Counting queers

August 08, 2022 08:30
Photo: Reuters

“What is your sexual orientation?” In Brazil, where queer people have historically been ignored and excluded from official statistics, this question holds special significance for the LGBTQ+ community.

Brazil recently took a small step toward positive change when the country’s national statistics agency, IBGE, published its latest National Health Survey, which for the first time included questions about sexual orientation. According to the survey, based on data collected in 2019, around 2.9 million Brazilians identify as homosexual or bisexual. (The multiple-choice questionnaire was limited to four options – heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or “don’t know” – thus omitting transgender and nonbinary identities).

Despite this encouraging development, the IBGE still refuses to include questions about sexual orientation and gender identity in Brazil’s national census. In June, a federal court rejected an effort by the Public Prosecutor’s Office to force the agency to incorporate these questions.

Many leading economies have already done so. Canada’s 2021 census asked respondents what their gender identity is and what sex they were assigned at birth. The United Kingdom’s latest census included a voluntary question on sexual orientation. Australia’s recent census offered the option of identifying as male, female, or nonbinary. And the United States Census Bureau is still researching which questions to ask and how to ask them.

But ignoring or excluding the LGBTQ+ community remains the norm in many developing countries. According to Kenyan doctor and human-rights activist Stellah Wairimu Bosire, censuses are an important tool in government planning, and excluding the queer community means that policies targeting employment, health, and homelessness do not consider the specific needs of LGBTQ+ people. A 2019 report by the Arcus Foundation on violence against LGBTQ+ people in five African countries found that accurate data can also help LGBTQ-focused NGOs better target interventions, evaluate their impact, and improve advocacy efforts.

In the absence of official statistics, some civil-society organizations have built their own datasets. Brazil, for example, is the world leader in recorded murders of LGBTQ+ people. We know this because a trans-rights group, ANTRA, documented the numbers, names, and stories of the 140 trans people murdered in the country in 2021. Trans-rights groups in other parts of the world, including Letra Ese in Mexico, Helem in Lebanon, and TGEU in Europe, have been doing similar work.

Almost every day, queer researchers send me requests to complete surveys, take part in interviews, or fill out forms. While this research sheds light on our shared experiences, very little of it reaches national audiences, and almost none comes from governments. The lack of official data renders me and my community invisible. It makes it extremely difficult to promote our interests and protect our rights, thereby denying us the fundamental rights of citizenship.

This is no accident or oversight. In his book Queer Data, Kevin Guyan notes that decisions about what to ask in official surveys reflect the surveyors’ views. If statisticians and politicians don’t see LGBTQ-phobia as a problem, or wish to suppress our community’s demands, why would they include relevant questions in the census? And so trans people remain invisible, and homophobic violence, exclusion, and poverty are allowed to persist.

Even when official surveys include questions on gender identity and lived experiences, the numbers are likely underreported, owing largely to a lack of trust. Many members of the LGBTQ+ community do not feel safe sharing details about their life with government agencies. After all, Brazil’s dismal failure to protect trans people’s lives speaks for itself, and US-based studies consistently find that sexual and gender minorities experience disproportionately higher levels of violence.

Moreover, such violence is often a handmaiden of fascism. In Nazi Germany, the authorities created “pink lists” of individuals charged with the then-crime of being homosexual. Many were sent to concentration camps. The law banning homosexuality remained on the statute books in West Germany until 1994 and was used to prosecute some 100,000 people. More recently, Russian troops in Ukraine have reportedly been circulating a list of LGBTQ+ activists.

Regardless of how people respond to questions about sexual orientation and gender identity, merely asking them is an affirmation. It makes people feel seen, normalizes gender diversity, and brings us closer to full citizenship rights.

In Brazil, the IBGE blamed budget cuts for its refusal to include LGBTQ-related questions in the 2022 census, claiming that their inclusion would cause delays. The judiciary has accepted these largely bureaucratic arguments, ignoring the struggles, pains, and experiences of the queer community in the name of pragmatism.

Brazil is just one front in a global battle for inclusion. Recently, the World Bank published a cross-national analysis of laws affecting LGBTQ+ communities in 16 countries. This pioneering study is a huge achievement, but the scarcity of data means that conducting international or comparative analyses of LGBTQ+ rights remains a highly frustrating experience.

Following the census battle, the IBGE announced plans to incorporate LGBTQ-related questions in smaller surveys in 2023 and 2024. This is a welcome development, but there is still a long way to go.

Politicians must understand that any national census or survey that does not include the LGBTQ+ community will not accurately represent their citizenry. Another decade without data would mean another decade without adequate policies, perpetuating the historical injustices that have kept our community poor, vulnerable, and forgotten.

Copyright: Project Syndicate
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A Brazilian LGBT+ activist, the writer is an Aspen New Voices Fellow.