One of the great lessons of the LGBT equality movement in the United States has been the power of the story, whether told by a single person or through data about LGBT lives. As more and more LGBT people feel safe coming out to their families, friends, and communities, the country has had the opportunity to learn about who LGBT people are, the challenges they face, and what they need to live healthy and secure lives.

When the country has been listening, we have seen advancements in equality, including the recognition that one’s sexual orientation or gender identity have nothing to do with one’s ability to serve in our military, work for a federal contractor, or marry the person they love. Yet still today, myths and stereotypes persist, holding us back from achieving full equality. Too many still deny the dignity of transgender people, question the intentions of LGBT immigrants seeking safe harbor, and perceive an insurmountable divide between LGBT communities and communities of faith.  

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Popular media portrayals of LGBT people and high-profile LGBT celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Caitlyn Jenner create an image of affluence that causes us to turn a blind eye to some of the most marginalized among the LGBT community. We rarely see stories from the low end of the income scale on TV or in the news, stories like that of Nancy. Nancy, whose husband of 30 years was a transgender man, was unfairly denied her husband’s pension benefits after his death because they were considered to be in a same-sex marriage at the time Michael passed away, forcing Nancy into economic hardship.

Combatting the myth of affluence, researchers have pieced together data showing a vulnerability to poverty for LGBT people. For example, in a 2014 Gallup survey, 27 percent of LGBT people reported that they did not have “enough money for food at some point in the last year,” compared to 17 percent of non-LGBT people. Several studies have shown that poverty among lesbian and bisexual women is higher than poverty among heterosexual women. African American people in same-sex couples are more vulnerable to poverty than African Americans in married different-sex couples, and are more vulnerable than white people in same-sex couples. Transgender people are four times as likely as non-transgender people to have incomes below $10,000, often due to rampant employment discrimination and criminalization of the community.

Thanks to new data from the Census Bureau, we know more about the depth and breadth of poverty and economic instability in this country. But what these data fail to provide is a complete picture of the insecurity of LGBT people. This is because most federal surveys don’t routinely ask questions about sexual orientation and gender identity, so researchers are unable to identify LGBT people within those data—including in this week’s Census data release.

Recent actions by the Obama administration have improved our measurement of household relationships, which means government datasets can better assess families headed by same-sex couples and other types of modern families. Steps are also being taken in Congress. For example, the bipartisan LGBT Data Inclusion Act would ensure all federal agencies take steps to include sexual orientation and gender identity questions in their survey designs.

But federal agencies, as well as state and local governments, don’t have to wait for Congress to improve and expand the number of surveys and administrative datasets that ask questions about sexual orientation and gender identity. Governments can already take steps to review their existing protocols and identify the appropriate inclusion of these questions alongside other types of demographic data.  The federal government can also help states and localities ask these types of questions by continuing to fund inclusion of these questions on state-administered surveys like the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.

Policymakers should take seriously the need to make all of our stories visible through data. Without knowing the causes, contours, and consequences of poverty that are rooted in the life experiences of being LGBT—especially for LGBT people of color, transgender people, LGBT immigrants, LGBT people with disabilities, and LGBT young people—we cannot make scientifically-informed policy decisions and invest in programs and services that will be effective in responding to the needs of LGBT people. With more and better data on sexual orientation and gender identity, however, we can better understand what policy changes are needed to solve the most significant problems facing LGBT people.

In a nation as vast and diverse as ours, ensuring equality for everyone means that everyone must count.

Laura E. Durso is the Senior Director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress. M. V. Lee Badgett is a professor of economics, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Williams Distinguished Scholar at the Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.