Becoming a data doom-monger

Kevin standing on a stage at a Google Cloud event. He is wearing an orange jacket and black jeans. On the screen behind it says: Queer perspectives on inclusive data.

There’s something nostalgic about the final few days of the year. Perhaps it’s the mind making sense of the past 12 months: turning events, encounters and experiences into bitesize nuggets to file away in the folder labelled ‘2022’. Maybe it’s the temporary suspension of ‘normal life’ giving us time to reflect on what has happened.

2022 has been a very different year for me. My first book Queer Data: Using Gender, Sex and Sexuality Data for Action was published on 13 January, arriving in the world as the Omnicron variant ripped through Scotland’s population like wildfire. Having written the majority of the book during Scotland’s spring 2020 lockdown, I had no clue (a) how to write a book and (b) if anyone would want to read my musings on LGBTQ data. It’s therefore been a rollercoaster experience to discover that other people do want to read about the intersection of data practices and queer lives and Queer Data can play a role in shaping these conversations.

Over the year my arguments crystalised. It became clearer to me that, in the context of the UK in 2022, we don’t need more and more data about the negative experiences of LGBTQ communities as a prerequisite for governments, businesses, healthcare providers, universities or other large institutions to take action. Across these areas – whether it’s education or healthcare – we already know the contours of inequality and injustice. With a limited amount of time, money and energy, it was simply nonsensical for institutions to dedicate finite resources to gathering further proof of the problem.

I’m never really sure of the role I’m expected to play in these spaces – am I there as an academic, an agitator, a representative for all queer people? No single persona felt like the ideal fit.

The more I spoke about ideas from Queer Data the more I could see how gathering more and more data about LGBTQ lives was not just nonsensical but was also harmful. I’ve spent a good chunk of the past decade doing equality, diversity and inclusion work within universities and saw first-hand how demands for more and more data postponed solving bigger problems. Whether the problem was anti-trans academics or awarding gaps among LGBTQ students, collecting data about the problem was a lot easier than doing something to fix the problem.

Kevin in conversation with the author Raven Smith, both sat in chairs against a yellow background.
Speaking with the author Raven Smith at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Reviewing the past year through a quantitative lens, I’ve delivered over 40 talks, interviews, podcasts, blogs and articles across the UK, Europe and North America. I’m never really sure of the role I’m expected to play in these spaces – am I there as an academic, an agitator, a representative for all queer people? No single persona felt like the ideal fit. There’s also the niggle that I’m not doing enough. Not enough citations. Not enough rally cries. Not enough personal information about my life.

By positioning my contributions as a critical voice, I found myself becoming a data doom-monger. I felt increasingly disillusioned by what queer communities can achieve when they place too much faith in data to solve all of our problems. But my focus on the many negatives meant I didn’t shout loudly about the many positives that come from expanding data practices to recognise the existence of queer communities. My logic was simple: there are enough individuals and organisations promoting the importance of ‘being counted’ or talking about how plugging gaps in our diversity data will (somehow) solve all of our problems. What we need is more people challenging these assumptions and the optimism that increased visibility or more (granular, disaggregated, intersectional) data will necessarily improve the lives of the most minoritised in our society.

Kevin wearing a blue jacket in front of a microphone and sign with his name. He is speaking at a committee session at the Scottish Parliament.
Giving evidence at the Scottish Parliament’s Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee.

In June I was invited to provide evidence on the Gender Recognition Reform Bill at the Scottish Parliament. This experience was new terrain for me and – contributing my expertise to the most scrutinized Bill in the history of the Scottish Parliament – was jumping in at the deep end. I was nervous. My husband gave up his weekend to help me revise my material and rehearse my answers. I had a good idea of the websites from where Tory MSPs would source their attack lines (I guessed correctly) and was able to pre-empt the half-truths and obfuscations fired in my direction. Overall, it was an odd experience because reform of the Gender Recognition Act will not impact how we collect data about gender, sex or sexuality in Scotland. It was a non-story. The only reason I was invited to give evidence was in response to anti-trans misinformation campaigns about the Bill’s supposed threat to data practices.

This preoccupation was strange because in the many spaces where I’ve spoken about Queer Data I can count on one hand the number of questions from the audience on the conflict between gender/sex data or how to count trans people. Not because my work doesn’t speak to this imagined tension but because it’s just not a very exciting topic. Audiences have instead asked amazing questions about three-dimensional approaches to diversity monitoring, the design of sexual orientation categories in global companies, the relationship between ‘Born This Way’ explanations for sexuality and data practices, and the scraping of identity data from platforms such as Netflix and Instagram. These big and exciting questions are where future work on the intersection of queer lives and data practices is located.

2022 made it possible for me to bridge my writing and research. Queer Data has opened doors to spaces that were previously out of reach: governments, tech companies, data conferences, charities, universities and book festivals. Whatever the audience’s background, I tried to make sure I said something about data that made them think differently. I wanted people to leave my talks with at least one new, sticky idea that changed how they understood the world around them.

Thanks for reading – let’s see what lies ahead in 2023.

Published by Kevin Guyan

Dr Kevin Guyan is a researcher and writer based in Edinburgh whose work explores the intersection of data and identity.

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