The Trump administration is systematically erasing LGBT people from federal data collection.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just announced it will no longer collect and distribute data on LGBT Americans as part of the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) survey. A previously available optional data set on sexual orientation and gender identity — currently used by 35 states — will no longer be made available starting in 2019.
Assessing American’s health risks, chronic health conditions, and use of prevention services, the BRFSS is the largest continuously-collected health data survey in the world. It was the first federal survey to corroborate private studies showing high rates of transgender poverty and to estimate the U.S. population of LGBT people.
Under the Obama Administration, the number of federal surveys that included questions on sexual orientation increased to 12; 7 surveys also asked about gender identity.
But, under Trump, LGBT Americans are being ‘disappeared’ from federal data collection efforts:
- March 2017: the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services announced the National Survey of Older Americans Act Participants, which tracks federally-funded service delivery for older Americans (such as home meal delivery, transportation, and senior centers) would no longer include questions about sexual orientation or gender identity. The questions were restored after public outcry.
- March 2017: HHS announced it would reverse plans to add sexual orientation and gender identity questions to its Annual Program Performance Report for Centers for Independent Living. That report tracks equity and program delivery for federally-funded services for people with disabilities.
- March 2017: the Housing and Urban Development agency withdrew a request for public comments on a proposed survey of LGBT youth homelessness, questioning the “need” for the data collection. 40% of homeless youth identifying as LGBT.
- March 2017: the U.S. Census Bureau reversed plans to include sexual orientation and gender identity questions on the 2020 U.S. Census after publicly announcing such questions would be included. The justification? The U.S. LGBT population is “too small.” (The U.S. adult LGBT population is estimated at more than 9 million people — roughly the population of the state of New Jersey).
- July 2017: despite a request by four federal agencies to add questions about sexual orientation and gender identity to the American Community Survey — the largest and most widely-used collection of U.S. demographic data — the Census Bureau (which administers the ACS) insisted there was “no federal data need” to ask these questions. This appears to be a response to a reversal by the Department of Justice, which argued (under the Obama Administration) for the “necessity” of collecting such data.
- October 2017: the HHS 2018–2022 Strategic Plan excluded any mention of LGBT people, despite that agency’s oversight of numerous offices and agencies (like the CDC) that directly impact the lives of LGBT Americans.
- April 2018: the Department of Justice announced the National Crime Victimization Survey will no longer include optional questions about sexual orientation or gender identity from crime victims under 18 due to the “potential sensitivity” of such questions for minors. This, despite the fact that LGBT teens are at elevated risk of violence (like assault, intimate partner violence, and murder).
- May 2018: the CDC announces it’s removing sexual orientation and gender identity data from the BRFSS.
- In addition to erasure from federal data collection, under the Trump administration information about LGBT people is being removed (or made impossible to access) across federal agency websites.
If you’re absent from federal data collection, you don’t exist in the eyes of the government.
Federal data collection is important for revealing disparities in employment, housing, education, healthcare, income/wealth, criminal victimization, and political participation.
That information guides the creation of government policies, regulations, and laws, and the allocation of government funding and other resources, aimed at remedying those disparities.
Inclusion in federal data collection is fundamental to the full integration of LGBT people into American social, cultural, economic, and political life.
And the full realization of LGBT civil rights.
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Michael J. Murphy, PhD, is Associate Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently, he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2019). He tweets @emjaymurphee.