It never ceases to amaze me when I come across reports of problems in our society which I had no idea were even issues. One of these cropped up last night while reading the latest blog entry from Washington Post editor Jonathan Capehart, where he discusses a peculiar aspect of demographic data collection. We’re apparently having a tough time accurately counting the number of gay, lesbian and bisexual people in the United States and it’s not because of too many people being in the closet. (Though I’m sure that’s still an issue as well.) No, the problem currently under examination is that some of you straight folks out there don’t actually know that you’re heterosexuals.
Sitting with Jody Herman and Adam Romero before moderating them in a panel discussion on the importance of expanding data collection about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, Herman said something that was at once disturbing and hilarious. “Straight people don’t know they are straight,” she said…
“Research regarding survey questions about sexual orientation identity show that not everyone understands the terms presented, sometimes because of differing language/cultural terms and norms about sexual identity,” Herman told me later via e-mail. “Ilan Meyer, our colleague at Williams, tested a sexual orientation question to identify LGB people in the general population and he stated that most heterosexual people selected the heterosexual or straight option, but for those that didn’t, the most common response was to write in ‘Normal.’ ”
I’m open to reading some research on the subject, but I can’t help but wonder how much of a “problem” this actually is in 2015. Capehart makes reference to some studies from “the first third of the 20th century” when terms like homosexuality and heterosexuality weren’t commonplace among the hoi polloi, and that’s understandable. But today? Can I just get a show of hands from the adults in the crowd (with apologies to the army of seven year old children who are obsessed with the GOP primary and read Hot Air every day) to get an idea of how many of you aren’t familiar with the current vernacular in terms of straight, gay, heterosexual and homosexual?
But even if this is an issue, aren’t we really just talking about semantics here? Assuming there are a significant number of people who can’t navigate that particular set of adjectives, we’re not talking about people not knowing they are straight, right? Some of Capehart’s interview subjects sounds as if there’s some grave issue lurking in the shadows if unfashionably straight people can’t summon up the correct terminology for a survey response. But that leads us to the real meat of the question; why are we obsessing over tallying all of these statistics in the first place? Before commenting, I’ll allow Jonathan to have his say on it. (Emphasis added)
That we have as many statistics on the LGBT community is owed to the Williams Institute and the ingenious ways its scholars tease data to fill in a portrait of LGBT Americans. But it will remain incomplete as long as the federal government doesn’t make counting LGBT Americans a priority.
“LGBT people are an increasingly visible segment of the U.S. population, but we lack crucial population-based data on their demographic, socioeconomic, geographic, and other characteristics because our nation’s foremost data collection efforts do not directly capture sexual orientation or gender identity,” Romero told me. “Accordingly, federal data collection efforts should include sexual orientation and gender identity wherever and whenever other demographic information is collected, and should otherwise determine how to address the data and information gap regarding LGBT people.”…
Data are what drive policy and show the effectiveness of said policies. Despite coming out and the great advances in law and societal attitudes that came with it, without reliable data on all aspects of the lives of LGBT Americans, they will remain invisible to the very government they depend on for their and their families’ health and safety.
From the most abstract level, it’s worth asking why we are still focusing on this data in the first place. Aren’t we all supposed to be busily be moving on into a post-racial, post-sexual orientation, post-gender, post-religiosity future? I remain mystified at how important some activists find it to continue trying to pigeonhole everyone into a series of camps if the goal is for everyone to just be people and get along with each other. It seems to me that the surest way to avoid seamless integration is to continually remind us of our differences.
But even if I accept the argument that this data serves some larger purpose in this cause, how accurate and statistically significant can any such survey ever be? We are constantly reminded by the media that all the lines have blurred in the modern era. Are you straight or are you gay? In the opinion of at least two of my gay friends, nobody on the planet can honestly choose either of those answers because everyone is bisexual to some degree. (This is a surprisingly common opinion.) The same thing applies to racial definitions. In reference to what some people still derisively refer to as the browning of America, the melting pot of the United States has done its job fairly well, don’t you think? At a casual glance you would most likely think of me as yet another boring old white guy. But would you be surprised to learn that two of my great grandparents were nearly full blooded, qualified-to-live-on-the-reservation, Native Americans from the Oneida Nation? Also, thanks to my sister (who has an unhealthy obsession with ancestry.com) I am assured that there’s at least one black woman in the family tree back in the early 1800s. So when I receive my demographic survey, which box should I check? Am I “bi-racial” for this critical task of counting? And if so, aren’t most of us by this point?
In perhaps the most dismaying example available, here and now in the 21st century you can apparently select which gender you most identify with. (See: Manning, Chelsea.) But it doesn’t stop there. What if my maternal great grandfather was black but the rest of my line is white. If I just feel like I relate more to the African American community, can I answer “Black” on the survey? And if not, why are you trying to deny me my heritage?
Apparently we all get to pick and choose our demographics these days, and there is debate as to what each of the terms in question specifically means. With that in mind, why are we obsessing so much over this data? Taking a page from Capehart’s example above, when you get one of these forms in the mail perhaps you should follow the lead of the confused “straight option” survey respondent and just scratch out all of the choices and write in “normal” for each and every question. We’re all normal. And if you want to force everyone into a pigeonhole, maybe you’re part of the problem rather than the solution.