Michelle Marzullo

This Is Not Sexy: Research (or lack there of) on LGBT People

Filed By Michelle Marzullo | March 02, 2010 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: homophobic behavior, LGBT research, recession, social stigma, statistics, transphobia

Knowledge Clipboard.jpgis power. True, yet collecting accurate knowledge on our LGBT communities is often a struggle. This is not because we cannot collect such information but usually because those shaping surveys and marshaling clip-boards are either not interested in learning about LGBT people, ignorant of the needs of our communities, or plain hostile to us.

In this installment on "The Recession and LGBT Communities," I address the issue of information available in order to merely pose questions such as, "How are our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans people faring in the recession?" The blog comments on my first entry in this series on the recession and LGBT communities introduced the thorny problem of researching LGBT persons and basically made the point that trying to understand the recession's impact on our communities is a necessary and complex task.

After the jump, I will discuss some of the research problems with all of this. If you are not interested in this go to the concluding section of this blog called: "This Is Not Sexy."

We're here, we're queer, count US!

A blog commentator named Michael brought up some good points on the first blog in this series:

"I respectfully submit that because of the ongoing reluctance of many to self-identify as LGBT that there is NO SUCH THING as a survey on ANY topic that can possibly meet the minimum criteria for application to ALL LGBTs. Put in research speak: there is simply no way to determine a credible 'margin of error.'

Though I disagree that we cannot create reliable and valid surveys for lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender folks, his point here brings up two important considerations. First, not everyone wants to identify based on sexual orientation and some trans folks simply identify as their gender or are "stealth." We should be sympathetic to these urges and researchers also need to adjust our methods accordingly.

This leads us to our second consideration: hidden populations. A population is said to be "hidden" if, "there is no public listing of its members, such as a voter registration roll, or a telephone directory. Sampling such populations is difficult because the standard procedures that ensure samples will be representative are not applicable to these populations," report Drs. Douglas and Broadhead in their 1996 publication on sampling advice for hidden populations.

Reasons abound for populations to be uninterested in being counted. These usually have to do with social stigma. Some purposefully avoid researchers because of past "research" abuses, like those done to African Americans in the US (see the book Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet Washington). Other groups are so dispersed or nomadic that they are not picked up in generalized sampling schemes, like migrant field workers.

Research techniques for identifying these folks use smaller, respondent-driven sampling techniques. For example, I interview you then ask you to refer your friends who are also L, G, B, or T, then they refer their friends, and the study "snowballs" into a valid sample size. Many are "incentivized" with little tokens like gas cards or small amounts of cash given for their participation. Some such projects are called, "community-based participatory research," which takes a collaborative approach to constructing and conducting research with a given target group. There are many articles by statistical whizzes showing that these and similar approaches are scientifically valid and rigorous.

Once many of these smaller studies are achieved, they are sometimes written up together in a meta-analysis to examine trends and summarize the areas where they agree and disagree. There is usually great care given to understanding how the methodological differences between studies impact the reliability of findings to emphasize what can and cannot be taken as a generalizable finding in the meta-study. When a social problem is identified and shows a need for information on hidden populations, such smaller studies are normally conducted to gather basic information. Larger studies are then attempted to answer these basic questions with many, many people involved. This is primary research. Some researchers use data that was collected for a different reason but has enough information on LGBTs available to meaningfully examine these issues.

The main problem with using secondary sources is the problem of data quality. Who asked the questions? Were they particularly partisan or homophobic/transphobic in their question construction? What categories were used for people to identify their sexuality and/or gender? Should we put people into categories? If categories were used, were people recoded or reclassified into another category? Who was kept in and who was "cleaned out" of the data? Where LGBTQ participants statistically "weighted" to increase their representation? What types of sensitivity testing was conducted to ensure this data was good enough to analyze?

This Is Not Sexy

I am intending to highlight some of the sticking points in getting at accurate data on our communities. The problem of hidden populations combined with social and political resistance for including such data variables as "sexual orientation" or "sexuality" or "romantic partner" or "gender identity" rather than, or in addition to, "gender" and "sex" give this a complex but not insurmountable set of circumstances that must be addressed.

We must demand better, more rigorous statistics on our communities. Asking for accurate statistics is not sexy: You say you're an activist--what do you do? "I ask universities, NGOs and government agencies to count me in their surveys," rather than "I fight hate!" "I am destroying the gender binary!"

Indeed, this might be a bean-counter approach to activism but it is something that is more than crucial. Like any of the other more sexy activist activities, this work takes persistence, fortitude, and hard-headed will over time. I asked one person with such fortitude about this vexing problem, economist M.V. Lee Badgett. As the Research Director at the Williams Institute, Dr. Badgett and her colleague Dr. Gary Gates are prominent researchers mining such data sources for information on our communities. I asked her whether there were any good data on non-coupled LGBT folks and her simple answer was "unfortunately no." Dr. Badgett did point out a useful source that I also recently stumbled upon: http://gaydata.org/. It is the brain child of Randall L. Sell, Sc.D. and is hosted through Drexel University's School of Public Health. The website "encourages the collection of sexual orientation data and the analysis of data sources that have already collected such data."

Because of the marketplace focus that began this series, I asked Dr. Badgett about the problem with considering all LGBTs as "DINKS" (Dual-income, no kids). To that she simply said, "They're not all in couples, for one thing." She says that the problem with characterizing LGBT people who are in couples is the suggestion that, "DINKs are just frivolously spending all of their money on themselves. But they also save for retirement, support LGBT organizations, supply lots of mainstream community organizations, and live in the economic shadow of the threat of discrimination." On my question of whether or not there is good data on the economic situation of LGBT folks, Dr. Badgett said, "I've looked really hard for data on how LGBTs are doing, including using the Witeck-Combs/Harris Interactive data and the current population-based survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. We can see unemployment rates rising among LGBs and people in same-sex couples, but the sample sizes of unemployed folks is just really small, mainly because the sample sizes of LGBs and 'same-sex' couples is pretty small. So it's been hard to do anything much in the way of analysis of those data."

Added to this problem of counting individual LGB persons, the studies on trans populations are sparse at this point. As an optimist on the subject, I anticipate that the queer-friendly departments in the academy understand this problem. I do understand that there are a good number of qualitative and some quantitative studies underway because of the fortitude of trans activists and their allies. Many of the studies on trans folks are qualitative (for many of the reasons discussed above) and focus on the effects on health, work and well-being from pervasive anti-trans discrimination.

One of my favorite researchers is Dr. Kristen Clements-Noelle, a public health researcher at the University of Nevada at Reno. Dr. Clements-Noelle is doing solid, trans-positive research. She is not the only researcher on trans topics out there but I would contend that she is too rare a bird for the amount of work we have ahead of us. There have also been needs assessment-type studies or health studies done on trans issues usually through social services organizations serving trans populations. In general, researchers need to be especially sensitive when designing such research to avoid creating false distinctions based on bias: trans folks can identify as lesbigay, just as LGBs can be people of color (and visa versa all the way around!). These are not exclusive terms but overlap in ways that impact who is counted and why.

So what do we know then? There is some data on LGBT people but economic data is particularly sparse. Data on couples are available from the Census and there have been a few larger studies on lesbians and gays. Smaller studies on trans and bisexual people also exist. To my knowledge, no population-based study has yet accurately captured individuals in these communities in their totality.

I want to ask readers to provide links to any studies on lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people in the comment section of this blog. Perhaps we can start our own resource similar to "gaydata.org" and call it the more apropos "queerdata.org"?

I conclude with a no-brainer, all in all, there is much work to be done. And it's up to us to do it or push for it. This point brings me to a teaser for the next installment of this blog: the 2010 U.S. Census.

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I think one of the big problems why so many of us don't demand more studies and information is that we're afraid it'll be used against us. The history of oppression against our community has made us gun-shy.

I know firsthand how researchers have been unkind to trans people. There are many who fixate on us, treating us like amusing curiosities. They usually fudge the data to fit their own pet theories defining us as deluded, confused, and/or perverted. They then use those conclusions to create policy that is dehumanizing and takes away control of our own lives and bodies. The questions and the analysis are loaded, and the sampling methods uninformed and extremely biased.

Even the researchers who mean well end up causing tremendous damage, because they get so much wrong at every step that there's no chance of collecting meaningful, accurate data. Yet the results are still published, and researchers are deemed "experts" on a group of people they don't belong to and know nothing about. It's like a white person claiming to be an "expert on blacks". But since we're just a zoo exhibit to these people, nobody questions it.

It really isn't too far a stretch from how researchers have used and abused black people, although the end result is usually about restricting medical intervention instead of imposing it. Unless of course you happen to be intersex as well. So there is a very similar distrust going on.

When will I gladly participate in a study of trans people? When trans people are involved in conducting it.

Hi Jamie
You might want to check out TransPULSE. It is a project in Ontario, Canada that has many transgender individuals as part of the study directors. It's a health care focused study. You can also find video's about it on Youtube.

The very idea that sexuality is somehow indicative of a fundamentally different personality is very modern and entirely ridiculous. Would anyone suggest studying people based on what kind of music they listen to? What kind of clothing they wear? Within each group there is a broad spectrum of behaviors. A Bear Top would have more in common with a straight Lumberjack than he would with a very flamboyant queer. Anyone who has any experience with people knows this. Treating us as different is itself the enemy. Same goes for race.

Actually, yes, people DO propose studies based on those attributes and interests. You just described studies aimed at investigating identity creation. I'm not sure which disciplines the "researchers" everyone is mentioning belong to. Within my field, sociology, we "treat people differently" to try and understand them through their interests, actions, interactions, and experiences. The difference between the bear top and the lumberjack is that, although they share many commonalities, one must deal with an additional set of social and political issues due to his sexuality.

The nature of research as qualitative or quantitative is also brought up in women's studies. Many feel that quantitative should not be used in women's studies because it has traditionally be used as an instrument of oppression by male researchers.

PanoramaIsland | July 7, 2010 12:37 AM

Why not study people based on what they do, what they like, who they love, what they're interested in? I'd love to see a study illustrating the similarities and differences between people who listen to similar music aimed at very different audiences - epic heavy metal and Wagner operas, for example. The method is reductive, to be sure, but it could be enlightening. I see nothing wrong with it.

Of course, numbers can be manipulated. Studies can be poorly constructed; questions can be loaded. I understand that. The solution, including for trans queers like myself, is to mount a major effort, to press for - perhaps even create - better studies, and the proper understanding of those studies both in the academy and in the public eye.

Difficult, yes, but aren't all our goals difficult? Understanding ourselves and our people better is a noble goal, I think, and numbers allow us to enrich our understanding, add a dimension to it that first-hand experience alone cannot provide.

I invite you to visit my science blog. I am a molecular biologist and I do my best to search the literature and post what I can about research in LGBT issues. I started with biology but now I also post legal, social, psychological and other studies.

The blog is http://lgbtlatestscience.wordpress.com/

I also have a Facebook fan group and I'm Twitter as LGBTLatestScien (because that's the longest name Twitter would accept).

I publish as much as I can without copyright infringement. I also provide links to other sources of data and researchers.

If you want or need anything, just contact me on Facebook or at LGBTLatestScience.

Thanks for posting this link.

You might want to look up the Journal of Sex Research, too.

There seems to be a shortage of research about the effects of social isolation and segregation on LGBT people. Have you seen much information about this? I'd think that separation in social networks, for example, would affect people's ability to find jobs (and the kinds of jobs they can get). There's a lot of word-of-mouth evidence supporting job segregation.

A Large study of T-People was done in NYC It ended about 2 years ago! I was part of the study but have never heard what the results were! Any one have any data or results?

I sympathize with researchers. You mentioned the methods that need to be used to find participants - which means you automatically bias your sample toward LGBT people with strong connections to the community - almost certainly a different group from all LGBT people.

Then, because terminology is so tricky, dynamic, and disputed, it's very hard to write a survey that won't annoy the subjects. I've never yet completed a survey on trans issues that didn't leave me feeling insulted at least once (and I'm not the touchiest one out there). That's a petty complaint, perhaps, but when people are responding to surveys pretty much out of the goodness of their hearts, it doesn't take much to make them decide they have better things to do.

For now, it would probably help for researchers to figure out what are the few key pieces of information that are truly needed, and focus all the effort on getting just a few studies right, rather than have a proliferation of small, half-baked studies with untrustworthy results. But the graduate school system conspires against that, because every graduate thesis needs its own little study.

Though I've participated in LGBT surveys, I have stopped doing so because my sexuality seemed to be the point of the survey. The surveys had little relevance outside the LGBT curve. I'd like to see surveys in which my sexuality--, my homosexuality is merely a checked box, that's it, no more, and then focus on the NY Yankees or classic Hollywood or liberal/conservative issues, etc. I happen to be gay, but that is not all of me.

Michelle if you send me an email I can email you my reference list and a powerpoint presentation from my masters thesis re: LGBT public policy/discrimination and its impact on mental health. mjmannmsw@gmail.com

Some years ago, I worked at a private sector research company. We collected data for any number of government or private sector clients. When I began there, as a surveyor, collecting data over the telephone, I remember the dilemma of the demographics section at the end.
We would usually ask all the basic demo questions; income, marital status etc. We were SPECIFICALLY instructed NOT to ask gender. We were to fill it in based on “the voice we heard.” Not only is this inaccurate more often than many would like to believe; it also completely negates and fails to record the identity of many trans people who may or may not have access to hormones and those people whose voices are non-gender normative.

It would be so simple to ask this question like every other one. I always did, explaining to people if they became offended, that, for the purposes of research, I needed to have THEM identify their answer rather than me guessing. This is so fundamental to good research that I was perpetually shocked that my superiors didn’t understand. The people on the other end of the phone were always okay with it once I explained.

Later, working in a different research environment, we were able to incorporate a “transgendered” category on our written surveys. This is problematic, of course, since many trans people don’t want to identify as transgendered but I really think it’s the way of the future. In order to study trans populations, we need to identify them.

If I can suggest that if you, trans folks reading this, ever get a survey with a trans category; please please please consider filling it in despite your mixed feelings about it. It’s a hamfisted compromise but I think it’s the first step towards something better.

Then again, I live in Canada and we just set our census data on fire and left the barn to burn. So sad.


I am an MSW student trying to formulate a good research question. My original research question was going to look at eating disorders in the trans community, but the feedback I received was that there are more pressing issues that need to be researched. Those issues include, illicit drug use, health care access and barriers, violence, HIV/AIDS, and suicide. I am really interested in doing a research study that can be helpful rather than just filling a requirement at school. Any and all suggestions are helpful on what you think is an important topic to be researched. Thank you!

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, in partnership with NCTE, just released a huge study on transgender and gender non-conforming people's experiences of discrimination accessing health care. The study also looks at health outcomes.

With 6,500 respondents, this is the largest study of trans people in history.


Michelle Marzullo | November 1, 2010 2:15 PM

Thanks Jamie! I'll check it out and summarize it in an upcoming blog...this is wonderful news!

Hi Lindsay,

That's awesome that you're wanting to do something that'll be helpful!

Someone in Vancouver, BC just completed his MSW thesis on trans guys' stories of satisfaction - from what I remember, it was looking at a strengths-based approach to mental health & well-being, and resilience in relation to problematic substance use. I think he got some funding for it for it from an addictions-related funding body.

The research was done by a gay guy who's a trans ally, and it was guided by a small advisory cttee consisting of trans guys. HEre's a link to his thesis. https://circle.ubc.ca/bitstream/handle/2429/19390/ubc_2010_spring_greatheart_marcus.pdf?sequence=1

I think it would be super-helpful to for similar research to look at the experiences of gender queer folks / non-binary identified folks, and / or of trans women.

Another idea would be to find out from trans folks what worked for them in accessing addiction services... Something that might be a step towards best practices in addiction counselling / treatment.

If you're in the States, there are a number of agencies that work with LGBT folks around addiction issues; you might be able to build a partnership with one of them to support your research, or else you might be able to build a parntership with local trans groups.

In canada I just know of 2 programs that are specifically targeted to queer & trans folks around addiciton issues - Rainbow Services at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, and Prism Alcohol & Drug Services, through Vancouver Coastal Health, in Vancouver, BC

laurieyoung | March 4, 2011 10:07 AM

Thank you Dr. J.....I was reading through all of the comments waiting to see your name and comment pop-up. Thank you even more for your incredible leadership in creating and making this research occur. It has been an education to work near your side....So, I will cut and paste and restate your comment as it should be repeated and often ( I made two friendly amendments and spelled out NCTE):
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force(NGLTF), in partnership with National Center for Transgener Equality (NCTE) , just released a huge study on transgender and gender non-conforming people's experiences of discrimination accessing health care. The study also looks at health outcomes.

With 6,500 respondents, this is the largest study of trans people in history.


Hats off to you, Dr. Y.

Actually, people do study cultural groups that are based on music taste. There have been social science Ph.D. projects on punk rock, for example.

Please do not ever use the term 'queer' as it is highly offensive and inaccurate when used in any way to reference gay people. Queer does not have anything to do with sexual orientation but rather means weird or odd. I have never met a queer gay person but I sure know a lot of queer heterosexuals. I cannot speak for all gay individuals and families, but I can say I would never participate in any type of study that used the term 'queer', which is every bit as offensive to gay people as the N-word for blacks or the F-word for gay people.

DB, I don't know where you've been, but "queer" has become the vernacular for lots of LGBT people in the last few years. I don't personally subscribe to it, preferring to refer to myself as gay, but there are thousands (yea, perhaps millions) who prefer the handle of queer because it encompasses a larger percentage of us (my read on it anyway).