It’s an old adage: you don’t know what you don’t know. To which might be added: you won’t find out if you don’t care. All of which makes the motion passed Sept. 3 by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors historic, moving and possibly precedent-setting.
LA County became the first local government body in the nation to pass a motion requiring culturally competent trained medical examiners and coroners to investigate violent deaths— including suicides, hate crimes, and homicides—to see if they involve the LGBTQ community, to collect data on the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity data, and regularly report back to the Supervisors so they might develop better prevention and safety policies.
“Most of what I know, I get from CSI shows or those kinds of things where medical examiners are quite prominent” in determining if and what kind of crime occurred, out Supervisor Sheila Kuehl tells the Los Angeles Blade.
“This adds another kind of layer to the work that they already do, which is, if possible, to identify that this is a subpopulation group that we want to look at specifically,” Kuehl says. “Sometimes, it can help and sometimes, we’re not sure what to do about it. But we do want to be able to create greater understanding and protection of, especially, trans women who have been very vulnerable to violence and murder. I think that this is just the beginning.”
In fact, the motion says: “The work of the Medical Examiner and Coroner’s [Office] is vital, as it often is used to gather evidence and information that can be used in a criminal proceeding. However, this work can also highlight disparities in mortality rates, and provide valuable insight that can be used to guide policies, resources, and law enforcement efforts to protect at-risk communities.
“Many Medical Examiner and Coroner’s offices, including our own, do not currently collect and aggregate data pertaining to sexual orientation and gender identity,” the motion says. “In the absence of this data, it is impossible to detect the presence of disparities in mortality rates of the LGBTQ community. By tracking this data, it will allow us to better understand these disparities and develop policies that seek to address them at the County level.”
Kuehl co-authored the motion with Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who succeeded her former boss, conservative Republican Mike Antonovich. But while Antonovich had a reputation for being anti-LGBTQ, Barger has long appeared to be an LGBTQ ally. Kuehl says she cares “deeply” about the LGBTQ community.
LA County Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Kathryn Barger (Via Barger’s Facebook page)
“Because [Barger’s] not part of the community or in a community that’s part of the community, I think the data about suicide among our young people in our community, about murder and violence against trans people and the data about how much higher a percentage of our young people are in the foster care system than exist in the general society—it came to her a little bit later than I had seen it,” Kuehl says. “She was very moved by it and just decided that it was something we wanted to know about in the county.”
Barger’s original motion “asked Dr. Lucas, our coroner, who’s also the chief medical examiner, just to develop a plan for collecting the data because it’s not always clear what a person’s sexual orientation might’ve been or motive if it’s a hate crime, etc. We need to know how we’re going to do that,” says Kuehl.
Additionally, Barger directed them “to hire a consultant or a subject matter expert to do tightening in the department. If there’s any way, in terms of sensitively, to figure out… if there’s a way to even help collect this data without asking somebody’s parents, which would not always be sensitive. Then, we want a report back every three months on how they’re coming along figuring this out. It seemed like a reasonable way to start collecting the data, and a very, very necessary thing because we have no real data in the county to back up our larger understanding of the experience in the community.”
One source for the data that so impacted Barger was The Trevor Project, which just updated their statistics in time for the new school year. The Trevor Project’s 2019 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health reported that of 34,000 LGBTQ youth surveyed, 39% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past 12 months, with more than half of transgender and non-binary youth having seriously considered. “The same study found that 14% of LGB youth had a suicide attempt in the previous 12 months, rising to 29% for transgender and nonbinary youth,” the motion reported.
“Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and non-binary youth are more than 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers, so it’s imperative for school suicide prevention policies to also be LGBTQ competent. In addition, our research shows that more than half of LGBTQ youth are not out to a single adult in school; these policies show LGBTQ youth, out or not, that their school is a safe place for them to learn, and that school staff are prepared to help them in times of crisis,” said Sam Brinton, Head of Advocacy and Government Affairs for The Trevor Project.
The motion also cited the current data for hate crimes. “The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) statistics show that in 2017, 7,175 hate crimes were reported, 1,130 of which were based on sexual orientation bias and 119 on gender identity bias. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, one in four transgender people have been assaulted simply because they are transgender. The report went on to say that of these incidents, the majority of deadly attacks against transgender people are against women of color,” the motion reported.
Though press stories on the motion tend to emphasize LGBTQ youth, Kuehl says “they’re not going to limit themselves here. But we will probably ask them to aggregate the data by age, as well, because it is important when we have so many youth in our foster care and juvenile justice system who identify as LGBTQIA. It’s important for us to know because the outreach that we do or the work that we do in the Department of Children and Family Services, in Probation, in the Office of Diversion and Re-entry, which has a juvenile division now—we want to have some sensitivity to the community, as well. So, we’re probably going to slice and dice the data, but it won’t be limited” to youth.
First, staff needs to be trained to be able to figure out how they can collect the data. “The core for us, actually, is to see if we need additional or different kinds of services that the county can provide to help, particularly, with messages about suicide prevention that could be more targeted, working with outside entities, like Trevor. We already have an LGBTQ youth project in five departments where I ask for a report back every quarter about how they’re improving their services and sensitivity about this youth population,” says Kuehl.
“It’s not like we know what we’re going to do with it yet, but we do have these other projects that could incorporate new data,” Kuehl continues. “We might also want to make certain that we have some idea about safety in our various areas in the county. No one is ever safe from being attacked and harmed. You just can’t watch everybody at every minute, but there may be something. We could see there’s a zip code where trans people are more in danger or something.
“There are a lot of touchpoints in the county,” Kuehl says, “but I don’t think they will analyze the experience of our community in terms of why. What we can only try to do is aggregate data and take it for the truth and try to work with it.”
Let that sink in. LA’s local governmental body—the most populous county in the country with more that 10 million people—wants to collect LGBTQ data and “take it for the truth” instead of erasing LGBTQ data at the federal level. Perhaps the idea might catch on.
Reminder: September is Suicide Prevention Month. If you, or someone you care about, is in a crisis, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 or text “Home” to 741-741 or call The Trevor Project 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678678.