“Defining Our Own Identities”: Survey Aims to Fill Research Gaps on U.S. LGBTQ Women

June 29, 2021

“It’s time to tell our stories—all of them,” proclaims Jaime M. Grant, the research director of a groundbreaking survey of U.S. LGBTQ+ women launching this Pride Month.

The ambitious National LGBTQ+ Women*s Community Survey—two years in the making by Justice Work, a think tank and action lab headed by movement leader Urvashi Vaid—seeks to understand the experiences and needs of queer women in the United States with depth and breadth never before attempted. The data it generates will, for the first time, make it possible for rights organizations and community groups to identify and advocate for the needs of LGBTQ+ women—particularly those most pushed to the margins of society—in everything from government benefits and social services to philanthropic funding.

The survey’s creators say the lens to capture the full spectrum of LGBTQ+ women’s experiences—and thus to make this research possible—simply does not yet exist.

“We’re going to create the lens,” says Alyasah Ali Sewell, a sociology professor at Emory University and the survey’s senior research and data analyst.

Grant, Sewell, and the other research team members have approached the project with urgency, knowing that so many queer women face stressors, discrimination, and violence, but virtually no data exists that could be marshalled to address their needs in the policy arena.

“We want to change prevailing damaging ideas about who an LGBTQ woman is … and about what all of us are carrying around: the burdens of misogyny, sexism, racism, economic injustice, and violence,” Grant says. “Most of that is really invisible, and we are going to change that.”

Amid progress, ongoing oppression
The National LGBTQ+ Women*s Community Survey project takes place against a backdrop of civil rights and social gains for LGBTQ+ people in the U.S., including recent landmark Supreme Court victories on marriage equality and employment discrimination, a steady increase in state legislative and policy protections, and increased cultural visibility. But these advances mask yawning gaps in queer rights based on gender and geography, a backlash against the trans community, and ongoing challenges many queer people experience.

LGBTQ+ people continue to face significant levels of housing discrimination, for instance. A 2013 study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found that same-sex couples experience slightly higher rates of discrimination in states with protections than without, underscoring what BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) people know all too well: that legal protection is the beginning and not the end of the fight against unfair treatment. Meanwhile, queer youth homelessness is epidemic and disproportionate: LGBTQ+ young people are 120% more likely to be homeless than their cisgender and heterosexual peers.

Queer people also have lower wages, higher poverty rates, greater interaction with police, and poorer health. They experience violence at higher rates; trans women of color in particular are regularly murdered in the U.S. Add racism, sexism, immigration status vulnerability, and/or ableism into the mix, and it becomes clear that the soaring language of Supreme Court rulings means very little to many of the estimated 18 million LGBTQ+ Americans struggling day to day to survive.

But how exactly queer women experience and navigate homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and other systemic oppression is unclear. While there are studies—like this one from the Williams Institute—that document some of the challenges, there is almost no direct survey data of LGBTQ+ women. The data that does exist is usually in the form of a “check box” that asks about sexual orientation and/or gender identity, and that’s the extent of inquiry into the effect of people’s identities and orientations on their lives.

Moreover, “all existing work is siloed,” notes Grant. “Health people look at health; education people look at education; etc.”

A 360-degree survey that drills down into the specific challenges LGBTQ+ women are navigating? “That does not exist, anywhere,” Grant says.

Queer women defining queer women
The need for this survey is obvious. Its timing follows on the heels of a pair of surveys that have been transformative for trans visibility and advocacy: the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, for which Grant was the principal investigator, and the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.

“The impact [on] our ability to do advocacy cannot be overstated,” Danni Askini, a longtime trans activist and board member on the latter survey, told Ms. Magazine. “Literally the reason why we have trans health insurance inclusion is because of that data.”

These successes spurred veteran activist Urvashi Vaid to pull together a team to design the National LGBTQ+ Women*s Community Survey. Building it as a community project—by and for queer women—was also a response to some of the existing research; specifically, to definitions that are inaccurate, incomplete, and/or harmful.

To illustrate this point, survey advisory committee member A. Sparks recalls an experience from the mid-2000s. While applying for a federal grant, she came across the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s then-definition of a lesbian: a woman who has had sexual relationships exclusively with women for seven years. She found it “very shocking” and “very patriarchal” that the nation’s top public health agency considered a single encounter with a man enough to erase a woman’s lesbian identity.

Naturally, Sparks says, this definition led to a severe undercounting of lesbian women.

It “illustrated that how the government or researchers define our identities actually leads to disparities in resources and attention,” she says. “[It] really invisibilized our experiences.”

Sparks’ takeaway was that there is “an urgent need for us to be able to define our own identities, for research to be driven by members of our own community.”

The survey is here to do just that. The queer-women-led project begins with an expansive, inclusive definition of the LGBTQ+ women it seeks document, understand, and offer agency:

This national survey is designed for people who have identified as womxn at any point on their journeys and want to share their experiences of centering womxn in their sexual, emotional, familial and social lives. … This survey welcomes all of us who have or do see ourselves as women, and love women. Our use of “womxn” is a part of that open invitation.

The survey creates what Grant calls “an extravagant welcome” to participants, a strategy borrowed from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. The National LGBTQ+ Women*s Community Survey deliberately aims “not to use the oppressor’s language anywhere” and instead uses “terms we use with and among and for each other, not medical terms, not academic terms.”

Building on work by feminists of color
At the heart of the project is the survey team’s commitment to recording the experiences of every stratum of queer women in the U.S.—and doing so in a way that uncovers the many layers of queer women’s identities, the rich and complex textures of their lives.

Sewell describes this work playfully and enthusiastically: “I want to quantify Audre Lorde!” They’re referring to the Black lesbian poet’s oft-quoted observation, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not lead single-issue lives.”

“Quantifying Audre Lorde” is an apt tribute. The National LGBTQ+ Women*s Community Survey builds on the foundational labor of a generation of women of color, many of them queer, who worked to describe and make visible what Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989 termed “intersectionality.”

The survey is designed in its architecture, in the nature of its questions, and in the way the answers will be analyzed to produce a holistic and comprehensive view of LGBTQ+ women. This means that queer women from less privileged segments of the community—for instance, those who are not white, not cisgender, or not economically secure—will receive research attention they have never had. The survey will create data on these most marginalized communities, whom Sewell calls “hyper invisible.”

It will thereby finally make it possible to gain insight into the consequences of identifying and partnering with women on access to housing, employment, education, health, and safety; interaction with the state and its systems of mass incarceration; and so much more for all queer women—and do so in a way that analyzes interacting dimensions of oppression.

Collecting this data is the very first step in identifying the legal, policy, and service needs queer women have. No one has ever systematically asked these women to name their policy priorities for the movement.

A look at just one dimension of this comprehensive inquiry hints at how transformational the data it uncovers could be: what queer women’s family/housing/household structures look like.

“There is almost no money that is distributed in the United States without attention to who is in the household,” Sewell notes. “COVID relief, tax codes, disability—everything is built on that.”

But LGBTQ+ women’s households often look very different than the ones in government definitions; in particular, queer women often care for people who are not acknowledged as “household” members.

To understand what those households really look like—and really need—“you’re not going to get that from the standard [survey] questions,” Sewell explains. “You’re going to get that from the kind of things we’re doing.”

This data can then be used to advocate for everything from government benefits to health insurance coverage—to spark changes in how these things are allocated. It will “lift us into the view of policymakers,” Grant says.

In this way, the results from the National LGBTQ+ Women*s Community Survey will be a potent tool for forging policy changes to address the needs of queer women’s families in all their complexity. Along the way, it can help direct—and redirect—priorities and strategies for the LGBTQ+ rights movement.

“It has to be a community survey.”
As with the survey questions, the outreach plans for gathering the data have been intentionally and inclusively designed.

The survey’s advisory committee—a majority BIPOC group of accomplished scholars, advocates, and activists that span the diversity of queer women’s experience—is playing a crucial role, using their networks to reach parts of the community no one else can.

“It’s ‘in-reach,’ really,” Grant says. “Not outreach.”

Additionally, over 150 organizational community partners will publicize the survey and urge people to take it through dedicated emails, newsletters, social media campaigns, and good old-fashioned word of mouth.

“So many of us are so marginalized, our stories so hidden, you can’t find them,” Sewell says. “It has to be a community survey. We need information you would only get if you got a bunch of queer women together.”

Data collection for “the biggest LGBTQ+ women’s data set in the world,” in Grant’s words, should take about six months. After that, the research team will dive into the analysis, a process that will produce action-oriented and user-friendly fact sheets, reports, and policy papers, as well as inform organizing strategies.

What else it produces will depend on what the data shows. But one thing is certain: It will lay the foundation for a generation of advocacy for LGBTQ+ women that was not possible before the National LGBTQ+ Women*s Community Survey.

When data becomes available for a population, Sparks says, it “validate[s] that that information should be collected, which then validates that programs should be tailored and consider different identities in their delivery of services. … Being counted counts.”

Ultimately, the National LGBTQ+ Women*s Community Survey is about agency: queer women defining for themselves who is an LGBTQ+ woman, queer women deciding what questions need to be prioritized and how they should be asked, with queer women interpreting the results.

“Knowledge is power,” Grant says, “and we have to build it together.”

This blog was authored by Dorothee Benz, Ph.D., a writer, organizer, and strategist who has spent decades on the frontlines of social justice struggles in the United States. Follow her on Twitter @DrBenz3.