Harvard Educational Review
  1. Queer Data

    Using Gender, Sex and Sexuality Data for Action

    Kevin Guyan

    London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022. 227 pp. $26.95 (paper).

    The International Transgender Day of Visibility (TDOV), held annually on March 31, is a day to celebrate transgender and nonbinary people while at the same time raising awareness around discrimination, violence, and legislative attacks against them. Currently, in the United States there are more than 310 anti-LGBTQ pieces of legislation, 135 of which are specifically antitransgender bills (Human Rights Campaign, 2022). Just in 2022, the state of Florida signed the “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” bill, and Texas passed an executive directive that requires conducting child abuse investigations of parents who give medically gender-affirming care to their transgender children (Coughlin & Cahn, 2022). Internationally, in Latin America 689 people were murdered based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity between 2019 and 2020 (Sin Violencia LGBTI, 2021), while in India 30 transgender women were stopped by the police when marching in the streets of Kerala on TDOV in 2022 (Onmanorama, 2022). In the midst of these events, as human rights activists, policy makers, and researchers continue to gather data that can help fight anti-LGBTQ legislation and hate crimes, Kevin Guyan’s book Queer Data: Using Gender, Sex and Sexuality Data for Action could not be more timely.

    Guyan brings his experience as a social science researcher working with demographic data for diversity, equity, and inclusion to explore the dilemmas and challenges that arise when making decisions about how to collect, analyze, and use information related to gender, sex, and sexuality. His main premise is clear from the very first line: “Queer data is a tension” (1). The book argues that since identity categories (e.g., gender identity, sexual orientation) are social constructs, the process of trying to classify people based on these categories constitutes a moving target: the categories impact the people, and the people impact the categories. Working with survey data on the LGBTQ community requires determining who to count, what to count, and how to count—none of which are value-neutral decisions. Through the use of examples from Guyan’s own work in the UK intertwined with international examples, Queer Data builds on traditions of feminist, postcolonial, and critical race scholarship to explore the potential benefits that LGBTQ communities gain from being counted—such as for the purposes of policy, legislation, and activism—while also raising awareness of the potential dangers of being counted in ways that perpetuate inequality, discrimination, and violence. While the book builds on robust academic literature, it is accessible to those interested in using data for action, even if they don’t necessarily describe themselves as researchers. The intention of Queer Data is to provide tools that anyone can use to highlight injustices related to gender, sex, or sexuality.

    The book is conveniently structured in three parts that follow the stages of working with data: collection, analysis, and use. Part 1, “Collecting Queer Data,” provides a brief history of the data of queer communities. Yet, rather than highlighting the way data has been used to inflict violence on LGBTQ people, Guyan provides an account of what was known about people who transgressed societal expectations about gender, sex, and sexuality, either as researchers or as research participants. In this way, readers learn about Michael Schofield, a homosexual sociologist who conducted hundreds of interviews with homosexual cismen and whose findings were published in 1952. Then, Guyan talks about the queer history of data, looking at the collection methods used to represent these “outliers.” Here, readers are introduced to the concept of queering data, with queerness presented as a method through which to critically engage with the data-gathering process by questioning whether we are serving “the interests of the individuals about whom the data relates (LGBTQ people) or the interests of those who possess the power and resources to collect [it]” (50).

    The historical perspective of the first two chapters serves as the foundation for chapter 3, “The Queer Census,” which arguably represents the crux of the book. This chapter builds on Guyan’s direct experiences with and reflections on the issues surfaced in the process of designing the questions for the UK’s 2021 and 2022 censuses. The author organizes these issues and their inherent dilemmas in the form of three questions: the sex question, the sexual orientation question, and the trans question. For each of these, he walks readers through the theoretical and practical considerations that the design of each query poses: the concepts and wording decisions, the use of nonbinary answer items, the affordances and limitations of open-ended answer options, and the possibilities of a two-step versus one-step question approach to eliciting data on gender identity.

    Part 2, “Analysing Queer Data,” discusses the dilemmas associated with shaping data through the analytical process. The golden nugget in this section is the fascinating discussion on the queer tension between methods and outcomes that is captured in the construct of strategic essentialism, which Guyan defines as “the temporary presentation of an identity group as possessing fixed, intrinsic and innate qualities (or essences) as a means to advance political goals” (128). Building on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Guyan explains that temporarily fixing the characteristics of an identity group in time and space can provide a platform to mobilize action. Yet this same fixed construction of political constituencies based on identity characteristics relies on creating reductive stereotypes that erase differences within groups and inaccurately accounts for an alleged homogeneity that is “hard to extinguish once unleashed” (128). Through grappling with strategic essentialism, Queer Data sheds light on a difficult trade-off and warns of the benefits and the dangers of data design.

    Finally, part 3, “Using Queer Data,” deals with issues around the operationalization of data for action. It is refreshing to see how the author uses this section as an opportunity to deal with matters of power and privilege. Guyan does not shy away from providing a strong positionality statement. He recognizes his identity as a white, nondisabled, Scottish, cis, gay man from a working-class background. He discusses his condition as insider/outsider while still complicating this binary framing by pointing out that researchers and participants “bring a muddle of overlapping and intersecting identities to situations, which can make someone simultaneously feel both an ‘insider’ and an ‘outsider’” (157–158). After acknowledging his own privilege and the ways he has profited from biases that favor some elements of his identity, Guyan invites readers to engage in critical reflection of existing power structures.

    Each of Queer Data’s sections provides thought-provoking debates and relevant dilemmas grounded in rigorous academic concepts and rich evidence from practice. In this sense, one of the book’s core strengths is how it intertwines complex scholarly ideas with concrete problems that practitioners and activists wrestle within their day-to-day work. Furthermore, it is worth highlighting the book’s appeal to an international audience. Though it relies heavily on Guyan’s experience in the UK, Queer Data also draws from multiple international examples. Chapter 4, in particular, is exclusively devoted to underscoring global illustrations of decisions about gender, sex, and sexuality data practices. Through cases such as the use of third-gender categories in Nepal, India, Pakistan, and Kenya or the collection of data on LGBTQ violence in Latin America, Guyan builds a strong case for why international readers should find the book relevant. Furthermore, these illustrations suggest that progress on these issues should not be limited to Global North models but instead requires fostering a global conversation among practitioners, activists, and academics around the world.

    If one can imagine any room for improvement in this book, it might be that it leaves readers wanting to learn even more about certain topics. Queer Data certainly helps readers understand the work of critically interrogating the methods, tools, and frameworks associated with collecting, analyzing, and using data about identity categories. Yet, the book’s strength lies in its sections on collection and analysis rather than action. A sequel to Queer Data would benefit from a stronger focus on using queer data for action, especially through international examples. Additionally, since the book is particularly strong in questioning the design of surveys as a quantitative method, more guidance around the queering of qualitative data, as well as of mixed methods, would contribute to making this book mandatory reading for anyone working on issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion.

    Ultimately, Queer Data reminds us that social categories are not fixed in time and space. They are historically situated, and measurement tools and methods need to account for their changing nature. For these reasons, Queer Data does not intend to be the conclusive outcome of Guyan’s work but, rather, a launch pad for more innovative approaches. In this spirit, Queer Data reminds us, particularly in this digital age, that “data is a powerful weapon; in the right hands it can reshape all of our futures” (24).

    Santiago Pulido-Gómez


    Coughlin, A. M., & Cahn, N. (2022, April 8). Texas is trampling parents’ rights in its investigations of trans kids. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2022/04/08/texas-transgender-family-law/

    Human Rights Campaign. (2022, March 31). Human Rights Campaign celebrates Transgender Day of Visibility 2022 [Press release]. https://www.hrc.org/press-releases/human-rights-campaign-celebrates-transgender-day-of-visibility-2022

    Sin Violencia LGBTI (2021). Des-cifrando la Violencia en Tiempos de Cuarenta: Homicidio de lesbianas, gays, bisexuales, trans e intersex en América Latina y El Caribe 2019 -2020. In: EFE (2021, Sept 23). La violencia contra grupos LGBTI dejó 689 muertes en America en 2019 y 2020. https://www.swissinfo.ch/spa/latinoam%C3%A9rica-lgbti_la-violencia-contra-grupos-lgbti-dej%C3%B3-689-muertes-en-am%C3%A9rica-en-2019-y-2020/46972764

    Onmanorama. (2022, March 31). Transgender activists, cops clash in Aluva on International Transgender Day. https://www.onmanorama.com/news/kerala/2022/03/31/transgender-persons-protest-march-clash-aluva-police-station.html
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