(UPDATED) Los Angeles County may have just opened the door to better government policy and resources for the LGBTQ community. During the regular Public Health afternoon news conference updating the public on the COVID-19 crisis Friday, June 19, LA County Board of Supervisors Chair Kathryn Barger noted that the County Public Health Department has added sexual orientation and gender identity questions (SOGI) to their testing questionnaire, a move she helped put into effect Thursday, working with Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and Equality California.
“LGBT people experience disproportionate rates of underlying illness, poverty, homelessness and discrimination,” Kuehl said in a statement to the Los Angeles Blade Thursday. “That’s why it’s so important that we capture sexual orientation and gender identity information as people get tested for COVID-19. Knowing how COVID-19 is affecting LGBT populations will allow us to appropriately allocate resources and address needs within the community. I’m very grateful to the many people in government and local nonprofits who worked quickly to make sure we could start this data collection as quickly as possible.”
“I completely support really looking at the numbers and allowing us to get a better feel in terms of the COVID crisis and what it’s doing to the LGBTQ community,” Barger said in response to a question from the Los Angeles Blade at the Friday news conference. “I’m also in support of Sen. Wiener’s bill [SB 932 COVID-19 data collection] that is moving forward, as well.”
But Barger went one significant step further – acknowledging what almost every politician and campaign director asking for money, votes and volunteers knows – that LGBTQ people are a real demographic, a distinct minority, a people with a culture and history, rather than an odd collection of individuals whose only shared characteristic is a casual sexual attraction to others of their own gender.
After the LA Blade pointed out that the Williams Institute estimates 1.7 million LGBT adults live in California, almost a half million of whom live in LA County, Barger said, “Yeah, I think that in this county, we recognize that we are moving in a way that we have to be more cognizant of all demographics, so obviously this board is committed across the board.”
Barger, a Republican, said she and Kuehl, a Democrat, have “asked for the testing and a break down on the testing to be done for the LGBTQ community and we are adding questions.”
After announcing that Public Health has identified 79,609 positive cases of COVID-19 across all areas of LA County, and a total of 3,063 deaths, Barbara Ferrer, PhD, MPH, MEd, Director of Public Health, posted graphics and explained the demographic breakdown of those who’ve died, 93 percent of whom had underlying health conditions.
“Of those who died, information about race and ethnicity is available for 2,844 people (99 percent of the cases reported by Public Health),” she said. “42% of deaths occurred among Latino/Latinx residents, 29% among White residents, 17% among Asian residents, 11% among African American residents, less than 1% among Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander residents and 1% among residents identifying with other races.”
Ferrer noted that the LA Blade’s question was “important,” as was the Supervisors’ leadership on the issue.
“The big issue has been making sure we’re collecting that information in lots of different ways and we’re collecting it in ways that are appropriate and feel culturally acceptable to people so they feel safe enough to answer,” said Ferrer. “So, I do know, across the board, we are making efforts to improve our data collection system so that we’re actually able to more accurately reflect information about sexual orientation.”
Once the department has better information,” Ferrer said, “it’s demographic information that we need to be able to share. We have other information that shows elevated levels of risk for other diseases – and also – for stigma, for being stigmatized and discriminated against. So, in this fight for equity, we really do need to make sure that we have the kind of information that helps us better understand everyone’s experiences and then use that information to make the changes we need.”
The SOGI questions are included on the County’s COVID-19 portal, where the testing sign up site includes demographics on its questionnaire. After at least one week of LGBTQ data collection, the testing data will be regularly posted on the county’s website.
The significance of LA County – with a population of more than 10 million – taking a lead on recognizing the LGBTQ community as a distinct demographic, acknowledging the importance of collecting LGBTQ data to better understand the COVID-19 crisis in this sprawling region, and including LGBTQ on the graphics along side racial minorities – is a very big deal.
The city of Washington DC is the only other governmental body that officially collects LGBTQ data and applies that data to policies and resources.
But the issue is national. On May 13, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announced that the state Dept. of Health would start collecting SOGI data, including “conducting extensive case histories investigations as part of contract tracing on those who test positive for the virus,” according to a press release from Wolf’s office. The department is working with Sara Alert, a new data collection platform and has requested a system modification to include SOGI data. However, as of June 20, it does not appear on the state’s COVID-19 website that SOGI data has yet been collected.
“The fact Wolf has given the OK to collect this data is a huge deal for the LGBTQ community,” says Erin Cross, director, Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) Center at Penn, told Penn Today in a June 18 story. “Unless we know the dimensions and the number of people we need to be cognizant about, we will always just be guessing,” she says. “So it’s good to have hard data to support our programs and goals,” noting especially the “most high at risk population” are the elderly in the LGBT community.
Dennis Flores, an assistant professor at the School of Nursing, who specializes in HIV/STI prevention, concurs. “If there was no accounting for how many folks from the LGBTQ community would test positive or if we didn’t have details of the data, we wouldn’t be able to create programming that would be tailored to the specific means and needs of this community,” he tells Penn Today. “We would be assumed under the general public, and that would mean we could lose important details that might be beneficial in ensuring that we have success in the outcome we want to achieve.”
“Our city [Philadelphia] is one of the largest poor cities in the United States,” Flores adds, “and so we know that health outcomes are direr within the African-American communities. We know that it is more pronounced in lower economic status communities. Thus, as LGBTQ individuals, we have intersectional identities where we might belong to two or three of these marginalized groups. With that, it compounds the risk factors, potentially being exposed to the virus, or our success in combatting the virus and making sure we stay healthy if we do contract the disease.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Just before the 2016 election, LGBTQ people were on the cusp of being recognized and counted by the federal government as a specific demographic. During the Obama Administration, the Departments of Justice, Housing and Urban Development, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Environmental Protection Agency asked the Census Bureau to add questions about sexual orientation and gender identity to the American Community Survey, according to a July 2017 report by NPR.
California Reps. Adam Schiff and Jimmy Panetta co-sponsored an amendment to a spending bill that would give the Census Bureau more money to study the need for sexual orientation and gender identity questions. Out Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva reintroduced bills in Congress — the LGBT Data Inclusion Act — that would require the American Community Survey, the census and other federal surveys that collected demographic information to also collect data on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), just like other demographics.
“The Justice Department laid out the ‘legal authority supporting the necessity’ for collecting that information in a spreadsheet of statutes attached to its letter to the Census Bureau dated Nov. 4, 2016,” NPR reported.
But with the advent of the Trump Administration, anything Obama-approved got scotched. A draft report of Census Bureau’s planned topics of questions for the 2020 census and the American Community Survey was submitted missing a page.
But NPR “obtained a copy of a draft version of the report through a Freedom of Information Act request to the Census Bureau. The draft includes a full page about sexual orientation and gender identity as a proposed topic. That page was removed from the published report. The page provides an explanation about how the statistics could be used by the federal government:
“Sexual orientation and gender identity questions are being evaluated and may be proposed to aid in planning and funding government programs and in evaluating other government programs and policies to ensure they fairly and equitably serve the needs of all people. These statistics could also be used to enforce laws, regulations, and policies against discrimination in society.”
Sens. Tom Carper and Kamala Harris of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee — which has oversight of the Census Bureau — sent a letter to the then-Census director about the missing page – but apparently they did not hear back.
The Trump Administration has been on an LGBTQ erasure kick since his election, perhaps the most glaring of which is the ban on open trans military service.
LA County, the most populous county in the country, could show the need for and become a model of LGBTQ data collection for other counties, building momentum to pass legislation, including the federal Equality Act.
Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David speaks at the House Financial Services Committee hearing on Oct. 29 on anti-LGBT bias in housing and credit. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
The Washington Blade reported on the importance of data during an Oct 2019 congressional hearing:
“Among the key statistics that emerged in testimony before the House Financial Services Committee: About half of LGBT adults own their homes compared to 70 percent of the non-LGBT adult population; LGBT adults are twice as likely as non-LGBT people to report having been prevented by a landlord or owner from moving into a home; and same-sex couples experience about three to eight percent lower approval rates in acquiring a loan than different-sex couples.
Chairing the hearing was Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), who touted the importance of that data in laying out the case anti-LGBT discrimination persists despite claims to the contrary.
“Today we have demonstrated with empirical evidence that this level of invidious discrimination exists, such that it is quite harmful not only to the persons who have been discriminated against, but also to the country,” Green said….
“Our community faces discrimination and rejection in every area of life — at school at work and at home,” said Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David. “Distressingly, the weight of this discrimination falls disproportionately on the shoulders of LGBT people who are racial minorities, specifically black and brown members of our community.”
On Friday, June 19, LA County moved one step closer to establishing equity for a heretofore unrecognized intersectional demographic – the LGBTQ community. And at the very least, with that comes better health, wellness and awareness of protecting oneself and others from the COVID-19 crisis.