Questions about Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Erased on National Surveys

April 21, 2017

Just last week, I wrote about a groundbreaking study on the health and well-being of older lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) adults. The study is the largest to date that looks at the impact of a host of cultural, environmental, political, and social factors on the health and lives of LGBT aging adults. Of critical importance, the researchers found that LGBT people face unique stressors that place them at higher risk of disability, cardiovascular disease, depression, and social isolation. They also found that LGBT older adults are “extremely resilient.”

I ended that post by quoting one of the authors, Karen I. Fredriksen-Goldsen, Ph.D, who said:

The insights gleaned from this study of aging among LGBT older adults can deepen our understanding of the richness, diversity, and resilience of lives across the life course.

Research into the health and lives of LGBT elders is only possible when we track information on elders’ sexual orientation and gender identity. What I didn’t include in last week’s  post (because I wasn’t aware of it at the time) is that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), under the direction of newly appointed and vehemently anti-LGBT rights chair Tom Price, recently decided that it will stop collecting data on LGBT older adults. HHS has eliminated questions about LGBT people from two important national surveys that gather critical information used to inform public policy and determine who receives certain federal benefits.

According to the Center for American Progress (CAP), the latest protocol for the National Survey of Older Americans Act Participants, which was publicly announced on March 13,

…omits the survey’s only question about sexual orientation and gender identity. Despite the fact that LGBT people have been erased from the survey, the notice announcing the proposed survey alleges that “no changes” were made to the survey.

The other data collection method for older adults from which questions about gender identity and sexual orientation were stripped is the Annual Program Performance Report for Centers for Independent Living. The report evaluates programs that serve people with disabilities.

Why is this important? CAP explains:

By rolling back data collection, the Department of Health and Human Services is throwing away the tools to ensure the department reaches vulnerable LGBT people in programs ranging from home delivered meals and senior center group meals, to transportation, caregiver support, and health promotion services.

Data on the health and lives of LGBT older adults is scarce as it is. As the LGBT population ages, we need to know more — not less — about the community’s specific needs. In addition to the higher rates of cardiovascular disease and disability, for example, Brandon Brown, Assistant Director of Medicine at University of California, Riverside, reminds us that, “…half of all HIV-positive people in the U.S. are older than 50, and HIV accelerates the aging process. Some older adults may actually be at an increased risk for getting HIV – for example, vaginal thinning and dryness in older women can make HIV transmission easier.”  He also shares that in a recent survey of the transgender community, three-quarter of respondents had contemplated suicide.

The new administration has sought to erase LGBT people in multiple ways: by deleting the LGBT and civil rights sections from the White House web site, rolling back transgender rights policies on bathroom usage, and eliminating gender identity and sexual orientation from these important national surveys. We need to fight back. We can and should continue to raise awareness about how important it is to research, study, and address the needs and health concerns of LGBT people.

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