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Published: May 26, 2021 18 min read
A composite image made from halved male and female facial features, and hundred dollar bill on the rainbow backdrop.
Mark Harris for Money

Four years after coming out as the first openly gay member of the New York Stock Exchange, Walter Schubert turned his attention to the internet and made history again. He founded the Gay Financial Network, or GFN.com: the first website dedicated to giving the LGBTQ+ community money news and advice.

As in, first ever.

“At the time, all of Wall Street’s financial products were geared toward straight couples. It was cookie cutter — everybody’s the same,” Schubert says. “What I introduced was no, everybody’s not the same.”

GFN.com’s 1998 debut was a big deal. It inspired write-ups in The New York Times, Wired and The Wall Street Journal. The site and its associated broker-dealer grew quickly, building out a directory of LGBTQ+-friendly professionals and resources on topics like how to visit a dying partner in the hospital without being legally married. Traffic climbed to 200,000 unique page views a month. Schubert was showing the world, he says, “that we were real people, too, with real problems just like them.”

In the ’90s, this concept was groundbreaking. In 2021, it’s almost a given.

GFN.com shut down in 2005 after the dot-com bubble burst, but its spirit lives on. Today, Google returns nearly 47 million search results for “gay money advice.” There are lesbian-run Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE) blogs, guides on how to pay for gender affirmation surgery, and a Queer Money podcast with 260-plus episodes. Offline, LGBTQ+ financial advisors have devoted themselves to helping clients navigate tricky issues like adoption and estate planning as companies like Mastercard have upgraded their systems with inclusivity in mind.

The changes come not a moment too soon for the estimated 18 million Americans who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or represented by the plus, which nods to a range of other orientations and identities. Acceptance and awareness are at the forefront during Pride Month every June, but it begs the question — is personal finance finally catching up to the needs of the LGBTQ+ community?

Mark Harris for Money

'You don't want to ask for help'

As an industry, money doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being diverse. Banks, boardrooms and brokerages have been run for decades by a small, homogenous group of old, rich men. Women couldn’t even apply for credit cards without their husbands’ signatures until 1974.

LGBTQ+ individuals face additional obstacles. Over 60% of LGBTQ+ respondents to a 2018 survey about financial discrimination said they’d experienced challenges due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Same-sex couples are 73% more likely to be denied for a mortgage than their straight counterparts. Transgender people have a poverty rate of nearly 30% — about double the rate for cisgender straight Americans.

For most people, how much money you have is linked to where you live and what you do for work. For LGBTQ+ folks, it’s also often closely tied to who you are.

Thomas Nitzsche, who moved out of his family’s home in rural Illinois at age 18, learned that lesson early. Isolated and scrounging to pay for college without parental support, he had a roommate bail on an apartment because Nitzsche was gay. Before long, he landed in credit card debt. Every choice he made felt fraught, and “when you have that much anxiety, it makes it harder to make sound financial decisions, too,” he says.

Think about the quote-unquote traditional milestones associated with adulthood — you finish school, find a job, get married, have kids, retire. But those aren’t universal experiences, especially within a community that couldn’t get married at the federal level until six years ago.

“Coming out is a lifetime thing. It happens every time you take a new job, every time you get a new boss,” says Nitzsche, director of media and brand at the nonprofit Money Management International. “Every time a queer person makes a change in their career, they have to worry about ‘Are they not going to like me just because of who I am?’”

Money; Courtesy of Thomas Nitzsche

As the social pressure snowballs, so do the logistical issues. For instance, LGBTQ+ people tend to gravitate toward liberal states and cities in part because they’re safer to live in. But cities tend to be more expensive than suburban areas. (In famously LGBTQ+-friendly San Francisco, the average home value is $1.5 million.) And when you’re dealing with that at the same time as you’re, say, fighting with the bank so it’ll stop addressing you by a name you no longer use, it can be a lot to handle.

“There are so many historical ways we've built our relationship to money based on the assumption that we will have less and we will be disallowed to have some of the basics covered,” says Hadassah Damien, a queer financial coach in Brooklyn, New York.

As a result, Damien says, much of the community inherently distrusts the financial system. Money is supposed to be all about stability and security, but LGBTQ+ people are trying to swallow “decades to hundreds of years of disenfranchisement” from the government and corporations alike.

Working through that can seem almost impossible.

“When you're feeling estranged or alone or unsupported, you don't want to ask for help,” Nitzsche says. “You need to be perceived as successful because you're already at a disadvantage.”

Creating safe spaces for money talk (and everything else)

River Nice was crying in the conference room when a realization hit: They needed to come out as trans, and they needed to leave the corporate environment.

Nice loved their job as a financial advisor at Ameriprise, but they’d been struggling with gender and class for a while. Determining what to wear to the office everyday was hard — the women wore skirts, and the men wore slacks, and Nice felt trapped somewhere between them. Even their beat-up Honda Civic in the parking lot seemed wrong.

So when the boss pulled them aside to talk about their career plan, Nice began sobbing. The breakdown kick-started a string of rapid life changes. They quit in January 2019, changed their name in May, launched their Registered Investment Advisor firm in July and underwent gender affirmation surgery in October.

At Be Intentional Financial, Nice can wear whatever they want (and whatever goes with their swooping blue hair). They set their own schedule. Meeting with clients virtually from a Philadelphia home office — with occasional appearances by their cat, Tulip — their goal is to help younger LGBTQ+ people develop foundational financial principles.

Nice teaches what might be considered standard lessons: how to budget, how to read a credit report, how to set up a 401(k). But they also help transgender folks find health care plans that meet their needs. Life insurance is a big issue, too. Premiums are typically cheaper for women because their life expectancies are longer than men, which leads to friction when a person doesn’t fit neatly into either box.

Nice is game to assist with it all.

“It’s tough to talk to a strange financial advisor that you’ve never seen before and who is not in your social spaces and be like, ‘Capitalism is hurting me, and I am polyamorous and trans and want to have kids with my best friend,’” they add. “That isn’t in a mainstream narrative.”

Nice is part of a growing number of LGBTQ+ financial experts who use their personal experiences to inform their work. Everyone has a different approach, and many of them have shifted over time.

Money; River Nice Photographed by Samantha Sayten

When Los Angeles CFP David Rae first started as an advisor in 2003, for instance, he’d tell clients he was gay as a defense mechanism — so it didn't become a problem when they found out later on. Now, though, it simply plays into his vibe. Rae takes pride in being entertaining, honest and fun. After all, how many financial planners have a photo with Betty White on their Instagram?

“It’s just a part of me,” he adds. “I wanted to use all the attributes I bring to the table to really give the best advice to people.”

His clients’ issues vary by generation and age. Many of Rae’s customers have double income and no children. Because they’re not on the hook for college costs for kids, they end up buying a second house or traveling often, and then have to budget accordingly. Alternatively, they may be trying to plan for kids, which Rae quips is a “much more expensive process if you’re going to use a surrogate or adopt than going out on Saturday night and getting your significant other a bottle of wine.”

Some clients are trying to catch up for retirement — many people who lived through the AIDS crisis didn’t expect to see old age, so they blew through their savings, Rae says. End-of-life planning is crucial, as well. LGBTQ+ individuals often have chosen families (close relationships with people they’re not biologically related to), but the government usually favors blood relatives, so they need to create airtight medical directives.

Perhaps the most logical path forward is embracing empathy, which is at the center of Brian Thompson’s work as a tax attorney and CFP in Chicago. He says clients express relief when they find him.

“Being open and vulnerable with your money, where you are in life, your shame, your money history — [those] are things that we deal with,” he adds. “And if you don’t feel safe talking to somebody about that, you’re not going to be able to make the progress you need to.”

According to the CFP Board, about 1,200 professionals have self-selected LGBTQ+ as a client focus on LetsMakeaPlan.org. Thompson compares the experience to a patient searching for a doctor who “gets it”: truly appreciates their perspective. Getting it is about more than compassion. It's also about the little things, like how when a client expressed hesitation about taking a promotion that would require a move to Alabama, Thompson understood without further explanation.

“The important part about being an LGBTQ space is that you don’t have to worry about coming out to an advisor or worry about them knowing or using your pronouns,” he adds. “You can just concentrate on what the issue is.”

Money; Courtesy of Brian Thompson

Hiccups in innovation

Recent years have also seen a slew of long-overdue technical updates.

In 2017, investment bank HSBC changed its system to include gender-neutral titles like Mx., Ind. and Misc. alongside Mr., Ms. and Mrs. In 2019, Mastercard launched an initiative that encouraged partners like Citi to let customers choose the name on their credit and debit cards. This past April, the CFP Board introduced an update that allows planners and candidates to indicate that they’re nonbinary in their records.

Perhaps the most recent development is the LGBTQ + ESG100 ETF, which formally launched last week. The fund tracks the LGBTQ100, an index that uses survey data to identify “the top 100 corporations that most align with the LGBTQ community across America,” according to a news release.

These are positive developments, but they don’t go quite far enough for Billie Simmons, the co-founder and chief of staff at digital banking platform Daylight. A trans woman herself, Simmons has personally encountered many of the problems Daylight tries to solve.

Take her debit card, for example. Simmons replaced her name on the physical card, but every time she logs into her mobile banking app, it still displays her deadname (the name she was given at birth). Worse, the bank regularly sends mail to her New York apartment addressed to her deadname — despite having her name change on file.

“You go through such an intense process to even get to this place,” she says. “Even if you're just looking at name changes, [you’re] going to court, going to the doctor, getting a notarized document, taking it to the bank — and then you’re still being confronted by this stark reminder of who you used to be or how the world used to see you.”

She started Daylight because she thought there had to be a better way forward. In their research, Simmons and her co-founder discovered “all these different touchpoints within the financial system that are affected by the fact that we’re LGBT,” she says.

Money; Courtesy of Billie Simmons

This is particularly frustrating because every summer, storefronts, TV commercials and social media become overrun with Pride messaging. The flag is everywhere; it seems like every company in the country throws up a rainbow version of its logo to show support. Floats in the parades are #sponsored — New York City Pride counts Wells Fargo, Diet Coke and Hulu among its 2021 supporters.

To Simmons, it often feels fake.

“It really is true that in the month of June we exist to banks, and then the rest of the time we don’t,” she says. “We still have all these systemic inequalities, but you're very happy to use us for a marketing campaign.”

Daylight is in a beta phase with about 500 customers and plans to fully open in a few months. Right now, it offers a prepaid Visa that displays your chosen name. In addition to booking time with LGBTQ+ financial coaches, customers can connect with the community through events such as “What’s the T with taxes?” a “virtual kiki” Daylight held in April. (Questions addressed included whether a drag queen’s duct tape is tax-deductible.)

Authenticity is also at the heart of LGBTQ+ financial marketplace Superbia. Myles Meyers, its founder and CEO, dreams of disrupting everything from insurance to wealth management by involving the LGBTQ+ community every step of the way. Unlike big banks, Meyers says Superbia puts the money where its metaphorical mouth is.

“[They] can only side with the community on issues to a certain point, and then it becomes about brand risk or reputation with shareholders. That means there is a stoppage somewhere in that organization to do what's actually required to create equality,” he adds. “We don't have that line in the sand.”

Working toward a more inclusive future

Seeing such an explosion of money resources for LGBTQ+ people is “fantastic,” says Schubert, the Gay Financial Network founder. It’s clear much has changed since the days when he’d walk into the NYSE to find the male swimsuit calendar he kept at his desk shoved into a drawer, when GFN.com was the only website serving the financial interests of the LGBTQ+ community.

Though personal finance is catching up to the needs of LGBTQ+ Americans, there’s still room for improvement.

Trans people’s credit scores continue to drop significantly when they change their names. Only a handful of Fortune 500 CEOs are out. The CFP Board allows for nonbinary titles, but it won’t release information on how many people take advantage of those options until its annual milestone numbers announcement next year.

To bring money to the next level of inclusivity, LGBTQ+ advocates are taking matters into their own hands.

A campaign, masterminded by Simmons, All Out and the National Center for Transgender Equality, is pushing financial institutions to redirect part of their 2021 Pride budgets toward understanding how their services exclude transgender and nonbinary customers — and make an action plan to address it. Meyers’ team is working diligently to launch Superbia later this year.

Ultimately, they want to change the world. As in, permanently.

“We don’t have a Pride month or season,” Meyers says. “We are there also on the 17th of November, working to see equality come faster for our community.”

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