The Challenges of Amassing Global Data on LGBTI People at CSW60

What are the challenges inherent in a forthcoming massive collection of data about the global LGBTI community? How can the United Nations ensure the collected data is used effectively to ensure that LGBTI people are not left behind in global development funding?

This topic was explored by a panel representing LGBTI advocacy and research organizations, joined by a staff member of the UN Development Programme, which is working to develop the first Global LGBTI Inclusion Index.  OutRight, a sponsor of the UN panel on March 18, is ONE OF THE NGOs that UNDP is consulting with on the index.  The fact that there is no existing index of this scale is a challenge for the UN in ensuring that LGBTI people across the world can contribute to and benefit from sustainable development.

Andrew Park, International Program Director at The Williams Institute, opened the session asking global human rights, LGBTI and development advocates:

“In your countries how many lesbians are there?” Park asked.

A few hands shot up.

“Seven percent estimated in Norway.”

“10 percent in Peru. But we think it’s higher.”

Then, silence.

Park said the response highlighted his point-- that a lack of data results in uncertainty.  His point was emphasized when an audience member asked, “Define lesbian?”

“Most people in the LGBT movement don’t know how many people we are; yet we’ve been advocating for them for many years,” he said.

A few countries likes the United States, France, Norway and others, ask questions about the relationships in households, which can be used to estimate LGBTI populations. But, Park said no country census asks directly about sexual orientation.

Suki Beavers, representing the UNDP on the panel, underscored why data matters. “Data as evidence influences governments. Data and evidence are powerful tools for showing what the situation is and informing change. What you can’t count, you can’t influence and you can’t fund.”

She noted that the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) –to reduce poverty, achieve equality and promote peaceful and inclusive societies—includes a commitment by world governments that “nobody should be left behind.” The data collections for the SDGs are the starting point for how the UN will spend billions in development money.

“How can we ensure that LGBTI people are not left behind if they are invisible because of a lack of data? If we don’t know what their situation is, how can we advocate for programs that will do the most to advance LGBTI people? If we cannot track trends, then you have a problem. Tracking will allow us to fund programs,” said Beavers.

The index that UNDP is working to create will explore five “priority dimensions”:

  • life experience- education
  • economic empowerment
  • security and violence
  • health and civic and
  • political participation.

“We think this index will trigger catalytic change,” said Beavers.

The goal will be to zoom in on specific questions about each group in the LGBTI community to produce valuable data, Beavers said. For example to explore the poverty levels for lesbians she asked would is data needed on:

  • What does poverty look like for lesbians?
  • Would it be employment? Level of income?
  • Control over bank assets?
  • The ability to own land?

And she noted that the questions that work in one context may not work in another.

Another area explored by the panelists was safety for LGBTI people who may be surveyed in countries hostile to them.

“Not doing harm when trying to do good is obviously a priority,” said Beavers. Others noted that the LGBTI community feared research in years past, as it could be used to undermine safety, which makes security in designing the data collection a top priority.

Leigh Ann van der Merwe, a feminist and transgender rights activist of the South Africa S.H.E. Feminist Collective, said asking the right questions must be also be a priority.

“On economic empowerment, what do you ask? What do you earn? Does that really tell you enough.”

As a transgender woman, van der Merwe noted that questions about gender identity must be clear and specific because the terms differ from “province to province.”

Park noted that the “two-step approach” was considered the most effective.  Individuals are asked what their assigned sex at birth was and what their gender identity is now.

Van der Merwe raised the issue of how research and data are used when people in the Global South are the subject of research by those in the Global North, noting she felt it was not always in the interests of – or benefit to -- the local population.
“Researchers come to Africa and do research and nothing ever changes,” she said. “We [as Africans] need to be involved in the research, from conception to analysis.”

“We’re not generating data for the sake of generating data,” Beavers responded. “We are generating data to drive change.”

Listen to full panel: