Will more data change the lives of LGBTQ people in the UK?

Panellist Kevin GuyanDr Kevin Guyan, panellist at #DataImpact2021, shares some key reflections on the role of data in representing the lives and experiences of LGBTQ people in the UK.


More data exists about the lives and experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ) people in the UK than at any previous point in history.

Although the quality of this data in many areas is patchy (and is particularly sparse on those who identify as trans, gender fluid, non-binary or queer), data in the UK Data Service collection reflects an increasing amount of quantitative and qualitative data about people who were historically ignored, excluded and erased from data collection processes.

The prevalence and quality of data about LGBTQ people is particularly timely in February as it is LGBT History Month – an opportunity for everyone to explore, commemorate and celebrate the histories of LGBTQ individuals.

Data plays a key role in bringing these histories to life. Whether it is the use of data to tell new stories, educate and empower individuals to make a difference, or change narratives in the media about LGBTQ experiences. Being represented in quantitative and qualitative data collection processes can and does change many people’s lives for the better, such as supporting more inclusive approaches to policy.

However – looking at where we stand in 2021 – the data available demonstrate that we have not solved the problems of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia nor responded to the discrimination, inequality and injustice that LGBTQ people continue to face in everyday life.

For example:

Stark examples such as these demand a critical review of data’s role in representing LGBTQ lives to others and making sense of who we are as individuals, communities and populations. Rather than jumping to plug the numerous gaps in existing data collections, it is important to ask why this data matters and ensure it is used for action that changes the lives of the people about whom the data relates.

Data collection, analysis and presentation practices do not arrive with researchers as some sort of apolitical or ahistorical artefact. They are crafted, tweaked and changed to serve the particular interests of individuals, organisations or ways of thinking. These practices also do more than simply offer an accurate representation of the world in which we live. This means that for LGBTQ people, and other minoritised groups, data practices have the potential to cause harm.

When applied to the topic of identity, data practices can operate as a tool to bring some lives into the foreground and cast some lives further into the shadows. The exclusionary effects of data practices can be particularly evident in large-scale data collection activities, such as the design of questions for national censuses.

For the first time, the 2021 and 2022 UK censuses will collect data about individuals’ sexual orientation and trans/gender identity. Although ‘being counted’ is a positive development for many under the LGBTQ umbrella, all three UK censuses will continue to ask a compulsory ‘What is your sex?’ question with binary response options. For non-binary respondents, who neither identify exclusively as ‘Male’ or ‘Female’, they find themselves forced to select one of the two options presented.

As a tool to advance social justice, more is required than the collection of data about LGBTQ lives and experiences. This approach is overly reliant on evidence falling on the ears of people in existing positions of power that wish to listen. We are often told that before taking action, we need evidence.

However, many LGBTQ people do not require further evidence of their experiences, particularly when they’ve encountered marginalisation or discrimination. The burden of proof is therefore required for a cis, heterosexual audience (operating within a cis/heteronormative society) who may or may not take action, depending on the quality of the proof provided.

However, in gathering data to get others to take action, LGBTQ people potentially find themselves swamped in data that neither encapsulates the diversity of experiences nor pays attention to the many positive dimensions of LGBTQ lives.

When discussing what happens at the space where data practices and identity characteristics intersect, we are capable of holding multiple views about the benefits and harms of data.

It is our responsibility to champion the use of data to change the world in positive ways but also highlight its potential to entrench exclusionary practices that stall efforts to advance justice for the most minoritised within the LGBTQ community.

About the author

Dr Kevin Guyan (he/him/his) is a researcher and writer whose work explores the intersection of data and identity. He works for the higher education organisation Advance HE and is the author of the forthcoming book Queer Data: Using Gender, Sex and Sexuality Data for Action, which examines the collection, analysis and use of data related to LGBTQ people in the UK. Kevin has recently published an article in the Journal of Gender Studies on the design of the sexual orientation question in Scotland’s 2022 census, which is available to download for free.

Join us for #DataImpact2021: #IdentityInData – Who Counts? Visibility, voice and culture in data collection and use (24 February, 10.30-12.30), where Kevin will be part of our panel.

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