A New Battle at the UN Could Decide What 'LGBT' Means

04/02/2015 05:17 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Each year a group of United Nations experts met to decide, on behalf of the countries of the world, what it means to be healthy, sick, rich, poor, violent, peaceful, and a myriad of other states of well-being. Although this group is not very well-known in the human rights community, it may have more influence on global human rights than most other parts of the UN. The UN Statistical Commission is the department at the UN that decides how to define many of the terms used by governments. At its annual meeting this year, for the first time, issues of sexual orientation and gender identity were raised. Here is why this discussion is vitally important to LGBT communities throughout the world.

This year, the UN will establish a new development agenda -- a set of 20-year goals for reducing poverty, increasing health, decreasing conflict, and combatting discrimination, among other things. These goals, called the sustainable development goals, will guide trillions of dollars of international aid and humanitarian relief programs over the next decades. The goals are the result of a long series of negotiations amongst governments, and one of the big questions has been whether these goals will explicitly include LGBT people, either now or in the future as the goals come under review.

Nations are paying more attention to LGBT issues. The evidence is piling up that LGBT people face poverty, exclusion from healthcare institutions and workplaces, violence, and challenges obtaining housing. The UN recently adopted a resolution recognizing the violence and discrimiation faced by LGBT people. Advocates for LGBT rights have sought to have LGBT people included in development goals.

While the governments set the goals, the Statistical Commission determines how they are defined and measured. The Commission is the 'apex' organization in the UN when it comes to collecting and analyzing data. Using this data, the Commission tracks progress in meeting these goals.

For instance, one of the goals is to improve nutrition. It is the job of the Commission to define nutrition and figure out how to collect data about whether it is improving. For goals about equal access to healthcare, the Commission would need to figure out how to know to track who is and is not receiving healthcare. Similarly, if the UN wants to include LGBT people in its development agenda, then it will have to gather data about LGBT populations.

Underlying these questions is the issue of how to classify individuals as LGBT. How, across the world's diverse cultures, do we decide who is LGBT? Reaching consensus about this will be possible, but not simple. The Williams Institute has pioneered work on how to survey populations about sexual orientation and gender identity. This work has shown that data collection methods need to be well designed in order to be useful. As some of the attendees of this year's meeting noted, it is likely that the Commission will be faced with answering these questions in the near future.

That discussion will require community input and expertise, but politics may get in the way. Much of the work of the Commission is accomplished by a staff of expert statisticians who coordinate data gathering efforts undertaken by UN member countries. However, its governing board is made up of representatives from UN members states who are elected through a political process. That board currently includes Russia, Oman, and the Cameroon and other countries who have opposed UN activities related to LGBR populations.

The fact that LGBT issues were raised at the Commission has already come to the attention of the Center for Family and Human Rights, an anti-gay UN watchdog group. For LGBT people, the power of visibility and information is undeniable. As LGBT issues gain prominence at the global level, data will become a more important part of the debate. The Commission may be where the real battle takes place to define the reality of LGBT people.