If you were asked to list the most pressing issues that LGBT people face in the United States, data collection probably wouldn’t be anywhere near the top.
But as boring as numbers might be, they matter.
“We’re fighting over LGBT rights on a daily basis,” Laura Durso, senior director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress told The Daily Beast. “North Carolina’s HB2 is a bill that discriminates against LGBT people. It’s not OK that I can’t tell you exactly how many LGBT people there are in North Carolina.”
Durso and the Center for American Progress, a liberal public-policy organization, have been advocating for a relatively obscure piece of legislation called the LGBT Data Inclusion Act since its May introduction by Arizona Democratic congressman Raúl Grijalva.
The bill would require all federal agencies that conduct demographic surveys—including the U.S. Census Bureau—to “include questions on sexual orientation and gender identity” while also ensuring that participation is voluntary and private.
Why would these questions be necessary? For one, no one knows for certain how many LGBT people there are in the country.
In 2011, the Williams Institute, an LGBT research organization based at the UCLA School of Law, estimated that 3.8 percent of the adult population in the U.S. identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender but because federal data sources “do not include direct questions regarding sexual orientation or gender identity,” they could only produce a “reasonable” estimate compiled from an array of surveys, as demographer Gary Gates noted in the subsequent report.
The following year, Gallup came to a similar estimate—3.4 percent—based on a large-scale telephone survey.
But in 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey estimated that just 2.3 percent of the population was lesbian, gay, or bisexual.
Information on the size of the transgender population, in particular, is even more elusive. In 2011, the Williams Institute extrapolated from two state-level surveys to produce its best guess of 700,000 people. Five years later, they not only revised that estimate, they doubled it.
Large-scale government surveys may not necessarily produce different numbers from these estimates, but they would carry more authority in public-policy conversations, Durso says.
“Government data sets are large enough that we’re able to say things about the community with real confidence,” she explained to The Daily Beast. “The federal government is in a position to ask thousands of people important questions about their lives and we really need that data to more fully understand the diversity within the LGBT community.”
The data would be useful for almost all forms of public policy.
For example, LGBT people are more likely to experience poverty than heterosexual and cisgender people. But how much more likely? The Williams Institute used as many national surveys as it could muster to produce an estimate of the LGBT poverty rate, but the Census Bureau could easily produce a crystal-clear figure if it asked about sexual orientation and gender identity.
Transgender women of color face horrific levels of violence and homicide. But how many of them are there? Census data shows that 36.3 percent of all women in the country are women of color but there’s no way of knowing how many of them identify as transgender—especially when the best estimate of the trans population has doubled in the last five years.
“When we can’t say things about who LGBT people are and what they need, we’re unable to develop public policies that serve them appropriately,” Durso told The Daily Beast. “It really kills me that we’re having these consequential policy debates and I can’t put a number on how many people are affected.”
It’s an area in which the U.S. appears to be lagging behind.
Just this Tuesday, the United Kingdom’s Office for National Statistics revealed a detailed breakdown of the lesbian, gay, and bisexual population by region, sex, age, and ethnicity. The ONS determined that a record-high of 3.3 percent of young people in the U.K. are LGB, with slightly more identifying as bisexual than as gay or lesbian. The Canadian Community Health Survey has had a question on sexual orientation since 2003. As of 2014, 3 percent of Canadians identified as LGB.
As the Washington Post reported, the results of the first large-scale U.S. government survey to measure sexual orientation were not released until 2014. The Census started measuring data on cohabiting same-sex couples in 1999 and then, in 2013, it began counting same-sex spouses as family units.
The long delays in the U.S. are partially a result of “stigma and discrimination,” Durso explains, but it’s also a case of government agencies moving slowly and carefully to ensure that the questions are “appropriate and rigorous.”
“Methodologically, you want to be able to do it right and it takes time to make changes to really big surveys,” she said.
But the pressure to start counting LGBT people has never been greater.
On one hand, more young people are openly identifying as LGBT than ever before. A recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute estimated that a full “7 percent of millennials identify as either lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.” If that figure is accurate and holds steady—or even rises—for several generations, federal agencies could end up with a woefully incomplete picture of a population roughly equivalent to the number of people who live in Florida.
And on the other hand, a recent wave of discriminatory legislation targeting LGBT people—especially transgender people—makes it all the more urgent for advocates and experts to know exactly whose lives are on the line. It also raises alarming questions about how states like North Carolina can rush through emergency legislation to restrict people’s right to use the restroom without even knowing how many people will be affected.
“How is it that public policies and laws can move forward and treat a community—particularly in discriminatory ways—without even knowing who they are?” Durso asked.
But the hardest sell for the LGBT Data Inclusion Act might be convincing people—even LGBT people—of its urgency. Data collection, as Durso well knows given her research background, is not exactly a sexy, headline-grabbing topic.
“This has been an invisible issue,” she said. “Sometimes I don’t think it’s seen as an LGBT issue. And we’re trying to change that.”
In June, Orange Is the New Black star Laverne Cox did her part to draw attention to the bill by making an impassioned plea for it on Capitol Hill.
“LGBT people exist, we are a vital part of the fabric of this country and we just want to be counted,” the transgender actress said, adding that for transgender people, it could be “a matter of life and death” given the high suicide rate.
And matters of public policy aside, asking questions about sexual orientation and gender identity sends an important message to LGBT people: We see you.
“Being seen really matters when we’re talking about trying to reduce stigma against LGBT communities,” Durso said. “It is meaningful that the federal government steps up and says [that] we recognize the LGBT community as a community, and as a community with needs, resiliences, and contributions.”
“As nerdy as data collection can be,” she continued, “it speaks to a bigger issue of trying to show LGBT people that they’re seen and they’re counted.”