State agencies launch LGBT data-collection effort

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The New York City gay pride parade. (AP Photo/Julia Weeks)
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New York State is launching a campaign to collect coordinated data on residents’ sexual orientation as part of a comprehensive effort to improve health and human services for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender New Yorkers, the state’s health department announced Wednesday.

It would be the first such statewide effort in the country, Dan O’Connell, director of the state Health Department’s AIDS Institute, said in an interview with Capital.

Eight state agencies will soon begin collecting the self-reported, voluntary data on LGBT people who use their services. The agencies are: the Department of Health, Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, Office for the Aging, Office of Mental Health, Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services, Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, Office of Children and Family Services and Office for People with Developmental Disabilities.

The agencies will ask people using their public services to self-report their sexual orientation on forms, along with other identifying data state agencies typically collect.

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O’Connell said the health department’s efforts to collect data on LGBT residents has become more plausible in recent years.

“In the past, this wouldn’t have been likely to happen" O'Connell said, because there was so much stigma associated with being LGBT. "But that conversation really has changed over time,” he said.

A 2011 Institute of Medicine report showed that limited data collection on health issues specific to the LGBT community had made it more difficult to identify disparities in the kinds of care available to them.

If that data was available, the state could develop better ways of addressing health problems like H.I.V./AIDS and certain types of cancers prevalent among gay men.

For example, O’Connell said, “70 percent of all new [H.I.V.] infections are among men who have sex with men. We need to be able to track this population.”

Being able to keep track of the transgender population could also yield other information that helps the state address non-health issues, like discrimination and financial disparities, O’Connell said. While medical researchers have provided estimates of LGBT state populations for years, this type of government effort to collect comprehensive data on LGBT New Yorkers is unprecedented, he said.

“This is happening at a time when people are really rethinking LGBT rights,” O’Connell said. “LGBT rights aren’t just marriage equality. It has to do with having the same rights as everyone else."

O’Connell said the new data collection effort represents a transformation in the way the state and the government treat non-heterosexual New Yorkers.

“You’re taking something that 40 years ago was a crime and we’re at a place where people are openly talking about it,” he said. “It’s an important moment and what this shows is that we want this to be as routinely captured as any other information we gather about any other human being.”