From the Exosphere
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From the Exosphere

A rainbow of data

Data scientist Bryan Field explains that our Rainbow communities can now be better supported by government because Stats NZ’s new statistical standard means we can now know a lot more about them.

Source: Tristan B. — Unsplash

My wife and I are one of those government-town couples, with me in the consulting game and her at an independent Crown Entity, the Human Rights Commission. Through that connection I recently got to talk with one of her colleagues at the Commission, Taine Polkinghorne, about the importance of accurately measuring and defining populations –Rainbow communities for example. Thank you to Taine for his time and thoughts during the preparation of this article.

Taine is the Human Rights Commission’s senior advisor on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics, and he told me about Stats NZ’s recent work in this area and how delighted he was that statistical standards were finally moving in the right direction. Through the application of a new statistical standard for gender, sex, and variations of sex characteristics, people from Rainbow communities, a diverse group with complex needs, can now be better supported by government because we now know more about their demographics.

To paraphrase Taine’s key point: “Populations that aren’t counted don’t count.” It’s catchy, but also accurate. As he emphasised to me, populations that have never been counted in statistical tools like the Census or household surveys are often underserved by policy and government services — for the simple reason that it’s hard to define what resources are needed.

Absence of evidence ≠ evidence of absence

Taine emphasised to me that the lack of reliable data on the size and characteristics of New Zealand’s LGBT+ populations has limited the capacity of policymakers, administrators, and practitioners to address these needs. “Absence of evidence”, he said, “is usually considered evidence of absence.”

He also pointed me towards a recent data release by Stats NZ (from the Household Economic Survey) that asked questions and published data on LGBT+ respondents in New Zealand.

In this article I present some of Stats NZ’s data and expand on why it’s so important that Stats NZ continues to measure vulnerable populations like Rainbow communities and to analyse the similarities and differences between minority and majority populations.

There are 160,600 LGBT+ people over 18 …

Stats NZ defines the LGBT+ population as:

“people whose gender is different from their sex recorded at birth (transgender, or another gender/non-binary), or [who] report a sexual identity other than heterosexual (gay or lesbian, bisexual, or another sexual identity).”

Stats NZ’s data shows that the LGBT+ population of Aotearoa in the year ended June 2020 was 160,600 (plus or minus 11,200), which is about 4.2% of New Zealanders over 18. That’s about the same as the population of Hamilton, our fourth largest city.

That total is made up of:

· 62,400 males, including cisgender men (whose gender is the same as their sex assigned at birth), and transgender men (whose gender differs from their sex assigned at birth)

· 86,000 females, including cisgender and transgender women, and

· 12,200 people of another gender, including non-binary, agender, gender fluid, genderqueer, and takatāpui.

Stats NZ’s LGBT+ indicator (as defined above) includes sexual minorities (for example, lesbian, gay, and bisexual) and diverse genders (for example, transgender and non-binary).

Sexual minorities totalled 139,200 people, or 3.7% of New Zealanders over 18 (a little more than the population of Tauranga), whereas people with diverse genders totalled 31,800 people (a bit less than Ashburton).

This data shows there is some overlap between sexual minorities and diverse genders — it also indicates that the LGBT+ population in New Zealand is a diverse group with diverse needs.

… but this data probably underestimates the true size of the LGBT+ population

While it’s very useful to have this data, it probably underestimates the true number of LGBT+ people, for various reasons.

Taine Polkinghorne told me that discussions on online forums suggest that, for example, many older respondents may have suppressed or hidden identities that would have seen them in jail, or out of a job, or excluded from their family.

The data was also collected during a survey wave (to year end June 2020) before the new statistical standard on gender, sex, and sex characteristics was published in April 2021. As a result, the survey didn’t include any questions on variations of sex characteristics.

The LGBT+ population is younger than the general population

The following tree-map shows the age distribution of the 160,600 LGBT+ people by age group. You can see that the three youngest age groups make up more than half of the total.

Source: Stats NZ

To put this in context, we can compare the age distribution of the LGBT+ population with that of the non-LGBT+ population. The following chart shows that the LGBT+ population has much higher percentages of people in the age groups under 35 years, and much lower percentages in the age groups over 50.

As mentioned above, one explanation for this could be under-reporting in the older age groups because of the lingering impact of historical discrimination and criminal sanctions.

Source: Stats NZ

The ethnicity profile of the LGBT+ population is like the non-LGBT+

Stats NZ’s data shows that the ethnicity profile of the LGBT+ population is similar to that of the non-LGBT+ population.

The following chart shows that a slightly higher percentage of LGBT+ people are Māori compared with non-LGBT+ people, but that the other ethnicities have about the same percentages as the non-LGBT+ population.

Source: Stats NZ

LGBT+ people are more likely to experience poor outcomes than non-LGBT+ people

Importantly, Stats NZ’s data shows that LGBT+ people are at higher risk of poor outcomes on a wide range of dimensions. Stats NZ’s own data release highlights that:

· LGBT+ people are more likely than the non-LGBT+ population to experience anxiety and depression

· LGBT+ people are more likely to rent their homes than the non-LGBT+ population

· personal disposable income is lower for LGBT+ people (for example, 14.4% lower for the sexual minority population than the heterosexual population)

A March 2022 article from Infometrics also pointed out that LGBT+ people have higher rates of unemployment, with 6.7% for LGBT+ people compared with 3.7% for non-LGBT+. This is despite LGBT+ people having higher rates of university education — around 33% of LGBT+ people have a Bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 26% for non-LGBT+.

I’m going to add one more insight to this list: LGBT+ people are more likely to have problems with dampness and mould in their homes and to have trouble heating their homes. The next chart shows that 30.7% of LGBT+ people have problems with dampness or mould, compared with 23.1% of non-LGBT+ people, and 27.1% of LGBT+ people have problems keeping their houses warm, compared with 19.9% of non-LGBT+.

Living in damp, mouldy, and cold homes can lead to poor health, and this can also drive poor outcomes in other areas like education and employment.

Source: Stats NZ

The LGBT+ community also pay more on average for housing than non-LGBT+ people. Mean annual housing costs for LGBT+ people are $23,040, while for non-LGBT+ people the figure is $19,426 (see the chart below).

There seems to be a geographical factor here — there’s no difference in mean housing costs in rural areas, but there’s a significant difference in urban areas. It’s unclear precisely what’s driving this difference; it deserves more detailed research.

Source: Stats NZ

Why this is important

This data provides what are currently the best estimates we have of the demographics of the LGBT+ population in Aotearoa, and of some of their outcomes in key domains like mental health, housing, employment, and education.

Although imperfect, the estimates are hugely valuable to the LGBT+ community and the government. As an aside, the 2023 Census will also use the new statistical standard for gender, sex, and variations of sex characteristics, so the standard of information on the LGBTI+ community should continue to improve.

The right to information is a human right

A June 2020 report from the NZ Human Rights Commission explored human rights issues related to sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics — or “SOGIESC”.

The report, entitled “Prism”, explored different human rights relevant to Rainbow communities — for example, freedom from discrimination, the right to recognition before the law, and, notably, the right to information. All of those rights relate to specific treaties that New Zealand has ratified — as a result, the New Zealand government has a legal obligation to improve things for people in these areas.

The right to information means, essentially, that LGBT+ people have the right to be reflected in official statistics. But when the “Prism” report was written, there were very few official data sets relating to sexual orientation, and none on people with diverse gender identities, gender expressions, or sex characteristics.

Official surveys containing questions on respondents’ gender identity (and to a lesser extent, sexual orientation) have only just started being used over the last few years, including in Stats NZ’s household surveys. Because of the time it takes to analyse and release data, we are only starting to see the published results now.

What’s measured is what gets done

It is difficult to prove a problem exists, such as health-related or economic inequality, when there are no numbers giving us a measure of the problem. Also, qualitative data can often be dismissed as anecdote.

LGBT+ people are particularly vulnerable to human rights breaches through being chronically under-served and under-resourced, on top of the stigma and discrimination they experience. Certain populations within LGBT+ communities, such as takatāpui, have been particularly invisible to official statistics and statistical standards.

Data from official statistics, especially the Census, is used by government to allocate funding in a wide range of areas, including health. It is therefore vital for policymakers to have accurate data in order to direct resources in the right areas and to ensure they benefit the right people.

Without accurate data on these populations, there can be no credible analysis of the scope or nature of the challenges faced, nor measures put in place to alleviate those challenges. It’s a vicious cycle, but Stats NZ’s recent shift in this area offers the welcome prospect of breaking that cycle.



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