Critical Government Surveys Omit Gay and Transgender People

A rainbow flag, identified with the gay and transgender community, decorates the desk of Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) at the Capitol in Sacramento, California.

Official government data clearly play a critical role in our country’s policymaking process. Without information about the gay and transgender population, however, public policy cannot adequately serve these individuals and their families. Further, the lack of reliable data in policy debates and decisions increases the likelihood that stereotypes and myths will shape policies that impact the gay and transgender population.

Case in point: One of tomorrow morning’s top news stories will be the latest unemployment numbers, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics will release at 8:30 a.m. The media will cover the overall rate itself, as well as how different groups of people in the United States are experiencing unemployment, including women, younger workers, and African Americans and Latinos.

Gay and transgender workers,* however, will not be discussed in the coverage because the bureau does not collect any demographic data on sexual orientation or gender identity. As other research suggests that gay and transgender people have some of the highest rates of unemployment in our country, the bureau should take steps to add these questions as soon as possible.

Tomorrow’s unemployment statistics will be based on the Current Population Survey, a monthly survey of American households that the U.S. Census Bureau fields for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Beyond the unemployment rate, the survey gives policymakers, researchers, and advocates a wide range of data on the U.S. labor force, including earnings, underemployment rates, and the number of hours that people work.

The data are especially useful for designing employment policies and programs because they include a number of demographic and other descriptive variables, which allow experts to understand labor trends for specific subpopulations and employment settings. According to the Census Bureau, “The statistics are used by government policymakers as important indicators of our nation’s economy and for planning and evaluating many government programs.”

As the Current Population Survey website explains, these data can be analyzed based on:

  • Age, sex, race, Hispanic origin, marital status, family relationship, and Vietnam-era veteran status
  • Occupation, industry, class of worker, hours of work, full- or part-time status, and reasons for working part time
  • Duration of unemployment, reason for unemployment, and methods used to find employment
  • Women maintaining families, working women with children, displaced workers, and disabled veterans
  • Work experience, occupational mobility, job tenure, educational attainment, and school enrollment of workers

Adding sexual orientation and gender-identity questions to the other existing demographic questions already on the survey would help researchers and policymakers better identify the particular populations struggling the most with employment as our economy recovers from the Great Recession of 2007–2009. These data would also allow local, state, federal, and nonprofit agencies to develop job-training and placement programs that more effectively serve the needs of all Americans, including those who are gay and transgender.

Beyond the Current Population Survey, the federal government should take steps to include gay and transgender people in other major public surveys and data collection efforts by adding sexual orientation and gender identity questions to the demographic questions that are already asked.

Strengthen other major public surveys and data collection efforts

Major public surveys

American Community Survey

The Census Bureau annually fields the American Community Survey  to give communities the information they need to plan needed local investments and services. The survey allows for an analysis that helps determine how more than $400 billion in federal and state funds are distributed and spent each year. According to the survey’s website, the existing demographic data that are collected are “combined into statistics that are used to help decide everything from school lunch programs to new hospitals.”

Including gay and transgender people in these data is important since research suggests 2 million children are being raised by gay and transgender parents, and that these individuals and families live in nearly every county in the United States. But gay and transgender people are not fully represented in the American Community Survey, although many of them and their families face unique obstacles to living healthy, productive lives.

Survey of Income and Program Participation

The Census Bureau fields the Survey of Income and Program Participation on an ongoing basis with monthly interviews to help researchers and policymakers understand changes in income levels among the American public, and also to evaluate the effectiveness of government income transfer programs (e.g., Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). These data also allow the government to evaluate how income and wealth patterns vary based on different demographic characteristics, including race, ethnicity, gender, and age, and how government programs can help people who are most in need.

But gay and transgender people are also invisible in this survey, despite research suggesting this population likely has some of the lowest incomes in the nation.

National Crime Victimization Survey

The Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics administers the National Crime Victimization Survey annually to better understand the impact crime has on individuals who have been victimized, and to help people reduce their chances of being victims (e.g., the steps people take to protect themselves against future crimes). The bureau uses survey data to estimate the likelihood that certain groups of people (e.g., women, the elderly, communities of color) will be the victim of a wide range of crimes, including rape, sexual assault, robbery, theft, and household burglary. This analysis and the awareness it raises help with crime prevention efforts across the country.

Given the high rates of crime that many gay and transgender people experience—which are not always classified as hate crimes—including sexual orientation and gender-identity demographic questions on the National Crime Victimization Survey would help local law enforcement and gay and transgender community centers better prepare and protect the gay and transgender population.

Data-collection efforts

Department of Health and Human Services

One federal agency has taken a huge step forward in including gay and transgender people in its data-collection efforts, and can serve as a model for others. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, under the leadership of Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, is working to add both sexual orientation and gender-identity questions to its national public health surveys. The department will likely add the sexual orientation question to its surveys in 2013, when it will also continue to field test and fine tune a gender-identity question.

Collecting this information will help health researchers, policy advocates, and medical practitioners  better measure existing health disparities that gay and transgender people face, as well as design policies and establish best practices that will help close these gaps in health and well-being.


Policy works best when it is based on reliable data. By not including gay and transgender people in public data-collection efforts, the federal government is missing an opportunity to better understand and effectively meet the unique needs of the millions of Americans who are gay or transgender.

Further, including sexual orientation and gender-identity questions on federal surveys should be neither a partisan nor a controversial issue, since doing so merely acknowledges the reality that gay and transgender people exist. The data collected from such questions would improve the efficiency of the federal government, which is something both Democrats and Republicans should support.

Jeff Krehely is the Vice President of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress.

* In this column the term “gay” is used as an umbrella term for people who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.