Ask A Researcher

June 2024

A New Horizon for LGBTQ+ Population Data

Faye Seidler is an award-winning advocate that specializes in suicide prevention, LGBTQ+ populations, and state data. She was born and raised in North Dakota and has a decade of experience in community organizing, public speaking, and professional development training. She is known for connecting and uplifting others, bringing communities together, and always keeping hope in focus.

 

The LGBTQ+ population in America is increasing over time. In 2024, Gallup Inc. published a news report showing that currently 7.6% of the total adult population in the US self-identified as LGBTQ+.(1)

Their data shows the population nearly doubling over the last ten years, with a trend for younger generations pushing up the average. For Gen Z, those people born roughly between 1997 and 2012, the rate of people self-identifying as LGBTQ+ was higher than 20%.

It is only within the last decade that institutes overall have started to recognize the need to capture LGBTQ+ demographic information. This is due to reduced cultural stigma, better understanding of LGBTQ+ individuals, and as a response to the growing population whose needs are becoming more apparent in the day-to-day life of professionals.

LGBTQ+ specific data is essential, as LGBTQ+ individuals experience unique minority stress that can increase risk factors related, but not limited to, homelessness, substance use, and suicidality. Conversely, lacking this data would not just make LGBTQ+ specific outcomes invisible, it could potentially cause researchers to draw inaccurate conclusions about the root causes of health trends. For instance, generalized data could suggest depression and suicide are increasing in youth populations, but specific data may show it is only increasing in LGBTQ+ populations or only increasing in straight populations.

Without demographic data, it’s difficult for either researchers or those in public health to accurately understand or prevent the negative outcomes this community experiences, to meaningfully separate those experiences from the generation population, or to design solutions to address their unique needs. While LGBTQ+ data collection is still relatively new, it is getting more sophisticated every day. This article looks at how organizations can capture LGBTQ+ data, the challenges they may face in collecting it, and what the future looks like.

Best Practices for Collecting LGBTQ+ Data

One important factor in the developing area of LGBTQ+ data is terminology. As LGBTQ+ identity becomes more widely recognized and accepted, language and how people use it to communicate their identities is something that constantly evolves. Even within the LGBTQ+ community, there can be disagreement for how labels are defined or what is appropriate. For example, there is no consensus for the best acronym between LGBTQ+, LGBTQIA+, or LGBTQ2S+. It is also possible none of these labels will be how the community is referred to in ten years.

This is why, within the data world, LGBTQ+ data is more commonly collected and evaluated as part of the framework of “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity'' Data, or SOGI Data.

Sexual orientation refers to any way an individual may be attracted to other people. Gender identity refers to any way an individual feels about their own gender. These elements are not unique to LGBTQ+ people, per se; everyone has a sexual orientation, such as gay, straight, or bisexual, and everyone has a gender identity, such as male, female, transgender, or nonbinary   gender.

Therefore, the Office of the Chief Statistician of the United States recommends including these SOGI elements in surveys as best practices and to maintain consistent terminology throughout all survey work.(2)

Source: The Office of the Chief Statistician of the United States has released examples of how to structure SOGI-related questions in surveying for best results.

By following this methodology, survey designers can ensure that even if terminology changes, the core elements of what is being measured by the survey remain consistent. This becomes particularly valuable when seeking information on community health trends across decades.

Within data collection, a single word or how the question is asked can bias the response participants give and make comparing data between different surveys difficult. This risk is no different for how questions are asked about identity and why following best practices and staying consistent is essential.

Every organizational effort to collect data might be a little different, where asking the questions outlined above may not be practical or possible. Therefore, it can be useful to look at what other organizations have done at the local or state level to help craft questions, as this will allow data pools to at least be consistent across organizations doing similar work. In this regard, data is sort of the opposite of passwords. It should be widely shared and look similar to everyone else's.

Challenges Around Collecting LGBTQ+ Data

Since LGBTQ+ individuals are still a small population minority, it can be difficult to get enough data to accurately understand population trends. For example, in North Dakota, the 2022 Behavior Risk Factor Survey received so few transgender respondents that no meaningful data could be ascertained about North Dakota transgender adults. (3) With transgender populations being only 2% or less of the general public, it can require years of dedicated data collection to find meaningful statistically significant trends.

Unfortunately, there is no consistency across North Dakota regarding the collection of LGBTQ+ data. Even when SOGI questions are included in surveys they may not always adhere to best practices and there is no guarantee that they are going to be asked consistently over time. Each layer of that equation presents a different challenge and in the world of data what isn’t measured isn’t getting addressed.

There can also be cultural barriers to overcome both with attempting to include SOGI questions and with LGBTQ+ individuals who may not trust answering surveys honestly. The first can be mitigated by thoughtful discussion on the practical use and application of data, while the second can be overcome by building trust with LGBTQ+ community by engaging with them directly.

The Future of LGBTQ+ Data Collection

Fifteen years ago, when The Williams Institute, a public policy research institute, released a guide to asking questions around sexual orientation, it was considered groundbreaking.(4) The guide addressed the growing need for this data, and focused significantly on calming researchers’ fears that such questions would be confusing or scare participants away from completing surveys. It made the case that such efforts were practical, necessary, and undisruptive.

Today, these types of questions are becoming commonplace. While they are still not universally asked on surveys or within data intake for organizations, the rate of their use is increasing as current research shows there is significant value to be gained, such as complying with anti-discrimination laws, applying for grant funding, or simply better clarity on factors such as patient or student outcomes.

Fortunately, with newly developed best practices such as SOGI questions, organizations don’t have to reinvent the wheel or tread new ground when considering how to incorporate LGBTQ+ demographic questions into their practice. While there may be cost, cultural, or logistical barriers, there is also a wealth of data to pull from, both locally and nationally, that was not accessible twenty years ago and that can inform organizations on current community needs.

There have even been promising moves by the Census Bureau to test the inclusion of SOGI questions on the American Community Survey, their annual measure of demographics and their biggest survey. (5) If implemented, these SOGI questions would provide a plethora of data that can be disaggregated at the regional level and inform researchers on several key quality of life factors.

The high quality data that can be collected today will only become more valuable over time, and will help to give increasing clarity and accuracy to important factors like growth trends in LGBTQ+ population and how, if at all, sexual orientation or gender identity contributes to what is being measured.

Explore Local and National LGBTQ+ Data

References

1. Jones, J. M. (2024, March 13th). LGBTQ+ identification in U.S.. now at 7.6%. Gallup.com. https://news.gallup.com/poll/611864/lgbtq-identification.aspx

2. Office of the Chief Statistician of the United States. (2023, Jan) Recommendations on the Best Practices for the Collection of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity on Federal Statistical Surveys. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/SOGI-Best-Practices.pdf 

3. North Dakota Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (ND BRFSS), [2022]. https://www.hhs.nd.gov/public-health/behavioral-health/north-dakota-behavioral-risk-factor-surveillance-system/brfss-data

4. The William Institute. (2009, Nov.) Best Practices for Asking Questions about Sexual Orientation on Surveys. https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/Best-Practices-SO-Surveys-Nov-2009.pdf

5. United States Census Bureau. (2024, May) Census Bureau Seeks Public Comment on Test of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Questions. https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2024/test-sogi-questions.html (Date Accessed 13 May 2024)

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