Building Strength in Numbers

by | May 1, 2021 | 0 comments

From his vantage point in decades of nonprofit work, Steve Starkey is clear about one thing: data drives the money needed to solve social problems. 

He can point to the trends he sees in his work as the director of the Outreach LGBT Center in Madison and in partnerships with other nonprofits that address the homelessness, substance abuse, or disparities in health care that members of the LBGTQ+ community face in Dane County. Those who identify as anything other than white cisgender heterosexuals are more likely to face challenges in housing and health care. 

However, when grants for social services depend on demographic information, nonprofits can’t demonstrate local problems with data that isn’t being collected.

“Without local government collecting demographic data, we’re left guessing about the sexual orientation or gender identity of members in our community,” said Starkey. “Without data, you can’t know, for instance, what health issues people have or what kinds of medical resources should be made available to them. There’s a real lack of knowledge, and we can’t prove the need. We can only extrapolate some estimates based on other research like through the Williams Institute at UCLA or by local companies or colleges.”

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Steve started thinking about this over a decade ago when outgoing Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney gathered a group of local civil rights leaders to discuss diversity and inclusion in County law enforcement. Starkey was the only person there representing the LGBTQ communtiy. The Sheriff’s office could point to improvements in diversifying its workforce based on race because they collected that data, but not sexual orientation or gender identity. Later Steve met with Sheriff Mahoney individually to point out the importance of collecting this data for his department.

This discussion led to more meetings where Starkey ran into a common theme: government entities resisted collecting demographic data on sexual orientation or gender identity because of a fear of “outing” employees. There was also a hesitation about risks of lawsuits. 

“Years ago, I had meetings with former Mayor Paul Soglin and explained why having homeless shelters for male individuals and female individuals left out transgender people, and how even if there are city and county ordinances that bar discrimination against gender identity, the shelters are discriminatory,” Starkey said. “I explained that if the city doesn’t collect information about sexual orientation or gender identity like they do with race, disability or age, it sends the message that our community and the issues we face aren’t important. He said he’d work on it, but nothing happened.” 

Starkey felt some hope with the election of Satya Rhodes-Conway to the Mayor’s office, and he met with her in 2019 to reiterate the importance of data collection. He explained the history of the issue with the city and pointed out that Outreach is the only LGBTQ-centered organization the city funds. There are nonprofits with strong LGBTQ programs and leaders like Freedom, Inc. and Briarpatch, but a disconnect remains in connecting the dots between data, funding, and the strategic efforts to help members of the LGBTQ community overcome the systemic barriers they face.

After the conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the summer of 2020 that the 1964 Civil Rights Act does extend nondiscrimination protections to sexual orientation and gender identity, Starkey was able to point to the decision as a reason for local government to change its data collection practices. 

A pivotal moment came when the Dane County Department of Human Services sent a letter to its grantees in November 2020 with routine requests for compliance reports from nonprofits and vendors. The County asked for the demographics of for-profit and nonprofit vendors’ staff and board. When that request didn’t include tracking sexual orientation or gender identity, Starkey emailed Shawn Tessman, Director of Dane County Human Services and copied County Executive Joe Parisi and local nonprofit leaders.

“I said this wasn’t okay,” said Starkey. “I pointed to the Supreme Court ruling to say that we are a protected class and it’s important to us that this data is collected. Tessman agreed and said she would work on it. Many of the same questions came up about whether the data collection would be like outing people, but the next letter from the County in January 2021 included some options for sexual orientation and gender identity. They are starting small, but the roll out process is starting.”

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The January 11 letter from the County states that “as an extension to Dane County’s commitment to equity and diversity, effective with the 2021 contract year, DCDHS will begin a consistent and comprehensive methodology of requesting and evaluating diversity data…. Data will be collected that allows quantitative analyses designed to evaluate the percentage of women, racial and ethnic minorities, senior citizens, disabled, non-binary gender or gender non-conforming, transgender, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and peers/consumers among an agency’s staff, board, and volunteers.”

The letter also makes it clear that while filing the data collection form is mandatory, “information being sought is sensitive and as such, employee disclosure of this information is not mandatory. If the demographics are not readily or voluntarily available, no additional efforts should be made to obtain this information.”

This leaves more work for the City of Madison to do. Steve says he is glad this issue is gaining some traction, but he doesn’t believe anything will change on the City’s administrative end soon. With more pressure on local leaders, including the Mayor and the civil rights department, data collection by the city could mirror what Dane County is already putting in place. 

Entities like Public Health Madison & Dane County support and depend on efforts for greater communication and cooperation between the city and county. Rachel Goldberg works for Public Health Madison & Dane County as the COVID School & Child Care Liaison. She stresses that comprehensive data collection is essential for LGBTQ+ equality. It informs decisions made at all levels of government, from policy making to funding decisions that ultimately impact social determinants of health. 

“Without representative data collection methods, these decisions are incomplete at best and exclusionary at worst,” Goldberg explains. “Since data identifies gaps and needs of a particular community, it becomes a tool to promote health outcomes and improve systems that inequitably impact certain groups. Health care access and benefits, employment opportunities, housing, nondiscrimination, and education are examples of systems that rely on data-driven funding and resource allocation. Without data that identifies the needs of the LGBTQ+ community in these systems, this group remains unseen in the eyes of essential programs and policies.”

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He points out that the Human Rights Campaign conducts an annual municipal index to assess the policies and benefits of government as employers and service providers. The City of Madison has some deficiencies in the area of youth homelessness and transgender services, yet achieves a 100-level score.

“Things have improved over the years,” says Starkey. “But we’re still at the point where there are few doctors who are competent to work with transgender people and their medical or mental health needs. Transgender people already have few resources to get health care, let alone competent service. We need empirical data to drive the funding that leads to systemic change.”

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