I recently had the privilege of representing the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development at the Eugene/Springfield Pride Festival in southwestern Oregon. We stood side-by-side with our counterparts at the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Forest Service. When this festival began 25 years ago, the idea of a government agency participating was unthinkable. At that time, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals had no assurance of equal treatment when requesting government services or financial assistance. In fact, it was not so long ago that federal employees suspected of being gay were fired from their jobs. This sad chapter in our history saw careers destroyed and lives irreparably damaged.
I am deeply proud of the tremendous progress we have made nationally and at home here in Oregon to correct those past mistakes. USDA has been among the first federal departments to participate in Pride festivals across Oregon, and we have been leading the way nationally in the arena of LGBT civil rights. We were one of the first federal departments to enact protections specifically on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. USDA has instituted training for our employees, and we have been making a concerted effort to reach out to our LGBT customers, partners, and potential future employees. As I handed out information on the financial programs in Rural Development and the career opportunities available with USDA in a park festooned with rainbows, I experienced first-hand the incredible strides we have made in recent years toward a new era of civil rights.
Ensuring our programs are accessible to the LGBT community is especially important for Rural Development, as we play a key role both in providing low-income rural residents with affordable housing and in providing access to capital for rural businesses to help them get off the ground, expand their operations, and provide more quality jobs. Last year alone, Rural Development provided nearly $480 million for affordable housing and $68 million to support rural businesses in Oregon. This assistance can be especially important for the LGBT community as a study by the Williams Institute found that LGBT individuals are more likely to live in poverty. According to the study, 24 percent of lesbian and bisexual women are poor compared with 19 percent of heterosexual women while transgender people are four times as likely to live in poverty as gender conforming individuals.
At this year’s Eugene/Springfield Pride Festival, I spoke to families, leaders in the community, young people just starting their careers, and seniors now helping to raise their grandkids. The refrain I heard from each one of them was a sincere and heartfelt thanks for being there, for visibly demonstrating our support for this long underserved community, and for setting an example as a government agency that is welcoming and open to our LGBT friends and neighbors.
Through outreach efforts like these, USDA is showing our commitment to civil rights as an employer of choice and an equal opportunity provider. To the everyday Americans who have shown the courage and confidence to say who you are and to make your voice heard, please know that USDA is here for you, not just during Pride celebrations, but year-round.