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).

Becoming a data doom-monger

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.