Is the UN concerned about the well-being of LGBTI people?

This month representatives from almost every country in the world will gather in New York for a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. The UN hopes to address several crises facing the nations of the world - climate change will force millions from their homes, wealth inequality keeps many in poverty, inadequate healthcare systems leave many to die, and schools fail to provide good educations. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people are among those that face these crises, yet in most of these conversations, LGBTI people are not receiving serious consideration.

For each of these problems there are scores of agencies collecting data to understand the issue: where do people live? how do they earn a living? what is their health status? where do they turn for support in an emergency? The list goes on and on. The UN wants to be sure that its programs meet the needs of people on the ground, except, seemingly, for LGBTI people.

In most countries, there is little scientific data about the lives of LGBTI people. While some human rights violations make the headlines, we do not know the basics about the health, finances, and educational attainment of LGBTI populations. Organizations like the World Bank, the World Health Organization, and the UN Statistical Division maintain large databases of information except, again, not about LGBTI people.

Why is this so important? Because the research that does exist points strongly to the conclusion that LGBTI face unique challenges to achieving well-being. Studies have found that openly LGB people get fewer job interviews and earn less. Experiences of prejudice result in poor mental health. Bullying causes school drop-out. Relief efforts do not reach LGBTI people in times of crises. We need to know more in order to formulate effective responses. An editorial in the American Journal of Public Health said that the greatest threat to the health of [LGB] Americans is the lack of scientific information about their health."

Recently, staff at the United Nations Development Programme teamed with LGBTI researchers and community leaders to develop a global inclusion index. Part of the index is meant to track, by country, data on income disparities, rates of violence, and health disparities for LGBT people. The problem is that in most countries there is no data to track.

Each year, in every country in the world, governments collect data about people living in that country. The methods vary widely, from door-to-door surveys to anonymously collecting data from administrative forms. Presumably, many of the individuals being surveyed are themselves lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex. But most governments do not seek this information, even when it is safe and feasible. Without this data, the UNDP index, and many other programs, will have no means of knowing how well, or poorly, LGBTI people are doing.

Research methodologies have improved so that researchers can insure that data collection only takes place in a manner that is safe and effective. In June of this year a group of gender identity researchers wrote an open letter to a number of governments, telling them that safe data collection was feasible and necessary. The United States Congress is considering legislation which would mandate inclusion of LGBT people in mainstream data collection efforts.

The editorial in the American Journal of Public health made several recommendations which can be applied to data gathering efforts at the UN: Governments should include LGBTI people in current data collection efforts; the UN should establish minimum standards for data collection and measurements; UN bodies should have a long-range plan for researching LGBTI human and economic development; and, policies should incorporate newly available data.

Given the ability to collect data, and the recognized need for it, the continued exclusion of LGBTI people should be given scrutiny. The question is no long whether data collection is possible, the question is whether governments want to pay attention to the needs of LGBTI people. Without this data, the well-being of LGBTI people remains largely unknown.