At Western Digital, we are excited to support and promote original LGBTQ+ stories focused on how data is helping the LGBTQ+ community.
Data plays an indispensable role in American policy-making.
Government agencies collect information on their constituents through regularly issued polls, and legislators use the data to locate their community’s needs and propose laws accordingly.
But the decisions and insights drawn from data are only as good as the data itself. And in the case of the LGBTQ+ community, that data is deeply flawed. Demographic questions about American LGBTQ+ population have been historically excluded 1 from federal, state and local surveys.
And although the Supreme Court recently issued a landmark decision that protects LGBTQ+ people against workplace discrimination, there’s still work to be done. Data can help researchers, service providers and advocates create more evidence-based policies to effectively combat discrimination.
Without proper data collection practices, ongoing injustices will remain. There are initiatives in progress3 aimed at making meaningful changes to our country’s data collection practices to power new policies that service both majority and minority populations. But in the meantime, individuals in the LGBTQ+ community have taken matters into their own hands, collecting and sharing data through video, social media and other platforms. Although these aren’t traditional means of collecting data, they’re proving to be equally impactful in raising awareness and driving change.
Creating Awareness and Visibility
Cataloging personal experiences and stories can be just as effective in driving awareness and change as traditional survey data collection practices — just look at the work of VideoOut4. This nonprofit has one of the fastest-growing5 virtual video libraries on the internet, made up entirely of LGBTQ+ stories. The nonprofit travels to different communities across the U.S. and works with local LGBTQ+ organizers to offer individuals the opportunity to record and share their story.
The VideoOut team collects stories on flash drives and, after some editing, publishes the finished product on YouTube and their site. Using the video-sharing platform not only saves on storage costs, but also makes it easy to share and discover the videos beyond the VideoOut website. Each one is an opportunity to educate others, advocate for queer voices and dismantle systems of discrimination nationwide.
“For us, generating visibility means not focusing on one story, perception or issue,” says VideoOut founder Jordan Reeves We try to be as inclusive as possible about the stories we collect and share so that we’re delivering a holistic view of our community.”
To encapsulate the holistic view Reeves talks about, VideoOut collects stories not just from progressive cities, but also areas where homophobia is still virulent. The nonprofit uses stories from these communities as “empathetic tools” that create awareness for the ongoing struggles of queer individuals who have fewer resources and less visibility.
“When we record an individual’s story, we add context so that it can be weaved into the story of the community that surrounds it,” says Reeves. “This makes them more relatable and improves understanding between divided groups.”
Combatting Workplace Discrimination
Collecting stories in place of traditional data collection has also helped address the gap in issues like workplace discrimination: 500 Queer Scientists7 is an online campaign that collects stories from queer individuals in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) professions. According to one study that looked at majors declared in year one versus year four, LGBTQ+ graduates are 7% less likely8 to continue in a STEM major through their fourth year of college. And once they get to the workforce, queer-identifying people working in STEM fields feel less supported and empowered9 than their non-LGBTQ colleagues. According to Lauren Esposito, one of the campaign’s organizers, this is in part due to the climates of STEM workplaces.
“In a laboratory, for example, queer scientists feel pressured to keep their sexual or gender identity secret,” she says. “These work climates are especially heteronormative, and they make you feel like you have to leave part of your identity at the door when you walk in.”
In 2018, when Esposito and others founded 500 Queer Scientists, it began as an email chain asking people to share their experience as a queer person in STEM. Today, over 1,000 stories have been collected on the campaign’s website. After sharing their stories to the campaign’s site, participants frequently share them on social media, which amplifies their impact:
“When stories are posted and shared via social media, it can help someone else feel less alone or isolated in their experience,” says Esposito. “Social media also helps us reach the entire STEM community and creates awareness for this issue among non-queer individuals.”
Working Against Misinformation
Many organizations and individuals, especially those involved in social justice movements, rely on social media platforms to effectively disseminate information. In fact, most Americans receive10 their news via social media rather than typical media platforms. But these platforms are imperfect: Humans, bots and algorithms can manipulate what information appears in social media feeds, rendering them echo chambers in which people are only exposed to ideas similar to their own.
But the same problem that these algorithms create, they can help fix. USC’s Center for Artificial Intelligence in Society (CAIS) is utilizing an AI-based tool called HEALER11 to actively destigmatize HIV diagnoses among LGBTQ+ homeless youth. In the queer community, HIV is still misunderstood — people with the virus still avoid12 going to clinics for fear of suffering further discrimination based on their status. Using AI-backed technology, HEALER identifies key individuals (based not only on popularity and influence but other nuances) who are willing to spread correct, positive information about HIV diagnoses and resources for treatment to people with whom they lack social ties.
In its first set of pilot programs, HEALER was able to spread information to almost 66% of homeless youth13 in their network, and the Los Angeles area saw a 25% self-reported increase14 in the number of homeless youth who get tested for HIV regularly. CAIS and other groups like it have found that fighting fire with fire — or myopic algorithms with ones focused on societal good — can actually work in combating echo chambers.
A Hopeful Future for Data Equality and the LGBTQ+ Movement
As these digital efforts continue, there is hope in the future for how the U.S. government collects survey data, too. The fight for fair and equal data collection practices is underway: For the first time ever, this year’s census15 allowed respondents to specify that they are part of a same-sex couple. It also asks respondents about their relationship to the person with whom they share their home, and now includes options like “same-sex husband/wife/spouse” and “same-sex unmarried partner.” These wins are providing hope for the LGBTQ+ movement and, hopefully, will help in paving the way for better policies and legislation.
Social stories (and the terabytes that power them) can do much of what traditional data collection does: They can generate visibility, create awareness for certain issues, and provide a more holistic picture of a community. But if and when these stories exist in conjunction with standardized data practices, which will more directly get information in front of the legislators who could create policy-driven change, equality might be more easily achieved.
This content is produced by WIRED Brand Lab in collaboration with Western Digital Corporation.