General Assembly Hall 2030 Agenda

Improving Data Collection and Development Outcomes for LGBTI People

A view of the General Assembly Hall following the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. (UN Photo/Cia Pak)

The adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the United Nations General Assembly paved a new pathway for the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people in international development policy. The 2030 Agenda also reaffirms the principles of nondiscrimination already embodied in international human rights treaties. Since its adoption, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) developed a proposal for an LGBTI Inclusion Index to measure development outcomes for LGBTI people in each country. One of the keys to improving inclusion of LGBTI populations in the SDGs is the capacity to gather data about the gender and sexuality of target populations.

LGBTI People and Development

The stigmatization of LGBTI people continues to impede development progress. An analysis of global attitudes in 141 countries since 1980 reveals that, while the most accepting countries have experienced higher levels of acceptance, the least accepting countries have decreased levels of acceptance, with average levels of acceptance not improving over the past several decades.

A small but growing body of empirical research demonstrates the impact of stigmatization on development outcomes and the measurable differences for LGBTI people. For example, one review found high prevalence for violence motivated by perceived sexual orientation and gender identity in 50 countries. Another study in Thailand showed that the bullying of LGBTI students and effeminate boys caused increased rates of school absence, attempted suicide, and substance abuse. With respect to employment and economic disparities, one international review revealed that LGBT employees experience formal (firing, barriers to promotion, and unequal wages) and informal discrimination (verbal harassment, loss of credibility, and lack of acceptance and respect by colleagues), and a global meta-analysis showed that gay men make 11 percent less than their heterosexual counterparts. From a mental health perspective, a systematic review of 199 studies showed that sexual minorities were at increased risk for depression, anxiety, suicide attempts, or suicides.

The Need to Disaggregate Data

The 2030 Agenda pledge that “no one will be left behind” can only be realized if development data is disaggregated to track development outcomes for LGBTI populations in areas such as education, income, health, civic participation, violence, and relationship status. Unfortunately, as noted by the 2016 UN Human Development Report, LGBTI people remain “largely invisible in data” due to the lack of data gathering efforts by governments. Commencing such data collection will require addressing several questions.

A foundational question is how to classify individuals according to their sexuality, gender, and sex characteristics. To illustrate, let’s look at sexual orientation. How do we know someone is lesbian, gay, or bisexual? Sexual orientation consists of at least three elements: behavior, attraction, and identity. Sexual behavior, which looks at whether the individual has sex with a person of the same or a different gender, is particularly relevant to health issues. Those in the field of HIV/AIDS often use this criterion to classify people as MSMs and WSWs (men/women who have sex with men/women). Those working in the area of adolescent development and school climate often seek to understand sexual orientation according to the second element, feelings of desire and attraction.

The last element, identity, refers to how a person describes their own sexual orientation. In addition to the well-known Western identities of straight, lesbian, gay, and bisexual, individuals could choose culturally specific terms such as methis (Nepali), kathoey (Thai), kuchu (Swahili), bakla (Tagalog), hijra (Hindi), or any term they wish. Identity may be particularly important when dealing with issues of discrimination and violence.

Each of the three elements encompasses overlapping, but distinct, groups of people. In other words, someone who experiences same-sex attraction may not engage in same-sex behavior, and someone who engages in same-sex sexual activity may not identify as anything other than straight.

Gender also has several aspects. For most people, the gender they are assigned at birth becomes their gender throughout their life. Such individuals are referred to as cisgender (the prefix “cis” meaning same). Some people, however, may begin to form an inner awareness that their actual gender does not match their gender assigned at birth. This inner awareness is often referred to as a person’s gender identity.

At some point, some people begin to express a different gender through their appearance, mannerisms, or modification of their body. Individuals whose current gender identity or gender expression is different than their gender assigned at birth are referred to as transgender (the prefix “trans” meaning across or opposite). However, a person may have an inner awareness of being one gender and may express a different gender. Each aspect of gender has different consequences for development outcomes.

UN bodies have recognized that sex characteristics are used as a basis for multiple human rights violations such as forced surgery, torture, discrimination at school and work, and denial of healthcare. Sex characteristics include physiological features related to sex, such as genitalia, reproductive anatomy, chromosomes, and hormones. Some people, referred to as intersex, may have sex characteristics that do not match cultural and medical notions of male or female. Intersex status is distinct from sexual orientation and gender, though responding to the needs of intersex people may include measures relating to gender categories.

Data Collection and Lived Reality

Because of these challenges of classification, figuring out who is LGBTI will require focused effort. First, we need data that accurately reflects the lived reality of local populations. There is a tendency to use the umbrella term “LGBTI” as a system to classify individuals as lesbians, gay men, transgender people, or intersex people. However, using LGBTI in this way may produce inaccurate data.

For example, in Thailand some homosexual women identify as Tom, a well-recognized cultural classification for women who adopt masculine gender roles and patterns of expression. Homosexual women who identify as Dii adopt more feminine gender roles and appearance. Some evidence indicates that Toms experience higher rates of violence and Diis experience higher rates of exclusion from the workforce. Aggregating both groups under the label “lesbian” obscures the differences in violence and discrimination faced by each group.

Even the basic concepts of sexuality and gender may be challenging. There is not a word for sexuality in Chinese. Nor is there a word for gender in Arabic. These linguistic differences reflect the fact that sexuality and gender are conceptualized very differently in different populations.

Second, with regard to identity, data should reflect identities that are self-determined by local populations. The ability to determine one’s own identity is a core priority for the LGBTI movement and a core value of international human rights. Using a classification that does not reflect the choices of a local population risks violating this cherished principle. Guidance from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has recognized that “disaggregation of indicators (or not) is not a norm or value-neutral exercise…. Personal identity characteristics (particularly those that may [be] sensitive, such as religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or ethnicity) should be assigned through self-identification, and not through imputation or proxy.” The task, therefore, will be to develop classifications that are standardized enough to permit country-to-country comparison of data but specific enough to respect the self-determination of different populations.

Data Collection and “Do No Harm”

Another major consideration is whether data collection should be encouraged in countries where legal and social hostility may entail too many risks to LGBTI people and to those who collect such data. Homosexuality is criminalized in 70 countries, and many other countries lack basic legal protections for LGBTI people. In these context, revealing an individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or sex characteristics may carry risks of discrimination and criminal prosecution.

The standards articulated by international principles of research ethics, such the Declaration of Helsinki, provide guidance. These principles state that research should “only be conducted if the importance of the objectives outweighs the risks and burdens on the research subjects.” In addition, such research ethics mandate measures to protect the privacy of individuals and the confidentiality of data.

Additionally, the UN Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics and accompanying Implementation Guidelines identify legal protections that need to be in place in order for data gathering to be independent, trustworthy, and respectful of human rights. Further guidance will likely come from the UN independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity, whose forthcoming report is expected to include a set of draft guiding principles for states engaging in data collection activities. Over the next few years, we can expect the discussion on this issue to accelerate in all areas of the world.

Andrew Park is a former director at the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law and teaches International Development Studies at UCLA. He most recently was a consultant with UN OHCHR where he helped draft Guiding Principles on the Application of International Human Rights Standards to State Data Collection Activities Regarding Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.