the end of his life, he made his home. The last straw, the one that made him leave New York City, was when his best friend killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. If he stayed, Baldwin feared he would follow.

“You say the city beat him to death,” an interviewer once said to him. “You mean that metaphorically.”

“Not so metaphorically,” said Baldwin. “Looking for a place to live. Looking for a job. You begin to doubt your judgment, you begin to doubt everything. You become imprecise. And that’s when you’re beginning to go under. You’ve been beaten, and it’s been deliberate. The whole society has decided to make you nothing. And they don’t even know they’re doing it.”

Times have changed, but not enough.

There was a time, say around June 11, when most Americans would have said that it was finally safe to be gay in this country. Now they’re not so sure.

The reason people went to that nightclub—the reason LGBT people go to so many nightclubs—is because they don’t feel safe. They don’t feel, when they walk down the street, that they can be themselves, that they are wanted or even accepted for who they were. They are denied housing. They are denied jobs. They are charged higher rents. They are paid lower wages. Discrimination against LGBT people is real—and studies show that it continues to be real and statistically significant across the country.

The shooting in Orlando brought home to the forefront. And so, I was reminded, as I have been so many times since I started writing for Home Matters, that home is about more than housing. For many of the people in the club that night, Pulse was more of a home than any house they had ever lived in. For many of them, it was there that they truly felt free and equal and safe.  It was Baldwin’s Paris.

They weren’t just attacked in a nightclub. They were attacked in their own home.

Where do they go now? Where do any of us go when we have no place to call home?

In the days after the shooting, stories revealed that some of the people who were killed had not come out to their families. For them, our kind of home was not theirs, and they needed an alternate like Pulse. Tragically, for them, it turned out they weren’t even safe in their alternate home. Others inspired by the horrific event have come out in the days since, an important step in creating home in other places. I hope they are successful.

I think we have to broaden our concept of building a home. The homebuilding we need, more than anything, is not just wood and concrete. It is, first and foremost, freedom from discrimination and freedom from danger.

Then, and only then, with safe spaces and equal rights, can we begin to deal with the pain, and with it, the hatred, until one day, when we may finally live in peace.

The Education Trap: How Our Homes Make or Break Our Children’s Opportunities


It’s hard to write about education knowing I could have been, but wasn’t, denied all the opportunities that have come my way. For all the decisions we have control over in life, where we go to school as children is not one of them. Yet, of course, it’s one of the most important.

Where I went to school, in suburban America in the late 1970s and early 1980s, test scores were among the best in the world, and so were college enrollment rates. My own experience was a testament to both. Had I grown up elsewhere, I doubt I would been so lucky—or done so well in my subsequent career.

In this country more than in most, the quality of education is strongly tied to location. American schools receive the majority of their funding from local, rather than state or federal, taxes. Those who earn more, spend more. As a result, they usually get more in return.

For a long time, economists only had descriptive evidence suggesting that housing values were to blame for this disparity. Then, in 1999, Sandra Black wrote a now-classic paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics that confirmed what most of us had suspected all along. Black collected test scores and housing prices for a variety of Boston suburbs, and she separated them by attendance districts. In neighboring districts, she compared households close to the border. On either side of the border, the households lived in the same neighborhood. They had the same demographics. They were, by all relevant metrics, identical. The only difference was the school their kids attended.

Black found that kids living in more expensive houses attended schools with significantly higher test scores. Just to move across the border to a better school—less than one-tenth of a mile in many cases—would cost a family thousands and thousands of dollars. One can only imagine how large the gap is when the good schools are even further away.

This is not a problem that solves itself. On the contrary, it compounds over time. Children in poorer households are precisely the ones who need a better education to navigate our network-oriented employment system and complex financial system if they want any chance at escaping the disadvantage into which they were born. Instead, they wind up in a cycle of lower-end jobs and limited access to credit that leaves them with few choices, with their kids winding up in the same low-quality schools, perpetuating the disadvantage down through the generations.

What a counterproductive irony.

In development economics, there’s a term for this vicious cycle. It’s called a “poverty trap.” Developing nations often face this problem when they can’t afford to invest in the improvements that they need to escape their low standard of living.

But—I can’t stress this enough—we are not a developing nation. We are not lacking resources. We have ample means to invest in homes and neighborhoods where parents can’t afford to provide a quality education for their children.

And, what’s more, we know how to do it.

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Every other year, the American Economic Association awards the John Bates Clark Medal to the “best” economist under the age of 40. In some ways, it’s even harder to win than the Nobel Prize. This year, it went to an economist from Harvard named Roland Fryer, who has devoted his young career to finding and understanding successful strategies to boost achievement in disadvantaged students. What Fryer discovered may forever change the way you think about education.

When most people hear the word “education,” they picture a school. That’s why, when politicians talk about improving education, they focus on things like class size, per-pupil spending, and teacher training. Fryer found that none of these things are correlated with better outcomes. In fact, in multiple papers with various co-authors, Fryer has found that sending kids to better schools only reduces the “achievement gap” by a small fraction.

Education, Fryer teaches us, is not just a school. Education is a community. Education is home.

The most effective education, according to Fryer’s research, is a program like the Harlem Children’s Zone, which combines high-quality schools with community programs. They prepare the kids before they’re old enough to attend school. They run after-school programs like karate, dance, and tutoring. They counsel the students through the college admissions process. They offer health services and even tax preparation services to the families.

When you really think about it, Fryer’s work isn’t surprising at all. Those of us who had the good fortune to grow up in stable homes and communities know that we were shaped and guided and aided by more than just our classrooms. We had parents and doctors and mentors and coaches who helped us and encouraged us and gave us what we needed to excel in those classrooms.

The only surprising thing is how easily we forget all these diverse factors that make up a child’s education.

Education starts at home, and the influence of that home doesn’t end when children go to school. They carry their home everywhere they go, from the sense of safety they feel in their neighborhood to the resources they can access in their locally-financed classroom.

Some of us grew up in homes that afforded us the educational opportunities we needed to achieve the American dream. Many did not. For them, and for the generations who will come after them, we must break this persistent trap.

These are our children. They didn’t ask to be born into their homes. They didn’t choose to go to their schools. It’s up to us, as guardians of our nation’s future, to open the door for them to access the America we have been so blessed to enjoy.