When you belong to different non-majority populations, it can be easy to feel like you are different or alone. You don’t see yourself represented on television shows or movies; you don’t see retail stores celebrating your holidays. You open up history books to learn about groups besides your own, and you sometimes have to travel miles or hours to find food that even remotely matches your grandmother’s cooking skills.
As a Filipino American, born to immigrant parents, I spent my childhood years feeling like my cultural heritage was invisible or odd. I watched TV shows like Punky Brewster and Diff’rent Strokes never expecting to see any Asian Americans. I learned that the country operated on a Black and White paradigm and that I should just be happy that my parents were able to provide us with opportunities. The few times I saw Filipino Americans on shows like MTV’s The Real World or movies like Hook, I felt validated that ethnic group existed.
At the same time, as I started to identify as gay and as a queer person of color, I genuinely presumed I was the only one. There weren’t any out LGBTQ people in my family, and the few LGBTQ people I saw in media were mostly portrayed in negatively stereotypic ways. Without any role models or friends to overtly tell me it was okay to be gay, I stayed in the closet for the first two and a half decades of my life. Perhaps if I knew that millions of other teenagers were struggling in a similar way, I might have bypassed the depression, the suicidal thoughts, and the pleas to God to make me “normal.”
It is because of these experiences that I wanted to study the communities that were so important of me, and why I pursued my Ph.D. in psychology. As a doctoral student, I faced many research challenges that my peers didn’t encounter. For example, if my peers were interested in studies that understanding differences between major racial groups on certain variables (e.g., Black versus White health outcomes), they could access public datasets with large sample sizes to statistically analyze and compare groups. However, if I wanted to study health differences between Asian American ethnic groups (e.g., Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese or Korean Americans), I would have to collect my own data because those same public datasets usually would not provide information on diverse ethnicities. Relatedly, if a colleague wanted to examine gender differences related to school children or hospital patients (e.g., academic achievement, access to care), they could request access to institutional records to answer their research questions. Yet, if I wanted to replicate a similar study with LGBTQ students or LGBTQ hospital patients, I could not, because the data on sexual orientation or gender identity would never have been collected. Finally, if I ambitiously wanted to report how many Filipino American LGBTQ people there were in the country, I would have to give up entirely, because there simply was no data on the intersection of the two.
On October 31st, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City signed three pieces of legislation ― Intros. 251-A, 551-A, and 552-A. The bills which were sponsored by Council Member Daniel Dromm and Council Member Margaret Chin (and which passed a nearly unanimous City Council Vote), require that New York City agencies use a new form to collect information on gender identity, sexuality, language spoken, ancestry, ethnic origin, and multiracial identity. The form would be voluntary in that the individual could choose to skip any question and would not need to disclose anything identity they did not feel comfortable. The form would be anonymous, in that no one person could be identified based on their answers.
These new policies in New York City are important for a few reasons. First, as New York City is now one of three jurisdictions in the US to pass a data equity law, there is a potential for more advocacy for data equity on all federal, state, and city agencies. For communities of color and immigrants, the impact would be groundbreaking, as it would encourage service providers and policymakers to understand the nuances between groups that are usually lumped into umbrella categories. For example, comprehensive data on Asian-Americans could unveil the ways that Asian-American ethnic groups differ on issues like poverty, education, and violence. With such information, we would know what kinds of services need to be provided to different groups and what major languages need to be spoken with people to access those services.
Secondly, because the U.S. Census Bureau does not collect data on sexual orientation and gender identity, we do not know how many LGBTQ people there are in New York City, let alone in the entire US. While the Williams Institute at UCLA does their best in estimating the LGBTQ population, we need more definitive numbers. In order to best serve our communities (and to advocate for more funding for research and services), we need to know the numbers of LGBTQ homeless people, LGBTQ incarcerated offenders, LGBTQ-identified students in high schools and colleges; LGBTQ suicide or hate crime victims; and more.
Thirdly, we could also examine trends among multiracial people. Though the U.S. Census Bureau gathers data on multiracial or multiethnic identity, other government agencies tend not to collect, analyze, or disaggregate data on multiracial people. Data equity bills like these advocate for multiracial people to no longer be forced to check a box or settle for an “other.” Similarly, Middle Eastern or Arab Americans (who are often classified as “White” or “Other”) will also be able to self-identify, which could lead to greater understanding and visibility of these communities.
Fourthly, having this data is important because it helps our country to celebrate its diversity ― a concept that is particularly salient amidst our upcoming elections. While some political candidates have demonstrated commitment to combatting racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and transphobia, some candidates have not. Perhaps disaggregated data can influence these political candidates and strategists to recognize population sizes and voting trends of various groups. If politicians knew how much power LGBTQ people, immigrants, and communities of color have in determining elections, perhaps candidates would advocate for the issues that matter to these groups.
But perhaps most importantly, disaggregated data can help these communities to learn how many of them actually exist, which can help them to empower themselves. If LGBTQ people were provided with evidence that they were numerically larger than, or equal to, oppositional religious groups or political parties, maybe they would activate as a collective front. If Asian American ethnic groups knew how many of their community members were affected by particular health, educational, or mental health issues, maybe they could collectively strategize on ways to solve these disparities. And if communities that historically feel marginalized formed coalitions (like the LGBTQ, immigrant, Asian American, Latinx American, Arab American, and Multiracial people of New York City did), perhaps they would recognize that they have even more of a voice.
I know I can’t change my past, but maybe one way I can positively impact the lives of young people is through my research. In the future, when I learn about a young person who feels like they are “the only one” because their sexual orientation, gender identity, or ethnicity, I can confidently turn to the data and provide them with empirical evidence to show them that they are not alone.
Author’s Note: Thank you to Noilyn Abesamis-Mendoza, MPH of Coalition for Asian Children and Families for her assistance on this article.