Gay Americans: Government Begins LGBT Population Count

Inside the new efforts to finally identify the size of America’s LGBT population
Illustration By Domenic Bahmann

Inside the efforts to finally identify the size of the nation’s LGBT population

By Katy Steinmetz

For centuries, being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in America meant hiding at least part of who you were. The stigma traces as far back as the colonial era, when sodomy was a capital crime, women were arrested for having same-sex relations and men were jailed for wearing women’s clothes.

It’s estimated that tens of thousands of people were arrested for crossing such lines before the turn of the 20th century, during which time some states allowed the sterilization of so-called perverts. It wasn’t until 1998, the year Google was invented, that the Supreme Court struck down any remaining bans on sex between men. The years since have brought a rapid social transformation, with LGBT Americans increasingly accepted throughout society and accorded many–though far from all–of its legal protections.

As the LGBT population moves into its full and equal place in public life, many people are asking an old question with new urgency: just how many LGBT Americans are there? After centuries in the shadows, many experts believe that we need a full accounting of the nation’s LGBT population and how they live for legal, economic and health reasons. Now, for the first time, a group of experts from 21 federal agencies are working on a project to figure out how to do just that. The results could pave the way for first-ever surveys of America’s sexual orientations and gender identities and influence everything from local laws to military policy to health care.

For many LGBT people, there is also a keen sense of dignity and power at stake in such research. “For decades our struggle has been to stop being invisible,” says San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener, an openly gay lawmaker who is proposing this data be collected in the City by the Bay. “When you don’t have data about a community, at times it can seem like the community doesn’t exist.” The rub is that there’s less consensus about how to take a fuzzy rainbow and split it up into neat and tidy boxes, especially as the ways people identify continue to shift.

When pollsters asked Americans last year how they would identify on the Kinsey Scale—a six point rating spanning from “exclusively homosexual” to “exclusively heterosexual”—about a third of millennials pointed somewhere in the “non-binary” middle, compared to about 8% of people over the age of 45.

Many people aren’t even aware that they have a gender identity. Others are but don’t happen to identify as male or female. And though the answers to these questions have public policy implications, many feel they are private matters—perhaps ones they’ve had a hard time admitting to themselves or their families and have no intention of telling the government. Privacy concerns and terminology quandaries are among the issues that the federal working group, led out of the Office of Management and Budget, are working hard to figure out, as politicians across the nation argue that these demographics, and their struggles, must be recognized and researched.

“It’s high time for the LGBT community to count and be counted,” says California state assemblyman David Chiu, who proposed a law that will require state health agencies to start asking these questions. “Data saves lives,” he says. That is, if you can figure out how to get it.

‘We know that we’re in every community’

It’s likely that you have never heard of Gary Gates, but the odds are good that you have come across one of his statistics. The former research director at UCLA’s Williams Institute, Gates is responsible for many of the best estimates we have about the size and scope of America’s LGBT population. When you ask Siri what percentage of the population is gay, she refers iPhone users to one of Gates’ papers. When Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy delivered the 2015 opinion that made same-sex marriage legal throughout the country, he quoted Gates’ research.

Any time you’ve read that there are an estimated 65,000 lesbian, gay or bisexual people in the military on active duty––a figure cited by countless media outlets in the run up to the 2010 repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”––that’s his work. But even though LGBT people can participate more fully in public life, bans remain, like one on the open military service of transgender troops—part of the reason that estimates of how many of them there are range from 1,320 (according to a new RAND study) to 15,500 (according to a paper Gates wrote in 2014).

Gates first made a mark with his research a little over a decade ago. At the time, he says, “You had plenty of politicians who said, ‘I don’t have gay people in my district’ or ‘Gay people don’t live here’.” He proved those assertions wrong by publishing The Gay and Lesbian Atlas, which used data from a new U.S. Census question to show there were same-sex couples in 99.3% of the country’s counties. The Census did not outright ask about sexual orientation–a stance that hasn’t changed.

A spokesperson for the census says that at this time they have no plans to add questions about that or gender identity to their surveys, though they are participating in the federal working group. But in 1990 the census did add an “unmarried partner” category for the first time. The stated aim was to collect information on cohabiting heterosexual couples, but the question also revealed how many same-sex people who identified as partners were living together and where.

Gates mined this data from the 2000 Census to produce his geographical analysis, which was celebrated by LGBT people as confirmation that they were a legitimate voting bloc and politicians needed to take their concerns seriously. Today, many transgender people feel they need a similar affirmation. In heated political battles all over the country—largely over the use of public bathrooms—transgender advocates can be heard making arguments about their very existence that echo ones made by gay and lesbian Americans decades ago.

“We’re parts of cities. We have family members, co-workers and neighbors,” says Kris Hayashi, executive director of the Transgender Law Center and a transgender man. “We know that we’re in every community and if we had data to actually back that up, it’d make us that much stronger.”

The number that gets quoted most often about the size of America’s transgender population—0.3%—also comes from Gates, but he’ll tell you it’s an educated guess largely based on two state-level surveys. Studies have estimated that anywhere from 0.1% to 2% of people are transgender, which is the difference between a political constituency of thousands and several million. And having a bigger number matters.

In the 1970s, the gay liberation movement was propelled by the still-popular–if not exactly rock solid–statistic that 1 in every 10 people is gay. “This is a period when gay people are really trying to claim their status just like any other minority, racial or religious,” says Yale historian George Chauncey. At a time when many people believed they didn’t know anyone who was homosexual, that figure portrayed them as the country’s second-largest minority and gave them political and economic clout.

The 1 in 10 figure was taken from a study done by pioneering sex research Alfred Kinsey, who found that 10% of males were “more or less exclusively homosexual” for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55. More recent research by Gates and organizations such as Gallup suggest that about 5% of the population identifies as LGBT. But whether the “true” size of the LGBT population is 5% or 10% or 25%–as Americans estimated when Gallup asked them to guess its size–depends on what exactly you’re trying to measure.

The 5% figure is a pretty reliable estimate of how many people actively embrace one of those labels today, because Gallup has been including this question in their daily survey of 1,000 Americans for about four years. But if one is counting people who say they experience same-sex attraction, that figure can quickly double. “There are many populations that maybe would fit under that umbrella because of behavior but not any way they would personally self-identify,” says Dr. Karen Parker, who runs a newly created office at the National Institute of Health that is exclusively dedicated to research on sexual and gender minorities, known as SGM. For instance, her office–which was created because officials noticed health disparities affecting SGM and determined that the area was understudied–cares a lot more about actions associated with health risks than political identities. Advocacy groups, meanwhile, might like to claim that every last one of those “non-binary” millennials belongs in their tent.

What data can do

There is no shortage of research to bolster the anecdotal stories of discrimination and outsized hardships LGBT people still experience. Studies of sample groups have found, for instance, that LGBT people face more barriers to getting healthcare than the general public and that transgender women of color are at greatly increased risk for physical assault. But experts say the true scope of those problems can only be fleshed out by large-scale data collection—and that such information will make it a lot easier to get the resources needed to fix problems like the extremely high rates of poverty experienced by transgender people and gaps in parental rights affecting gay couples with children, particularly if the numbers have the authority of being produced by the government itself.

“It’s important to know how many transgender veterans we’re serving, what kinds of care they’re accessing,” says Jillian Shipherd, who helps oversee LGBT patient care at the Department of Veterans Affairs. “And we just don’t know what that looks like in the V.A. right now because we don’t have the data.” Soon, Shipherd says the V.A. will add a gender identity demographic field to healthcare forms for the first time. And the data they gather could pay direct benefits.

Jim Mangia, CEO of St. John’s Well Child and Family Center in L.A. County, says that when a hospital like his can provide data showing that they serve thousands of transgender people in an area, that can help them win millions in federal grant money to provide services transgender people often need, like hormone replacement therapy or mental health services, or to train the hospital staff on competent LGBT care. As it stands, one can count the country’s community health centers that provide comprehensive transgender care on one hand, he says. And failure to get care is one reason the community’s attempted suicide rate is, according to one survey, a staggering 41%.

In speaking to some officials about quantifying the LGBT population, the whole thing can seem as simple as overcoming the sense that these are taboo subjects and adding a box to existing forms that already ask about things like race, gender and disability. Yet logistical details can be hard to crack, as the United States Chief Statistician Katherine Wallman knows from decades in the field.

Her team at the Office of Management and Budget is leading the federal government’s working group on how to best gather data about sexual orientation and gender identity. The OMB does not tell any government agencies that they need to collect certain types of data, but their experts do outline practices that ensure that, as Wallman puts it, “the numerators and denominators match” across government agencies. (Her office also approves questionnaires before they go out into the field.)

The technical experts representing the 21 agencies cover topics like health, labor and criminal justice, and they plan to produce guidance on data collection practices before the end of the year. In doing so, their work takes three main forms. One is getting smart people in a room and thinking about any issues that may need to be investigated. The second is doing those investigations, which might involve focus groups or other research with “real respondents.” Take the language preferences of different age groups.

Queer, for example, is more popular among millennials than Boomers, who might prefer the term transgendered, which often causes offense among the young. They also have to consider translations into several languages. Lately Wallman’s team has been working on the issue of how to deal with proxy reporting, the practice of calling up one person and asking them to relay the demographics of everyone in the household. “The one respondent in the household,” Wallman says, “may or may not have at their command information about the sexual orientation or gender identity of someone else in their household.” And along the way they reach out to the public for ideas and reactions.

Wallman says that though there has been a “simmer” of interest in this area for the past couple decades, it has erupted in the recent years, particularly after the 2010 census plans did not contain a way to account for same-sex couples who were not only living together but were also married, which was by then legal in a number of states. The Census Bureau is currently working on revising questions to “better distinguish opposite-sex and same-sex couples in both the married and unmarried categories,” says Jennifer Ortman, who oversees the bureau’s work on social characteristics.

While the census is not venturing into asking about sexual orientation or gender identity for now—a disappointment to many advocates—there will be plenty of precedents when and if they do get there. The Bureau of Justice Statistics plans to start asking these questions on their national victimization survey this summer. The NIH is already steaming ahead. Both California and New York are working to update their own forms for state-based surveys. And there’s reason to believe the census may come around. After all, Ortman says the Bureau’s mission is “to reflect the changes in household composition and family structure that we’re seeing” in the U.S. population. And LGBT Americans are becoming less invisible all the time.

May 18, 2016

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