Beyond Measure: Can LGBTQ Progress Really Be Quantified? 

HRC President Chad Griffin, photographed in 2012.

Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for The Elton John AIDS Foundation

As the year comes to a close, I, like many others, find myself in a state of reflection. Am I, as a bisexual transgender woman, exiting the year in better condition than I entered it? Is the state of LGBTQ rights in a better place than it was this time last year? Where do we stand in our fight for equality and acceptance?

Answering these questions is something of a piecemeal project. Certain indicators—such as the number of states that have embraced marriage equality, or the number of municipalities that have enacted non-discrimination ordinances—are clearly measurable. Other important aspects—like the question of whether it’s becoming easier to be LGBTQ in the workplace, or whether LGBTQ individuals are being more accurately represented in pop culture—are less concrete, less quantifiable. Even so, hard data are comforting, and a number of LGBTQ organizations release annual reports that attempt to provide them, even for the inherently nebulous queries. From the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate and Municipal Equality Indexes to GLAAD’s “Where We Are on TV” report, those inclined can immerse themselves in more stats than any lay person could possibly know what to do with. The question is, how much descriptive value do their really possess?

In October, Outward’s June Thomas criticized what she calls “GLAAD’s annual counting of the TV queers.” Thomas takes on GLAAD’s “Network Responsibility Index” and “Where We Are on TV” report, declaring them a “waste of time.” Her greater point, as it applies to efforts to try and quantify cultural progress within the entertainment industry and beyond, is that simply counting the number of LGBTQ characters on screen tells us little about their relatability or their social justice value to the “LGBTQ community.” The fact is that a monolithic, politically coherent “community” simply doesn’t exist, and what someone considers to be a positive portrayal can be seen as near-defamatory by another.

In 2014, alone, we witnessed a number of splits among LGBTQ individuals in regards to what should be considered “good for us.” For example, earlier this year, a number of transgender individuals—myself included—spoke out against the stereotyping of trans characters in movies like Dallas Buyers Club. Similarly, some trans individuals—again, myself included—felt slighted or even insulted by certain segments on RuPaul’s Drag Race. In both instances, others within the LGBTQ community whole-heartedly disagreed, claiming that these were positive, relatable portrayals that helped advance the always vague “cause.” Neither position is necessarily right or wrong; the point is that such subjective value judgments are just not the stuff of charts and graphs. 

Television is one thing, but what about reports that try to measure more grounded questions—like workplace or regional embrace of LGBTQ people? The HRC’s corporate and municipal indices give it a go, grading on a numbered scale from 1 to 100. Such reports are seen as valuable tools for individuals planning on moving to a city or joining a certain company, but they are also just sketches. While some view them as the apotheosis of progress measurement, it’s important to know that in the eyes of the indexes’ creators, that’s not the goal.

Deena Fidas, the director of HRC’s Workplace Equality Program, is one of the driving forces behind the CEI; she spoke to me regarding her motivations. “These indexes are part of a wide spectrum of advocacy,” Fidas said, adding that the data they’re able to collect “is not sufficient to be an end-all, be-all measure of LGBTQ equality in the workplace.” Later, she reinforces this idea, stating that no survey or document can truly measure equality, as it’s made up of so many intangible factors. Still, she sees great value in providing corporations with the relationships and resources they need to improve their policies. For example, a company might truly want to become as LGBTQ-inclusive as possible, but might not know where to start. That’s where HRC and the CEI come in.

“I’m extremely proud of the work we’ve done,” Fidas says. “More than one-third of all Fortune 500 companies now offer trans-inclusive health care.” This, it seems, remains one of the toughest sells, as many corporations and their insurance providers deem many of the World Professional Association of Transgender Health Standards of Care to be cosmetic, despite the fact that a number of major medical associations, including the American Medical Association, advise otherwise. “Simultaneously, we’re well aware of the work that still needs to be done,” she adds, telling me that while encouraging companies to include what’s referred to as “market standard care”—which typically includes hormone replacement therapy, along with “top” and “bottom” surgeries—she hopes to see more companies take steps to include traditionally excluded procedures like facial feminization surgeries, vocal chord training, and other typically “cosmetic” procedures in their plans.

I also spoke with Cathryn Oakley, HRC’s Legislative Counsel focusing on State and Municipal Advocacy. She works with local legislatures to enact LGBTQ-inclusive policies ranging from nondiscrimination ordinances to improved LGBTQ health care requirements. She’s also one of the authors of the Municipal Equality Index.

One of the more common concerns with how the MEI rates cities and towns is that survey respondents can come short in important areas but earn bonus points in different, unrelated areas to still achieve a “perfect” score of 100. In speaking with her, I referenced my hometown of Chicago, which came away with a 100 score, even though it was docked seven points for not offering city employees trans-inclusive health care and not requiring city contractors to adhere to an equal benefits ordinance. The city made up the difference with bonuses for having a city-wide nondiscrimination ordinance; offering services and support for LGBTQ youth, elderly, and those living with HIV/AIDS; and having at least one openly LGBTQ elected or appointed municipal leader.

My question for Oakley was simple: What’s to incentivize improvement if a city already has a 100 score? She defended the bonus practice by explaining that it’s simply not possible for some cities and towns to build the infrastructure needed to achieve a perfect score. This is particularly the case in states with restrictive, anti-LGBTQ laws. In her words, “It wasn’t fair to score tiny towns on big city infrastructure” And she emphasized that as legislative and institutional barriers fall, the HRC’s criteria will adjust in order to push cities to improve further.

This openness to re-evaluation and acknowledgment that no metric can be perfectly applied in all cases is encouraging. HRC’s Vice President and Chief Foundation Officer Jeff Krehely articulated the organization’s view:

We don’t see our measurement tools as the beginning and end of inclusive policy—nor are they static. … As I know you know, social justice work is rarely perfect. We’ve found these tools to be a considerable force in achieving significant and measurable policy change that have helped millions of people. Not everything can be measured, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t push for what can.

In speaking with Krehely, Fidas, and Oakley, I came away feeling reassured that these reports are more than fundraising scorecards trying to map out some sort of activism return on investment. The dynamic nature of the scoring metrics does incentivize businesses and municipalities to continuously improve, and more important, it keeps us all thinking about the work that’s left to be done. And that awareness is what drives real progress—even the kind of progress that doesn’t easily fit on a spreadsheet.