By Lisa Polyak
One of the most essential tools in the making of law or regulation is the tool of enumeration. It seems obvious that in order to define whether a population suffers from a condition that can be remedied by a change of public policy – we need to quantify the number of people who experience the condition. We also need to quantify the cost of implementing a change relative to the number of people affected, so that cost effectiveness, as well as the overall cost of the solution, can be evaluated. The need for counting, or enumeration as it is known in public policy-making, is not complicated but it is vital to the justification of any legislative initiative or expenditure of public revenues. It is also the deficit that most fundamentally impairs the ability of the lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender (lgbt) community to make their case to policymakers. Simply put –- we don’t count — because we are not counted.
The boxes that we check off in the myriad forms and demographic surveys that are part of daily life –everything from birth certificate, driver’s license, health insurance and social security applications to standardized academic tests, consumer surveys and census forms. All of these instruments take data about our gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, income, education level, profession, marital status, and geographic location – but almost never query for sexual orientation or gender identity. As a result, the lgbt community remains one of the last significant minority populations to remain largely unquantified. The implications are dire: it is almost impossible to justify the need for public policy for a group that doesn’t exist.
In recent years, The Williams Institute, which is endowed at the UCLA School of Law, has undertaken the herculean task of educating public policy makers about the importance of quantifying the lgbt community, and gathering the nascent data that exists to provide foundational metrics for our population. One of their most significant achievements came in the 2010 Census, where for the first time in the history of the US Census, same-sex couples had a box to check to indicate that they were “unmarried partners”. Since the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act prohibits the federal government from recognizing marriages of same-sex couples – households with two adults of the same gender who identified as married were recoded to “unmarried partners”. Although this is legal fiction since civil marriage is available to same-sex couples in six states and the District of Columbia, it is an improvement over previous Census when there was no option to capture same-sex households, and the brave citizens who were willing to identify as a married same-gender couple were recoded as heterosexual.
So even at this late date – the biggest dataset on the lgbt population in the US only counts households where there is a same-sex couple, and only those couples who are willing to self-identify. There is no formal counting of individual lesbian, gay or bisexual adults or children, and virtually no information on the gender identity of US citizens.
Despite the lack of formal counting in the US Census or the majority of federal health surveys – the Williams Institute has begun to gather the data that exists and extrapolate the size of lgbt populations nationally and in various states. Data gleaned from the 2010 Census and ongoing American Community Survey samples indicate that there are approximately 167,864 lgbt adults in Maryland – representing 3.8% of the adult population in the state (which is about the same size as the Asian population in Maryland). Data taken directly from the US Census show 12,538 same-sex couples in Maryland, the majority of whom identify as “unmarried partners”, but 2,321 who identify as married. Approximately 24% of the same-sex coupled households are raising children – 5,088 children. Interestingly, the 2010 Census reports that 30.3% of all households in Maryland have a child present, indicating that lgbt families are very similar to all families in their desire to parent.
In the coming weeks and months, I hope to explore the various populations that make up the lgbt community in Maryland – what we know about them, what we don’t know; the gaps in public policy, the potential solutions and implications of delayed action. I hope you will join me for this exploration. I welcome feedback at Lisa.Polyak@gmail.com.
Lisa Polyak is an Environmental Engineer with the U.S. Army Public Health Command. She has graduate degrees in Chemical Engineering and Occupational and Environmental Health from the Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. She has served on the Board at Equality Maryland, Maryland’s largest LGBT civil rights group, since 2008 in various capacities and is currently Chair. Active in the local and national LGBT community, Lisa is the Moderator of the Baltimore-based Families With Pride, a support group for LGBT parents and children. She is a founding member of The Dallas Principles and ACT On Principles that advocate at the national level for the comprehensive and immediate legal equality for all members of the LGBT community. In 2004, Lisa and her longtime partner Gita were lead plaintiffs in the ACLU-directed litigation to achieve marriage equality for same-sex couples in Maryland.