Being counted is not enough

A black background with white and yellow text that reads: Being counted is not enough

What happens at the intersection where queer lives meet the data practices of a national census? Who benefits and who loses? And how might collecting and presenting data about queer lives push the ideals of justice and liberation further into the distance?

Nobody wants to be the killjoy at the party but I’m going to argue that when we talk about the collection, analysis and presentation of LGBTQ data we need to consider the good and the bad.

The 2021 census

The 2021 English and Welsh census asked two new questions on sexual orientation and gender identity. This data will help researchers and policymakers create a national picture of the UK’s LGBTQ population. It also challenges the design fault in data collection exercises that – for too long – assumed everyone is cisgender and straight.

For some, being counted in the census marks the pinnacle of queer inclusion and recognition by the state. But when we scratch the surface we quickly see that this data exercise is not as inclusive as we might first assume. While censuses in England, Scotland and Wales did include new questions on sexual orientation and trans/gender identity, the data collection exercise continued to require all respondents to identify their sex as either ‘male’ or ‘female’. For non-binary people, who may not identify in this way, selecting a binary sex option was compulsory with non-completion risking a fine of up £1,000.

This all goes to show that while some queer people are now counted, the design of data collection tools ensures that particular characteristics – or ways of thinking about identity –  are ‘designed-out’ of the process.

The dangers of queer inclusion

Although data is not often mentioned in this space, the dangers of queer inclusion has a long history that dates back to at least the early 2000s. With a turn to visibility, recognition and being counted, we’ve witnessed the co-opting of some LGBTQ individuals into historically unwelcome and contested institutions, such as marriage and the armed forces.

To help make sense of this moment, scholars and activists have devised terms such as homonormativism, homonationalism and homocapitalism to explain how the inclusion of some queer lives can play a role in propping-up institutions built on histories of harm and exclusion.

A selection of images that depict the partial embrace of aspects of LGBTQ lives by institutions that inflict harm in the past and the present.

In the context of the UK in 2022, we are not existing in a time and place where all ‘queers are not counted’ or where ‘explicit discrimination’ is our main focus when investigating encounters between queer lives and data practices. Just look at the census – the biggest data collection exercise in the country – some queer people are counted but this will not solve the problems of homophobia and transphobia.

Inclusion in data exposes the limits of visibility and recognition, and how being counted is sometimes an important step on a bigger journey but – in isolation – is not enough.

We need more data!

Quantitative and qualitative data can undoubtedly play a key role in engaging powerful people and creating spaces that are inclusive and equal. But I don’t believe the accumulation of more and more data is the answer to all of our problems.

Writing about data on racial injustice in the US, the sociologist Ruha Benjamin argues that the problem is not ‘a lack of knowledge’ and that ‘demanding data on subjects that we already know much about is a perversion of knowledge’.

Minoritised groups are invited to accumulate yet more data about injustices, burning through finite resources, to provide further proof of the problem. But what if this time, money and energy were used in other ways? What if this labour was spent on the development of mental health services, the provision of community-level legal support, or monetary help with overdue bills and outstanding rent payments?

Who counts as queer?

When we use data about queer communities to try and change the status quo for the better, this has an effect on how we understand those positioned as the focus of our data projects – in other words, the objects of our studies – and those positioned as outside or beyond the scope of our focus.

The collection, analysis and presentation of LGBTQ data fails to recognise that – in the design of the tools used – they only count queer individuals who are ‘out’.

At the intersection of data and identity, there is the question of disclosure and the contexts that make it possible (or impossible) to share an authentic account of your life and experiences. For LGBTQ individuals, this disclosure of information might be something as small as ticking the box ‘bisexual’ in a diversity monitoring form or signing-up for your work’s LGBT Staff Network. Too often the collection, analysis and presentation of LGBTQ data fails to recognise that – in the design of the tools used – they only count queer individuals who are ‘out’.

When data projects showcase a progressive narrative – where things move forward in a straight line – this can involve the erasure of certain lives that are ‘more problematic’ or that disrupt the idea of ‘progress’.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, this involved changing who counts and excluding queer people associated with sex work, gender deviance, poverty, crime and socialization. Just four years after the Stonewall riots in New York, Puerto Rican street queen Sylvia Rivera angrily called out those in the gay movement who focused on the interests of those most palatable in the eyes of the straight majority: gender-conforming, white, affluent, gays and lesbians.

Queer activist Sylvia Rivera at the Christopher Street Liberation Rally, 1973.
Sylvia Rivera at the Christopher Street Liberation Rally, 1973.
© Bettye Lane, New York Public Library.

The co-opting of some queers into institutions like the armed forces, immigration services and the police does not just serve the interests of the select few invited to join. It also gives the impression of a makeover for institutions that face questions about their legitimacy.

The forever brilliant Dean Spade notes how queer people and their association with freedom and progressive values can bolster the fortunes of institutions with harmful politics. When we overlay questions of data, we begin to see how some efforts to make data collection practices more inclusive can mask damaging activities taking place just under the surface.

What next?

Looking towards the future, inclusive initiatives can give the impression that a problem is under control and excuse structural factors that continue to operate unchecked. So pay attention to what data about LGBTQ communities does and does not do, and what alternative paths data prevents from happening. Sometimes an inclusive solution gives the suggestion of action but precludes more meaningful work from taking place.

This blog post is based on ideas presented in my book Queer Data: Using Gender, Sex and Sexuality Data for Action (Bloomsbury Academic).

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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