California bill would make state’s demographic data collection LGBT-inclusive

Citizen interactions with government bureaucracy are, in many cases, an exercise in data collection. When you go to a public health agency or the Social Security Administration, you fill out forms asking for your age, race, sex and so on. These data are then used both to facilitate your interaction with the government and for the government to account for trends in various demographic groups. If one group stands out from the rest as being at a significant disadvantage, those data can be used to make a case for government policy to eliminate the disadvantage.

But only if policymakers know the problem exists.

For instance, this Bureau of Labor Statistics report on unemployment breaks the national unemployment rate down by race, sex and age. It shows a massive disparity in the seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate between white (4.4%) and black (10.1%) populations in March. It doesn’t show whether there’s a disparity in unemployment rate between gay and straight workers because it didn’t ask the question.

If it did, there’s reason to believe that we’d see a disparity. The available data show that the LGBT community faces disproportionately high rates of food insecurity, poverty, unemployment, substance abuse and suicide relative to their heterosexual counterparts.  However, many state and local governments don’t collect data on sexual orientation and gender identity when interacting with their citizens. This being the case, disadvantages that LGBT citizens face often go unreported, and therefore unaddressed.

California is one such example. While the state is well ahead of its peers when it comes to civil rights and non-discrimination laws, it lags behind when it comes to accounting for its LGBT citizens and, by extension, identifying trends in their economic and social opportunities. And as dry as bureaucratic data collection can seem, this has real consequences in the daily lives of LGBT Californians. If they aren’t counted when data are collected, then they don’t count when data are evaluated.

LGBT healthcare, via Creative Commons

LGBT healthcare, via Creative Commons

This basic lack of accounting in California has prompted the LGBT Disparities Reduction Act, which would require designated state agencies relating to health care, social services and aging  to allow for voluntary disclosure of sexual orientation and gender identity in conjunction with the collection of other demographic data. The bill would also require public disclosure of trends indicating disparities in wellbeing between LGBT and non-LGBT Californians.

The bill cleared its first procedural hurdle last Thursday, and is making its way through the California legislature.

The bill represents a small, simple addition to regular data collection procedures that will, over time, go a long way toward documenting, and by extension rectifying, disparate social, economic and health outcomes for LGBT Californians.

As Niko Kowell, Program Coordinator for transgender services at the Asian and Pacific Islander Wellness Center in San Francisco, stated in support of the bill:

We want to be able to trust our health care providers to know more than we do about our health, but without data to reveal larger population-level trends, it’s hard—for them and for us…If we start collecting this data now, it might not help me, but it will help with the next generation of LGBT youth, especially transgender youth, in this country.

From healthcare to homelessness, an accurate accounting of how LGBT citizens are faring relative to the rest of their communities is essential if we are serious about providing an adequate and equal standard of living for everyone.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • Marry Thomas

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  • I have no doubt, due to decades of ongoing discrimination, some people will be reluctant to provide this kind of information. But in a large-scale bureaucracy, accurate data collection is the first step to any measure of effectiveness. Census data is absolutely vital to determining the adequate allocation of government resources for all manner of demographics and communities. Of course, any kind of information can be used for bad as well as good, but all we can do is trust that the state intends to use the information in good faith. Republicans in 2010 declared that the federal census was a big conspiracy… because, you know, ACORN. Strangely, in five years, the sky hasn’t fallen.

  • Considering the info the government can access, if they want to know my sexual orientation, it wouldn’t be that hard to figure out. I don’t know why they’d be interested. That said, sexual orientation was on a doctor’s form recently and I left the answer blank. No one asked later. (No idea why they asked but since I live in a state where anti-gay discrimination is legal, I didn’t see any benefit in answering and don’t trust that the records are all that private.

  • Indigo

    To count or not to count. The question is one of those bedrock moments in the history of civilization. Earliest forms of writing are mostly inventories of royal or temple warehouses. Population counts follow shortly after, often triggering disputes over the need to know quantity versus the danger of dictatorial control surfacing once actual numbers are known. The Book of Numbers in the Pentateuch is a study in exactly that, uneasily compromised. But from such compromises, information flows, and from information flows action. The action that flows depends on us and how we use it. Sure, we’ll have some abuses but more existing abuses that are not now addressed will be stopped.

  • Hue-Man

    This isn’t the quotation I was looking for but it expresses the concept well:

    “Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to
    improvement. If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If
    you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it,
    you can’t improve it.”


    H. James Harrington

    I can imagine that some LGBT people would be reluctant to give this information to the government but with the domestic spying structure in place, they already know everyone’s sexual orientation and everything else we used to consider private!

  • Tom Tallis

    No doubt the Repubs in the legislature are fighting hard against this, because of the cost, of course.

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