Filling in the Map: The Need for LGBT Data Collection

A married couple is pictured with their infant daughter, July 2014.

In the complicated landscape of policy, data are indispensable: They provide a map showing where we are and where we need to go. But for some populations—such as the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, community—a persistent lack of routine data collection leaves the map full of blank spaces. This lack of data on sexual orientation and gender identity puts policymakers in uncharted territory as they create policies that affect LGBT people and their families.

When the new data from the American Community Survey, or ACS, are released today, for example, there will be hardly any discussion about LGBT people. The data release will offer few details about what their families look like, despite the decades of controversy around marriage equality that convulsed state legislatures and culminated in a history-making ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court less than three months ago. There will be nothing about the lives of transgender people, despite the nationwide frenzy of media attention that surrounds newly visible transgender icons such as Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner. And the data will say little about the discrimination that LGBT individuals still face in areas of everyday life, such as employment, housing, and public accommodations—discrimination so severe that 209 members of Congress recently introduced an omnibus civil rights bill, the Equality Act, to combat the rising tide of intolerance that is keeping pace with the increasing visibility of LGBT people in society.

Any time one turns on the television or opens a newspaper, there are reports of queer or questioning children being bullied at school, stories such as that of two Michigan women and their infant daughter who were turned away by a physician who disapproved of their family, or news of the latest brutal murder of a transgender woman of color. In order to craft effective, responsible policy responses to these issues, policymakers need government surveys to collect up-to-date, comprehensive data about what it is like to be an LGBT person in the United States today.

The ACS is an ongoing, federally supported survey sent to roughly 3.5 million addresses every year in order to gather critical information about the United States as a nation and the people who call America home. ACS data on topics such as jobs and occupations, educational attainment, military service, housing, and health coverage help allocate more than $400 billion in federal and state funding every year for programs that range from building hospitals to designing school lunch programs.

Here is just a small sample of the huge number of uses for ACS data:

  • Federal, state, and local governments use ACS data in the enforcement of nondiscrimination protections—which now include sexual orientation and/or gender identity in some places—in areas such as education, housing, employment, and health care.
  • The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs uses ACS data to conduct studies of the veteran population, which other research has shown includes a disproportionate number of LGBT individuals.
  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services uses ACS data to designate and direct resources to health professional shortage areas and medically underserved populations under the Public Health Service Act.

The limited data that currently exist about the LGBT population are woefully out of step with the number of policy decisions and resource allocations made every day that affect LGBT people and their families. Even some of the most basic statistics, such as the number of people who identify as LGBT, remain unclear—though a trend toward an increasing LGBT population is unmistakable. In 2011, one of the first large-scale analyses of the number of people in the United States who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender put the number at around 9 million adults, or approximately 3.5 percent of the U.S. population. But a more recent 2015 study that focused on Millennials—the generation born between 1980 and 2000—found that twice as many Millennials, 7 percent, identify as LGBT. This could be because there are more LGBT people than there used to be or because these numbers may reflect that more LGBT people are now able to be open about who they are and whom they love. Regardless of the reason for this increase in the number of openly LGBT-identified people, the nation’s data collection efforts need to evolve to accurately reflect the identities and experiences of this growing segment of the U.S. population.

Currently, no major federally supported population survey routinely allows respondents to share both their sexual orientation and gender identity. While the census, for instance, now counts same-sex couples, neither the census nor the ACS collects any other data about LGBT people. And dozens of other federally supported surveys—including those that provide critical information about disparities related to aspects of identity, such as race and ethnicity, that intersect with disparities related to sexual orientation and gender identity—are failing to answer the country’s growing need for data related to the LGBT population.

Some surveys have started to ask questions about sexual orientation and/or gender identity, which demonstrates the feasibility of collecting these data. At the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, has developed a sexual orientation and gender identity question module that more than 35 states are now using on the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, or BRFSS, the largest federally supported health survey. The U.S. Department of Justice is beginning to add sexual orientation and gender identity questions to the National Crime Victimization Survey, or NCVS. And the U.S. Department of Labor is now collecting data on sexual orientation on the Family and Medical Leave Act Survey, which is a critical component of assessing the availability of family leave for same-sex couples.

More surveys need to join this list. In addition to the ACS, the BRFSS, and the NCVS, other major federally supported surveys that should routinely ask sexual orientation and gender identity questions to provide critical data about issues such as LGBT unemployment, health insurance coverage, and poverty include:

The needs, concerns, and experiences of LGBT people raise important policy questions. It is time that federally supported population surveys help answer these questions by collecting routine and standardized data on sexual orientation and gender identity. Without these data, too many LGBT people’s stories will continue to remain untold.

Kellan E. Baker is a Senior Fellow with the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress. Laura E. Durso is Director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center.