Guest Opinion: LGBTQI+ persons need representation in official statistics

  • by Nancy Bates
  • Wednesday June 5, 2024
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Nancy Bates. Photo: Courtesy Nancy Bates
Nancy Bates. Photo: Courtesy Nancy Bates

It's no secret that our community is regularly marginalized, stigmatized, and victimized. But what we know from lived experience is mostly missing from official statistics — and that makes it harder to demand change. The good news is, there may soon be a simple way you can be heard and counted.

When government data collections ask demographic questions — such as age, race, and ethnicity — that data is heavily protected by law, and is not traceable to you as an individual. When demographic factors are added up, it helps governments set policies and funding to improve public well-being and reduce discrimination. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not routinely asked in these collections. As a result, it's incredibly difficult to quantify the needs in our communities and see if policies meant for straight and cisgender populations may disadvantage us.

The scarce data we do have on LGBTQI+ populations is alarming. Persons who identify as LGBTQI+ are at increased risk for suicide, depression, homelessness, victimization, HIV/AIDS, employment and housing discrimination, and lack of access to health insurance and health services (IOM, 2011). These results are based on a small number of federally funded probability surveys. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not collected in the "gold standard" data collections from the U.S. Census Bureau that benchmark and track outcomes of well-being like the U.S. Decennial Census, Current Population Survey, or American Community Survey.

But the conversations are changing — and history is being made. In April 2024, I was invited to attend the Consortium for Inclusive Data (CID) hosted by Koppa, a newly formed LGBTQI+ Economic Power Lab. The CID was devoted to accelerating and sharing knowledge, expertise, and strategies for increasing the quality and quantity of data on LGBTQI+ populations. More than 40 people across the economic development and civil society ecosystem discussed the critical need to expand the availability of data on LGBTQI+ people. As far as we know, that was the first meeting of a global network of practitioners who are developing LGBTQI+ data.

During the icebreaker session participants were asked: In your world, what kind of (LGBTQI+) data do you envision in 20 years? My answer: "to see the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey (ACS) routinely ask both sexual orientation and gender identity." Why? First, because the ACS is a methodologically sound, ongoing data collection with a very large sample size and high response rate. The survey is always up to date, because it's administered continuously throughout the year to a rolling sample of 3.54 million addresses. It collects information on all persons residing within a household and indicators of well-being on topics including education, household composition, disability, mobility, employment, income, housing, citizenship, and health insurance. This methodology yields extremely precise data down to the census block level — in urban areas, this essentially means to the neighborhood block level. That local information could help your community decide where to set up a health clinic, for example. Right now, however, the ACS only collects data on "sex," with binary responses of male and female.

However, the U.S. Census Bureau recently announced testing plans that could close the data gap on LGBTQI+ populations. The census bureau plans to test adding both sexual orientation and gender identity to the ACS. For the most part, the questions to be tested follow guidance from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine Consensus Study recommendations. This is extremely welcome (and again, historic!) news. Assuming the test is successful, and the ACS asks about sexual orientation and gender identity in the next ongoing survey, the census bureau can begin to publish official statistics on LGBTQI+ populations never before available. Community stakeholders, academics, policymakers, and public officials will be looking at the same rich datasets for purposes of community planning, human services, and understanding how aspects of identity affect well-being. Given the marked increase recently in anti-LGBTQI+ legislation in recent years, these data will be invaluable to understanding the current state of our communities. We will be represented, so be loud and proud!

My second wish during the icebreaker session was for the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to establish statistical standards for collecting both sexual orientation and gender identity. Why does this matter? Federal agencies look to OMB to help everyone use the same questions, so the data can be analyzed across programs, from Social Security to Medicare. If questions about sexual orientation and gender identity aren't absolutely clear to respondents, there's a risk that the data will not be accurate (this is called measurement error). Even the smallest measurement errors can result in large misrepresentation in the counts of sexual minorities.

The OMB knows how to solve this: it went through the same process in creating a directive so that all federal surveys ask about race and ethnicity the same way to reduce error (Statistical Policy Directive No. 15). In 2022, President Joe Biden issued Executive Order 14075: Advancing Equality of LGBTQI+ population. The executive order directed the OMB to publish a report with recommendations for best practices for the collection of sexual orientation and gender identity in federal statistical surveys. In 2023, the OMB issued its report and admittedly, this was a step in the right direction. However, the report fell short of a statistical standard that requires input from agencies in the federal statistical system as well as a public comment period. And while establishing a one-size-fits-all standard for constructs as complex as sexual orientation and gender identity is by no means easy, again, it is doable and established questions already exist that are ready for "primetime" (NASEM, 2022).

I am very encouraged by the formation of the CID and the U.S. Census Bureau's decision to begin testing sexual orientation and gender identity in the ACS. Both initiatives can be game changers toward reversing the lack of data on LGBTQI+ people, both domestic and internationally. Let's hope the ACS testing goes smoothly, that both questions are soon added to the ongoing survey, and that OMB leverages the test results to quickly develop standards we can all use going forward. And when you see the question on a federal survey, know that your answers will help us be counted and speak for ourselves.

Nancy Bates, a lesbian, retired from the U.S. Census Bureau in 2020 where she served as the senior researcher for survey methodology. More recently, she was selected to serve as the vice chair of the U.S. Census Bureau's 2030 Decennial Census Advisory Committee. She's also an elected Fellow of the American Statistical Association.

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