Who Counts, and How to be Counted
I am a Jewish, bisexual woman and I am a researcher, and from all of these perspectives the questions of who counts and how to be counted are important ones. It is meaningful that the word “counts” can refer to both the number of something and its importance. In our society, in order to count (to matter), you need to be counted (be visible to those who are counting).
National Coming Out Day, which was Oct. 11, speaks to the inextricable relationship between being visible and being empowered. People with the courage to publicly identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or another marginalized gender identity or sexual orientation (LGBTQ+) have changed the world by making clear that LGBTQ+ lives are important.
In 2015, their efforts paved the path for the Supreme Court’s decision that gave same sex couples the right to legally marry nationally. Or, at least it gave most of us the right to marry. Some people with disabilities and people with partners from other countries still can’t. The movement to make same sex marriage legal only worked to the extent that it addressed the many other identities that LGBTQ+ individuals have.
In 2020, Black LGBTQ+ individuals and allies are speaking out to insist that Black Lives Matter, including the lives of Black people who are LGBTQ+.
No one has a single, isolated identity; we all have multiple identities that influence one another and our experience with society. For example, according to the Human Rights Campaign, in 2020, violence against people who are transgender or gender non-conforming is rising. This isn’t the whole story. Most of this violence is against Black and Latinx transgender women.
Multiple organizations I know of are focusing their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts on racism. This focus on racism is long overdue. And, as with the fight for marriage equality and the fight to end violence against transgender and gender non-conforming individuals, efforts that only address one form of oppression will leave members of that community behind. As a rabbi in college told me, we don’t each need to do everything, but to end any form of oppression, together we must address all forms of oppressions.
Invisibility Isn’t Always a Superpower
Not being counted remains a pressing problem for LGBTQ+ communities (and others with invisible, socially stigmatized differences) in a number of ways. One I see frequently as a researcher relates to funding. Increasingly, grant dollars are being distributed based on the demonstrated need of a group or community and/or the evidence supporting the use of a given strategy. If your community has no data about itself, then you are at a huge disadvantage for acquiring the funding needed for services, DEI efforts, and other life-preserving and life-enhancing initiatives.
We need more data on the assets and needs of the LGBTQ+ communities, including Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. Some local and statewide needs assessments have recently added a question about sexual orientation or began asking about gender identity with more than male and female options. Some surveys still don’t for fear of “offending people” or because they believe that so few people will identify as LGBTQ that they won’t be able to use the data. And, in fact, the latter is a problem, and one that won’t be solved by further silence. The more we ask the question and use the data in whatever ways we ethically and meaningfully can, the more people will see the usefulness of being counted, and the better data we will have.
We need more data on the effectiveness of services and strategies depending on participants’ sexual orientation and gender identity alone, and as they intersect with other marginalized identities. Funders are increasingly favoring evidence-based strategies, yet the research providing the evidence rarely includes sufficient numbers of LGBTQ+ individuals (or typically any underserved population) to establish the effectiveness for those groups. This creates two problems. First, securing funding is difficult for culturally specific strategies that do not have empirical support. Second, strategies that are prioritized because they are evidence-based may be ineffective or harmful for members of underrepresented communities.
The solution to the lack of available data rests on the shoulders of both the people conducting the research and the people who participate in it.
- Ask the question: If you are collecting data or information from people, consider asking about all demographic characteristics that may be relevant, including their sexual orientation and gender identity. Certainly, if you are asking about gender, do so inclusively. Be sure to be clear about why you are asking. Don’t give up if only a few people identify as LGBTQ+ the first time. It takes time to build trust.
- Identify yourself: If you identify as being part of the LGBTQ+ communities, consider coming out on data collection tools. The data is needed. Also, find out when the study will be complete and if you can see the results. If there isn’t information about your community or communities, express your interest.
In order to secure funding for services, supports, and opportunities for LGBTQ individuals and families, more data is needed. To truly serve their communities and end disparities, decision makers, researchers and service providers need to make extra efforts to ensure this data is being collected. We need to ensure that the data represents all LGBTQ+ individuals, not just those who are otherwise part of the dominant identities, e.g.,:White, Christian, and able-bodied.
And when the data is being collected, LGBTQ+ individuals need to be willing to come out. As anyone with an invisible, socially charged identity (e.g., LGBTQ+ individuals; people with disabilities; people with mental health conditions; and, well, superheroes) will tell you, coming out is a life-long series of decisions and actions, not a one-time event.
In honor of National Coming Out Day/Month, I invite you, whatever your invisible difference, and however your difference intersects with other aspects of your identity, to be out and be proud.
This post was originally published on Oct. 20, 2015 and has been updated for 2020.
Laura Schauben was a research scientist in Wilder Research.