LGBT Rights and the Data Revolution


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By Jasmine Roberts

During the 2015 Social Good Summit, actress and activist Laverne Cox, along with the Transgender Law Center’s senior strategist Cecilia Chung and the Anti-Violence Project’s co-director Shelby Chestnut, discussed the urgent need for trans people to be counted in the U.S. population census.  Throughout the panel, Cox aimed to convey that “data [collection] is an intersectional issue.”

The role and implications of the U.S. census extend far beyond a headcount every ten years. Historically, the census is tied to important political questions of funding allocation and representative apportionment. The U.S. Census has always reflected and helped shape social divisions. Traditionally, being counted as a separate group was not a matter of choice or preference, but a way to target and restrict a group. Often, the census played a very direct role in social policy. Local and state laws restricting housing access, marriage and jobs were passed around the time that certain census categories were introduced.

Since the 1960s, the Census has reversed its role—rather than counting in order to exclude, census numbers help us measure which groups are being excluded. This data is meant to gauge the effectiveness of programs attempting to mitigate these inequalities. Individuals have also become more involved in defining how they are categorized. Not only is self-identification the new norm, but some groups lobby to be categorized in particular ways. Although the census has always been a political tool, it is now more explicit because groups recognize its power.

What is starting to happen with trans people is that people who have concealed their identities are starting to become more comfortable as this subject gains more exposure with more role models and celebrities like Cox and Caitlyn Jenner transitioning publicly. On June 26 of this year, same-sex marriage was legalized because accepting the logic behind it became unavoidable. The LGBT community and its supporters were simply too persistent for opponents to keep it buried. The trans community has failed to garner that type of support and legitimacy.

If a group is overlooked, they are at a greater risk of being underserved. This "visibility is only part of the equation. [There] must [be] social policy, systemic change […]… Systemically, this idea of the gender binary is very much institutionalized in the fact that we just don’t count trans people," as Cox said. This includes all forms of people suffering from gender dysphoria, including crossdressers, bi-genders, queers and all other people under this transgender umbrella term. According to Cox, 17 trans people of color were killed this year alone. Accurate data reporting is essential to ensure protection for these vulnerable groups that live at the intersection of racial and gender issues.

Policy makers need to work in tandem with research experts to cultivate effective gender identity and sexual orientation measures for federal surveys.

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