When a gunman opened fire in a Orlando, Florida, gay club in June, killing 49 people and injuring over 50 others, it was a stark reminder that being LGBQTIA in the United States is extremely dangerous. Just being who you are is fraught with peril, particularly for those on the margins, like the primarily Latinx crowd enjoying the music at Pulse that night and thinking that they were in a safe space to express their genders and sexualities. The shooting also brought home the fact that on a national level, there’s a lot we don’t know about the LGBQTIA community, including how many people identify under that umbrella.
Oddly enough, just a few weeks earlier, Representative Raul M. Grijalva had actually brought up this very issue in Congress with a bill designed to create a framework for collecting demographic information about the LGBQTIA community on paperwork like the US Census. He, along with many supporters inside and outside Congress (like Laverne Cox, who added her voice to the discussion), wants us to actually start collecting meaningful data about the LGBQTIA community so the country can better understand its needs. We don’t even know how many members of the community there are in the United States, though organisations are certainly making educated guesses and conducting their own research.
This is a matter of representation, but it’s about a lot more than that. Even LGBQTIA people don’t have a full accounting of their community, which makes it hard to identify trends, needs, and concerns. A lot of percentages get thrown around, with wild estimates of how many gender and sexual minorities there are, but it’s guesswork. Imagine if the Census included voluntary disclosure fields allowing people to identify themselves as LGBQTIA, with drilldown information — it’s hard to figure out exactly what terminology to use, because it’s so varied, especially across social groups, but at a minimum, we should be able to ask if people are lesbian, gay, bi, queer, asexual, intersex, and/or transgender, even if we don’t delve more deeply (for example, to collect information about diversity within the trans community or the wide range of other sexual orientations out there). The Census is a huge, comprehensive effort to count every single person in the United States, and it would offer a superb wealth of data about the LGBQTIA community if it included a framework for collecting information.
Knowing how many trans and intersex people there are matters — it could help us understand how to administer transition benefits through insurance, make us more aware of issues like discrimination in housing, employment, and other settings. We could start looking for broader patterns with respect to economic inequalities and education. Rather than grasping at vague, incomplete information, we would be able to much more decisively articulate the demographics of the community.
The same holds true for LGBQA people. We know a lot more about this community, but we don’t know enough. It’s important to see who is living where, how people are identifying, what kinds of hardships and challenges they may be experiencing as a result of their sexual orientation. We can use this data to implement better government supports, to promote legislation designed to target inequalities, to do so much more for a community that often lives in silence.
We could get a better picture of the percentage of the population that’s out, and what kind of differences it makes in term of discrimination and social opportunity. We could look at trends like LGBQTIA identity among undocumented immigrants. Among disabled people. Among many other populations. There’s this vast body of data we need to make smart, informed decisions that would be radically beneficial to people who are struggling right now, and we don’t have that data. The government is in a great position to collect it, because it already gathers detailed demographic information for the country.
This is not a task without significant challenges. It’s pretty clear that these disclosures need to be optional, and they also need to be confidential. People who are not out need to be assured that they can be counted without identifying information that might put them at risk. The government needs to illustrate that it has a firm commitment to information security so that people can feel confident disclosing such data — and even then, some people still won’t be counted. Some will be too uneasy about self-reporting, and others may not be out to the people filling out things like census forms, such as LGBQTA youth who aren’t comfortable with their parents.
Language and framing is also going to take a lot of work, in consultation with a lot of LGBQTIA people (and please, leave the HRC out of it for all our sake). The government needs to tread carefully when it comes to which terms it chooses to use on the form and how it presents them. One person’s preferred self-identifier is another person’s insult. One person’s identity may not be considered at all. Some people may feel put off by terminology that appears to centre a particular kind of LGBQTIA experience — this requires collaboration with people of colour, with immigrants from a variety of backgrounds, with activists who are not binary trans people. A lot of stakeholders should be involved in this conversation, and it’s going to be a challenging one, but the potential payoff is huge: We could finally have actual hard data that provides valuable insights into who lives here, and how they identify, and all of us might be surprised by the results.