One of the big happenings at the Population Association of American (PAA) conference, just completed, was news of progress toward collecting better data on sexual diversity.
Call it weakness if you like, but in this area I am prone to viewing modernity as a march of progress from a dark past toward a half-full glass of bright future, with popular politics driving widening notions of human rights, motivating legal reforms, compelling the adoption of state bureaucracies to progressive social reality, and gradually incorporating us into a new world order more or less of our own creation.
That last part – about the bureaucracies incorporating the public – might not be the most complicated, but it is still pretty thorny. (And from here till the next subhead it gets technical.)
Good news bad news
The good news is that we have great new data collections coming along. Virginia Cain from the National Center for Health Statistics reported on their new sexual orientation question for the National Health Interview Survey, the largest federal health survey (the paper doesn’t seem to be available yet). This is already yielding important data on health disparities for sexual minorities, which is vital for policy responses to inequality.
Tim Vizard from the UK Office of National Statistics also reported on his agency’s new sexual identity question, which has been tested for several years on a few hundred thousand people each year. The latest numbers show 1.5% of adults self-identifying as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. They get these low numbers because they ask a very simple, narrow question, only on sexual identity rather than sexual attraction or sexual behavior (see other studies for the range of estimates).* Importantly, less than 4% of the UK respondents are refusing to answer, and the question is not affecting overall response rates – two big fears in the statistical agencies that appear to be receding with these and other results. Here’s how they ask it (semi-confidentially, so that in theory a husband and wife taking the survey together could both tell the interviewer they’re gay without either knowing what the other said):
The other good news is that the U.S. Census Bureau is making great strides (which I first praised here), on several tracks. First, they are working on the same-sex married couple data from the American Community Survey (ACS). At present they only release aggregate estimates of same-sex couples, differentiating between those that are married versus cohabiting (explained here).
A big reason we don’t have more data is the bad news: In another paper (just an abstract is posted, but you can ask the authors for a copy), Census analysts Daphne Lofquist and Jamie Lewis reported on their investigation into possible errors in the same-sex couple data the ACS has collected.
The background is that in a 2011 paper (linked here) Census analysts showed that a lot of seemingly same-sex couples were actually different-sex couples in which someone’s sex was miscoded.** If even a tiny percentage of different-sex couples make a mistake on the form – say, 1-in-1000 – then you would roughly double the number of same-sex couples. And they do. The paper used name-gender associations to reveal that, for example, in Texas 29% of supposedly male-male couples had one partner with a name that was used by women 95% of the time in that state – probably women accidentally marked as male.
But that 95% cutoff is a conservative estimate of the error. In the new analysis Lofquist and Lewis went further and checked same-sex couples against their Social Security records to see what sex they had recorded there. The result was shocking: 72.5% of the same-sex couples had a member whose sex didn’t match the Social Security record. Yes, some people change their sex/gender, and some people’s Social Security Records are wrong, but not that many. The much more likely culprit is simply a tiny number of straight people mismarking the sex box (there are some other technical possibilities, too).
The great thing about just asking people their marital status and sex is that you can count gay and lesbian couples without changing anything about the form (such as asking about sexual identity or orientation). That’s what all the people want who think I’m backward for worrying about couple-sex gender terminology. “C’mon!” they say, “Why do you have to label marriage as homogamous or heterogamous – just call it marriage!” Maybe someday, but at the moment that approach is producing an accuracy-crushing level of noise in the same-sex couple data.
Fortunately, Census is also moving forward with other improvements to fix this. The most important change is probably to the basic relationship question, which will soon look something like this, with couples labeled “opposite-sex” or “same-sex,” and the gender-neutral “spouse” added beside “husband/wife.” This will allow Census to check those couples that are reported as married to see if their same/opposite relationship identification matches what they reported for their sexes:
If we end up with a question like that, which seems most likely (the Census testing and development is quite far along), then we should be able to much more reliably identify same-sex couples (both married and cohabiting).
We’ll get used to this
That proposed new relationship question has 17 categories. That’s a long way from these six, in 1960 (the whole series of Census forms is here):
That goes to show you that family diversity is a state of collective mind as well as a structural reality. Building bureaucratic bins into which we pour data describing the various aspects of our lives is one of the defining elements of modern life. Eventually, I am pretty sure people will become disciplined by the new bureaucratic reality, and identities will calcify around checkboxes. That’s life under the modern state. (Even most haters, once they realize the data is being collected, will want to answer the questions accurately so they don’t get counted as gay – although, just as a few people refuse to answer race questions, there will be holdouts.)
* Identifying transgender people is much more complicated and difficult. The number of required questions and categories increases as the size of the groups in question grows smaller. This is feasible for smaller, more targeted surveys, but not in the immediate cards for the big ones (see Gary Gates’s presentation at PAA for more on this).
** I’m pretty sure Gary Gates was the first person to identify this problem, but can’t remember which paper it was in.