THE UNCOUNTED COMMUNITY
WHY MISSING LGBTQ DATA MEANS MISSING OUT ON THE POWER TO CREATE CHANGE
By Bennett McAuley
Note: Given the cultural and social nuances of this topic on a global scale, the scope of this opinion piece will focus on the United States.
Imagine waking up, heading off to work or school, sharing a meal with friends, stopping off for an appointment – basically living your normal, everyday life – all the while not realizing that as far as data is concerned, you don’t exist.
For LGBTQ people, that’s the unfortunate reality when it comes to the knowledge gap created by a lack of data on the community. And that gap can have far-reaching consequences.
Data shapes the way societies understand macro-level issues: social, economic, environmental, technological, legal, educational, medical and so on. It is the catalyst for our minds to recognize relationships, systems and patterns to form opinions and make decisions. In short, data is critical to any individual or organization seeking to effect change, whether for themselves, their business or their community.
What happens, however, when there is no data? Consider the following:
1. How does one quantify the effects on a population that has no representation in the data?
2. How does one collect data on a population that is susceptible to social bias and cultural nuance?
3. How does one educate about facts and issues pertaining to a vulnerable population while retaining the integrity and focus of the conversation, regardless of who is listening?
The short answer: It’s impossible. That itself is an issue because, for a population like the LGBTQ community, it creates a negative feedback loop where the implication is that if there is no data to represent the community, then there is no community to represent.
So, the better question to ask is: What are the real-world impacts of this knowledge gap?
RESULTS MAY VARY
No one really knows exactly how many LGBTQ people exist at a given time. The sole method for rapid data collection about a population is surveys, which can have pitfalls related to participants opting out of responding, unstable estimates due to inconsistent sampling and so on.
Twenty-twenty marked the first time in US history that the Census Bureau established questions specific to sexual orientation and gender identity in their Household Pulse Survey. According to the results, approximately 8% of respondents identified themselves as LGBTQ. They were categorized as LGBTQ if they reported a sex at birth that does not align with their current gender identity; a sexual orientation of gay, lesbian, or bisexual; or that they currently identify as transgender.
Compare this result to other surveys conducted the same year from organizations and data collection agencies that are striving to fill the knowledge gap.
Gallup reported 5.6% to the question “Which of the following do you consider yourself to be? You can select as many as apply: Straight or heterosexual; Lesbian; Gay; Bisexual; Transgender”. Respondents who volunteered another identity (i.e., queer, pansexual, etc.) were recorded and included in the LGBTQ estimate.
The Williams Institute, based at the UCLA School of Law, reported 4.5% to the question “Do you, personally, identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender?” Respondents who answered ‘Yes’ were classified as LGBTQ, and those who answered ‘No’ were classified as non-LGBT. The remaining who either refused to answer or answered ‘I don’t know’ were excluded from the count.
The Census itself does not ask about identifiers of the LGBTQ population beyond the living arrangements of same-gender couples. This creates a false narrative that LGBTQ people have a singular experience, which means not all persons in the community are represented by the federal government and are not considered for funding for programs in education, health care, housing or employment that would improve their livelihoods.
THE FALLOUT AND THE FUTURE
The LGBTQ community is as diverse in race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, marital/relationship status, parental/familial status, religion, education and age as their heterosexual, cisgender counterparts. To treat their experiences as a monolith continues to perpetuate the idea that they are a group to be “othered” and not properly counted.
The immediate consequence to this practice is that societies — from citizens to lawmakers — are not well-informed about the diverse experiences of the LGBTQ community. If citizens within the community are considered a much smaller population than they are, there is less motivation for governments to “buy into” supporting them.
At best, the data remains incomplete. And when analytics are introduced, this yields heavy bias in the results and conclusions drawn from models. Remember the bane of every data scientist’s existence: GIGO (“Garbage In, Garbage Out”).
Until more institutions and organizations include opportunities for LGBTQ people to fully identify themselves, empirically driven, sustainable change in culture and laws will remain a pipe dream. In the meantime, acknowledge the bias that will be inevitable with the limited data that is available, and consider the opportunities to be had for greater equity and inclusivity when the gap can be closed.
ACTIONS FOR ALLIES
What can people do to help mitigate the effects of this missing data?
Support, and/or learn about organizations that are striving to close the knowledge gap, like:
- The Williams Institute
- The Map Advancement Project
- Pew Research Center
Cultivate and nurture LGBTQ affirming spaces in the workplace, school, home and community.
Educate employers, executives, administration and government officials about the potential consequences of not supporting LGBTQ people in a way that speaks to their priorities (i.e., loss of potential talent, increased costs, loss of support, loss of profits/revenue, etc.)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bennett is the Diversity & Inclusion Program Manager in the HR division. He is the strategic and operational lead for SAS’ Employee Inclusion Group Program. When Bennett isn’t supporting EIG initiatives and programming, he is always thinking and working on ways to bolster SAS’ diverse work culture. Bennett is unashamed to express himself as a gay, transgender man, and is empowered by his role in the organization to further SAS’ diversity goals.
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