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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 The Oklahoman 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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