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 The Most Important LGBT Group You’ve Never Heard Of

 The Most Important LGBT Group You’ve Never Heard Of


How to conduct an accurate count of the American population -- an estimate that controls congressional seat allocation and the disbursement of billions in federal dollars to cash-strapped states and municipalities -- is a reliable flashpoint of controversy when the U.S. Census rolls around every 10 years.

What seems to have drawn little controversy in the release of the 2010 Census over the past several months, however, is a Los Angeles-based LGBT research organization that partnered with the federal bureau to present the most detailed information to date on gay and lesbian households.

The data might seem humdrum without political livelihoods or budgets at stake, but the public has now seen a clearer snapshot of the LGBT population thanks to weekly installments over the summer from the Charles R. Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law, and the final state-by-state data set will be released next week. It's part of a larger approach from the group that uses research, not rhetoric, to ensure LGBT people are visible.

The census does not inquire as to the sexual orientation or gender identity of respondents. But it does ask whether a person's relationship with an adult of the same sex is described as "husband/wife" or "unmarried partner" as well as whether same-sex couples are raising children. Researchers have found, for instance, that 11,572 same-sex couples reside in Kentucky, where voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2004 banning gay marriage by a 3-1 margin. In North Carolina, 6,290 households headed by gay couples are raising children in a state that already statutorily bars them from marriage -- showing what's at stake if voters follow in the cruel direction of Kentucky and another 28 states and approve an anti-marriage equality constitutional amendment next year.

Rural counties often show higher rates of couples with children than urban and suburban ones, and regional media have steadily reported the dramatic increase in same-sex couples identifying their relationships, leading one fringe lawmaker to react by calling the rise "regrettable."

"The influence of the church plays a factor here. We have more churches today ... that are saying homosexuality does not go against biblical truth," Oklahoma state representative Sally Kern told TheOklahoman last month. "Another factor is homosexuality is being taught in our schools as a normal and acceptable lifestyle, so when that happens, you are going to have more young people coming out of school who have a more favorable attitude towards homosexuality."

But for the rest of us, numbers like LGBT Census data from a California think tank provide a statistical weapon. The Census results further countered long-propagated stereotypes that the LGBT population is wealthy, white, and living in urban gay neighborhoods. Upcoming reports from the Williams Institute will offer greater insight into some of the most pressing and headline-grabbing LGBT issues, including a demographic portrait of binational gay couples, who lack immigration sponsorship rights because of the Defense of Marriage Act.

"I wanted to do something for society," Chuck Williams says of founding the organization in 2001 with his $2.5 million donation. Political advocacy has its place, but "you've got to do effective research that won't always give the answer that everybody would like to have," he says. "In time, that makes you earn respect, whether in the legal community and legislative community, and that's the key to success. I wanted [Williams] to have a practical orientation, to look at discrimination against gays and lesbians. And I wanted it to be [housed] at a law school. If there's one thing about lawyers, it's that they're practical."

Though perhaps unheard of by most people whom its research benefits, the Williams Institute is no scrappy organization. Williams, a business consultant and philanthropist in Los Angeles, has given a total of $13 million to his namesake organization, which has 20 staff members, a 19-member founders council composed of major donors (Williams also sits on the council), and the cachet of a preeminent think tank that has attracted donors including the Gill Foundation, Arcus Foundation, and Ford Foundation, among others. The group's $20.6 million endowment remains robust, Williams says, in part because the UCLA general endowment fund has fared better during the financial downturn than those of other universities.

With that stability and research prowess comes significant influence for federal studies and legal arguments against discriminatory laws. This year the Williams Institute helped convince the Department of Labor to add a sexual orientation question to its survey on experiences with provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act. It assisted the Bureau of Labor Statistics in evaluating to what extent domestic-partner benefits are accessible throughout the country. The Williams study of best practices for asking and analyzing sexual orientation survey questions has aided the Department of Health and Human Services in its recent commitment to LGBT inclusion in major federal health surveys -- a critical and enormous source of data to health researchers.

In his 2010 decision striking down California's Proposition 8, U.S. district judge Vaughn R. Walker said that one purported scholar and anti-gay marriage figure's testimony amounted to "inadmissible opinion testimony that should be given essentially no weight." Meanwhile, Walker cited Williams research more than 30 times in his 136-page opinion.

And in a July court brief arguing why the Defense of Marriage Act should be struck down as unconstitutional, the Justice Department cited the institute's exhaustive report on the history of discrimination against LGBT individuals in state employment (Williams Institute executive director Brad Sears presented the findings at a 2009 House hearing).

"We look forward to a time when LGBT inclusion is the norm in health and demographic data collection efforts," says Gary Gates, a Williams Institute distinguished scholar who spearheaded the LGBT census efforts. In April, Gates was able to estimate that 9 million Americans, or about 4% of the population, are LGBT.

The partnership with the U.S. Census, Sears explains, was made possible because Williams is a research center at an academic institution and not an advocacy group. Also, he explains, it's a result of "[Gates's] consistent work and academic publications on Census data over the past decade, which they have cited in improving their own procedures in collecting and reporting data about same-sex couples."

Williams's vision of expanding his institute's reach over the next 10 years already includes a series of notable high-caliber hires to the research staff this year. Among them are a Columbia University professor and preeminent expert on health care disparities and a leading LGBT rights attorney.

Jennifer Pizer is leaving behind litigation after a 15-year tenure as Lambda Legal's marriage project director. She has also previously contributed to the LGBT body of research, including a recent study of health care cost burdens that stem from marriage equality bans and inequities in domestic-partner benefits. Pizer and fellow authors found last year, for example, that partnered lesbians in California have only a 28% chance of getting dependent health care coverage compared to married straight women; partnered gay men are 42% less likely to receive coverage compared to married straight men. Such poor rates add to the pool of uninsured and could lead to greater Medicaid costs or emergency room visits when no other care is available.

"The movement was hampered for a long time as a result of so many of us having been invisible, and understandably so," says Pizer, the Williams Institute's new legal director. "Naturally, people made a point of being discreet. We couldn't say how many gay people there are and who we really are, so it was harder to dispel all of these misperceptions that have caused lots of people to feel disconnected. We've remained sort of this vague concept."

Two months into her position, Pizer has authored an amicus brief in a case regarding interstate adoption rights appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, the first that the institute has filed with the high court since 2008 (the Supreme Court has not yet said whether it will review the case, Adar v. Smith). "This is exactly the type of work [Pizer] is here to do: to present objective and insightful legal and policy research and analysis to courts, the legislatures, and the public," Sears says.

The gay-community-as-vague-demographic-concept creates not only barriers to care but also a lack of knowledge as to disease prevalence among LGBT individuals. In March a report by the Institute of Medicine, commissioned by the National Institutes of Health, concluded that researchers simply need more data about gay people.

"This is something we've done for other populations, and quite frankly, we simply should be doing it now for this population," Robert Garofalo, a committee member and a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, said in March. "And I think [the Institute of Medicine report] goes a long way in framing it from a very scientific perspective. It's entirely now a matter of political will to get it done."

Ilan Meyer, a leading scholar on minority stress syndrome who recently joined Williams from Columbia, says that an emphasis on HIV/AIDS funding, while certainly crucial, has led to less focus on other diseases affecting gay men and lesbians.

One of those areas is anal cancer among gay men, resulting mainly from two strains of the HPV virus that can be exacerbated by HIV infection. Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that girls receive the HPV vaccine at age 11 or 12, there are no similar guidelines for boys. Young men and parents of boys may elect for the Merck-manufactured Gardisil vaccine, though the CDC maintains that "the best way to prevent the most disease due to HPV is to vaccinate as many girls and women as possible."

Are the current recommendations perhaps rooted in lack of understanding about gay male health concerns as well as social stigma? "Regardless of HIV, gay men are at higher risk for anal cancers," Meyer says, "and there are no major efforts yet to encourage vaccination."

The more facts and figures churned out of the Williams Institute, the more likely it is that problems will get needed attention. No Williams Institute study has ever been legitimately countered or substantively criticized by antigay groups. "There's an enormous amount of work to be done," Williams says of the Institute. "Discrimination against gays and lesbians is deeply embedded in society, and this needs to be the focus of solid institutional research."

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