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A Decade of Data-Driven Advances

A Decade of Data-Driven Advances


Just 10 years ago, LGBT Americans faced difficult legal and social terrain. Same-sex marriage was not legal in any state and civil unions only available in Vermont. They could not openly serve under "don't ask, don't tell" and only eleven states prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. A majority of Americans still felt that relationships between two people of the same-sex were "unacceptable" and 17 states still had sodomy laws. Negative myths and stereotypes about LGBT people went unchallenged in courts and the court of public opinion.

What a difference a decade makes. And much of the progress in LGBT rights would not have been possible without the growing body of research debunking the anti-gay stereotypes that used to dominate the debate.

When the Williams Institute was founded in 2001, it was the only organization of its kind--an academic research center focused on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy. While there were a number of LGBT advocacy organizations with research arms, none did what we continue to do--combine legal and policy analysis in research that meets the highest standards of the academy.

In 2003, we filed an amicus brief in Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court case that eventually overturned the remaining sodomy laws in the United States. With our legal arguments, we presented the court with a demographic portrait of LGBT people in Texas. The report challenged the stereotypes that the Supreme Court Justices had of LGBT people. In Bowers v. Hardwick, the Court's 1986 opinion upholding sodomy laws, it's clear that the majority of the court had trouble thinking about LGBT people beyond their sexual acts. A decade later, in Romer v. Evans, Justice Scalia's dissent explicitly rests on the stereotype that all LGBT people were wealthy, white, childless, urban and male. His conclusion, therefore, was that LGBT people were politically powerful and did not need "special rights."

Our amicus brief in Lawrence showed that same-sex couples lived throughout Texas, were racially and ethnically diverse, in all income brackets, and were raising children. Some held jobs, some owned homes, and some were veterans. In short, LGBT Texans looked like Texas. As a result, the Court was able to see our sexuality in the context of our relationships--as "but one element in a personal bond that is more enduring."

In the years since Lawrence, our Census research has shown that what is true for Texas is true for the country. LGBT Americans look like Americans. We have done national census reports and one for each of the 50 states. Among other things they have revealed that we live throughout the country (not just the coasts) and that 20% of same-sex couples are raising children. This research has resulted in story after story in the media about LGBT families from a diversity of backgrounds. These stories contribute to the broader public's ability to connect with our community--as parents or providers of eldercare, as workers or the recently unemployed.

Most recently, our work has influenced a number of important advances in LGBT rights. In 2009, our research and legal analysis resulted in the Census Bureau's historic decision to report married same-sex couples as such. Last spring, we produced materials co-branded with the Census Bureau for its efforts to engage the LGBT community in Census 2010.

The Perry v. Schwarzenegger ruling last year, which declared California's Proposition 8 unconstitutional, cited our scholars and research over 30 times. This included research on the demographics of LGBT families, the harmful economic effects of denying marriage equality, and the potential of marriage equality to positively impact society in general.

Our research on the number of LGB people currently serving in the armed services (over 71,000) and the cost of "don't ask, don't tell" (over $500,000) helped pave the way to repeal, and our 1,500 page report to Congress in 2009 documenting employment discrimination against LGBT people in all 50 states was relied upon this year, when the Department of Justice ended its defense of the Defense of Marriage Act.

But relying on research isn't always easy. In founding the Williams Institute, our core commitment was to finding out the truth about LGBT people through research, no matter the results--even if it conflicted with the ideas of the LGBT rights movement. And sometimes it does.

Our very first study showed that while California's budget would benefit overall from extending the rights of marriage to same-sex couples, it would have a negative impact on state income tax revenues. We did not respond to requests to not publish our study. As a result, when initially passed, California's comprehensive domestic partnership act lacked one substantial right--the right of same-sex couples to file jointly as married.

A decade ago there was a widely held assumption among LGBT advocates that 10 percent of the population was gay or lesbian. But after considering the best available data, we consistently find that 2-to-4 percent of the population self-identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Each time we publish a report with these numbers (this week included), people contact us saying, "No, this can't be true!"

We remain committed to research no matter what the results. And we think in the long term that will serve the goals of the LGBT community. As courts, as in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, increasingly scrutinize the claims made by LGBT opponents, they will continue to scrutinize the claims of LGBT advocates. If experts were to testify that "1 in 10 is gay," it would undermine their credibility on that point and anything else they had to offer.

We also believe that the rights LGBT people seek, should match the reality of their lives. Instead of defining goals and turning to research to support them, research should help us identify the needs of the LGBT community and the policies that will address them. For example, our work on poverty in the LGBT community suggests ENDA is not enough to address the higher rates of poverty among children of same-sex couples.

The Williams Institute is here for the long haul. Our work will continue to produce research on LGBT people and issues until there is full equality in all fifty states and the federal level; until disparities in health and income between LGBT people and others have been eliminated; and until LGBT people can live fulfilled lives not only in the United States but around the world. And we will do that the best way we know how: by replacing myths and stereotypes, with research and facts.
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Brad Sears