Community Indicators for Your Community

Real, lasting community change is built around knowing where you are, where you want to be, and whether your efforts are making a difference. Indicators are a necessary ingredient for sustainable change. And the process of selecting community indicators -- who chooses, how they choose, what they choose -- is as important as the data you select.

This is an archive of thoughts I had about indicators and the community indicators movement. Some of the thinking is outdated, and many of the links may have broken over time.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Beyond the "Gay Index"

Recent local work in understanding the status and impact of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (GLBT) community in our area resulted in a data query (as any exploration often does.) Do I know of a good indicator or set of indicators that would help measure the demographics and quality of life of the local GLBT community?

Richard Florida, in his book The Rise of the Creative Class, advocated the use of a "Gay Index" as a key measure of tolerance in a community. (You'll remember that it was the three T's of Talent, Tolerance, and Technology that, for Dr. Florida, predicted a Creative Community.)

So do we have a good indicator for the GLBT community? Not quite. The "Gay Index" used same-sex unmarried partner household data from the U.S. Census as a proxy for gay couples in the community as a percentage of total households. Similar measures (such as this measure of the gayest zip codes in America from use the same data set, which places the national estimates of partnered gay households at 0.99% of the population in 2000 (1.16% in 2004, using American Community Survey estimates.) The data are self-reported survey information.

As a conversation piece or a comparative indicator of tolerance, the data have its uses, but as a quality-of-life or demographic measure of the local GLBT community it is extraordinarily limiting. The data do not measure non-partnered individuals, for example.

The problems with the data available keep growing as definitional questions arise. The National Center for Health Statistics reports the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth found 6.5 percent of men ages 25-44 have had sex with another man, and (in a differently worded question) 11 percent of women reported having had a sexual experience with another woman.

However, these experiences do not appear to correlate with self-identification as gay or lesbian. The National Health and Social Life Survey found the rates of self-reported homosexuality to be 1.3% for women within the prior year, and 4.1% since 18 years, compared to 2.7% for men within the prior year and 4.9% since 18 years.

In Demographics of the Gay and Lesbian Population in the United States: Evidence from Available Systematic Data Sources, better demographic estimates are available, with some possible measures of quality-of-life factors (such as home ownership serving as a possible proxy indicator for wealth.) The datasets, however, remain national, and aren't available on a local level for understanding either demographics or quality-of-life, except by imputing national averages to local conditions. And since the authors point out that 60 percent of partnered homosexual couples live in only 20 U.S. cities, national averages for either demographics or for quality-of-life measures likely mean little at a local level.

How can a community move beyond the crude calculation of the "Gay Index" to begin to understand the demographic characterics of its GLBT population? What indicators have you seen that might answer questions of social connectedness, tolerance, civic engagement, or other quality-of-life aspects of a local GLBT community?


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