The realities, ambitions and hardships of queer women aren't often given deep analysis by researchers. Mainstream socio-political conversations, research data and legislative choices frequently center individuals whose lives are marked by societal privilegeoftentimes that means white cisgender males. The unique needs of individuals living intersectional and oppressed experiences go unmet.
"We Never Give Up the Fight" is the first report coming out of the National LGBTQ+ Women's Community Surveythe most comprehensive national survey of over 5,000 LGBTQ+ women from ages 18-93, fielded from June 2021-June 2022.
Working with over 100 partner organizations, such as Bisexual Queer Alliance Chicago, Curve magazine, Lambda Legal, and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, this queer women-centered project is a nuanced, provocative and timely labor of love "built from a legacy of previous efforts to call attention to the needs, concerns, and lives of lesbians and a range of women who identify their sexuality and/or gender outside of a cisheteronormative framework," according to Dr. Bianca D.M. Wilson's foreword in the report. Wilson is the Rabbi Zacky senior scholar of public policy at the Williams Institute in Los Angeles.
This study "recreates the category of LGBTQ+ women because, rather than having a litmus test for who should be there, we said, 'Anyone who has identified as a woman at some point in their lives, or does identify as a woman and loves women, this is your study, so come tell us about yourselves,'" said study team member, researcher and activist Dr. Jaime Grant (she/dyke), a self-described "community-accountable academic."
Grant co-authored the study in partnership with the Los Angeles LGBT Center.
The report distills the data into digestible chapters on gender and sexuality, education, sex, disability, intimate partner violence (IPV) and religion. The responses of LGBTQ+ women, womxn and womyn in this report are radical, expansive, alarming and sometimes humorous. Chock full of staggering facts, the report tells the story of the impact of compounded marginalization but also one where queer women thrive.
Some key findings: The "joy of living and loving in community with queers and especially other LGBTQ+ women were paramount" when respondents were asked their favorite things about being LGBTQ+ women. Contrary to the current "disappearing butches" narrative commonly "deployed by anti-trans gender fundamentalists," the study found "more people identifying as butch currently than in the past." Half of the study respondents (50%) are living with at least one disabling condition and "BIPOC people with disabilities sometimes or often experienced accessibility barriers to LGBTQ+ services or spaces."
Additionally, almost half of respondents (47%) have experienced intimate partner violence, whether emotional, physical, or sexual. And the top three policy priorities that were important to LGBTQ+ women were "Universal Healthcare, Environment/Climate Justice, and Reproductive Rights, Access, and Care."
Windy City Times spoke with two of the fiercely passionate study team members: Grant and Ali Alyasah Sewell (they/them), an award-winning, non-binary sociologist who launched the Critical Racism Data Lab at Emory University.
Windy City Times: Who is this study is for?
Dr. Jaime M. Grant: It's for people fighting at the state and federal levels for legislation. It's useful to advocates on the ground working in any particular area. The data is accessible, it's screenshot-able. You can take bits of it to the head of a hospital, the head of your religious tradition, of your educational institution … You can take it to your member of Congress. It's a great immersion in LGBTQ women on LGBTQ women's terms. It's for anyone who gives a shit about LGBTQ women. It's for those of us who want to build a different world.
WCT: Tell us about your methodology and how meetings with partner organizations shaped your thinking.
JG: Many of the people on the advisory committee are our partner orgs. The big methodology to me, or the architecture of the project came after we, with [LGBT rights activist and lawyer] Urvashi Vaid, who was in the movement for 30 years, and [Black Youth Project founder and University of Chicago professor] Cathy Cohen, also in the movement and a Black, radical, queer feminist, said we're going to create an advisory committee that is the community we want to be in the sample.
Dr. Ali Alyasah Sewell: As we were collecting data we saw the inequities; we weren't getting certain kinds of people. Very early on we were finding folks who had listed a college education and didn't get a ton of folks in the "less than high school" category, because we were tapping into the same circles when it came to social class. We did adapt our strategy of trying to find folks so that we can get those pockets.
JG: The people who are the most impacted are often tacked on at the end for the rainbow picture of a study, rather than the people who actually create the language of the study, who create the questions, and say what's important. We wanted them be the architects of this project, not tacked on when it comes to outreach.
WCT: The data contains interesting counterpoints to current narratives from "disappearing butches" to lesbians supposedly leading the charge as TERFs, to "lesbian bed death."
JG: Yes, please note the lack of disappearing butches! [claps]
WCT: One of the most inspiring parts to read was people creating their own identifiers around gender identity and expression. One of the best was a respondent identifying as an, "Autistic genderqueer folksy solarpunk whiskey grandpa homebody."
JG: We are in the process of creation! We are resisting a white supremacist patriarchal gender regime and we are doing it with such aplomb. We are doing it with so much joy! We're doing it with so much, "Fuck you!"
WCT: A quote from the report, "Our communities would benefit from growing the capacity to sustain friendships by creating opportunities for building connections, tools for resolving conflicts, and cost-free avenues for collective healing. LGBTQ+ women's friendships are perhaps our least appreciated and yet most impactful resource and refuge." The importance of friends as a support system really comes through, which seems so wholesome given some of the study topics.
JG: Yes! But it's so mired, isn't it? In our community organizations, friendship networks and our capacity as friends to respond in crisis is so important. On the policy side, if our friends are our best resources, then how do we get more resources to our friends? And this came up, too: We have people who are harming in our communities who are looking for support to do better and there's nothing.
WCT: When thinking of harm, one jarring section was around LGBTQ+ women and cis heterosexual men employing similar tactics of emotionally abusive behavior.
JG: It's chilling. Cishet men are doing things that are more lethal, especially sexual assault, and I want to say that over and over again. But what is so clear to me, is that the patriarchy has done such a good job of showing us the structure and anybody can hop on and appropriate those tools.
AS: Experiences with violence, economic vulnerability, and disability are gnawing at me every day. Like, every day. We had 43 items on experience with violence in the study. Forty-three! Only about half of these folks saw any kind of institutional help. The most common source of help they sought was the police, but it was the least helpful of all of them.
WCT: In the report, "among survivors interacting with police, 54% found that the police were 'not helpful at all.'"
AS: Who was the most helpful? It was domestic violence shelters, gender-based violence sheltersthere's a difference. When accessed, LGBTQ+-specific IPV services helped. When I hear that, I hear policy. I hear "community" and communities within the community.
WCT: What would you have done differently, in hindsight?
JG: Only 100 questions, tops. I do wish the study had been less cumbersome for people but there's so much richness here, it's ridiculous. It's a regret today, but 10 years from now having all that data after it's done a million different things, am I still going to have the same regret? I don't know. There are limitations because of [how we structured it], but I still think in terms of a national sample of LGBT women who center their lives on women, there's nothing like it.
AS: I don't regret any damn thing. If I saw it the first time and saw it the second time, without prior knowledge, I would have done the same thing. Without knowing what happens afterwards…I might have felt differently going through it, but I definitely don't beat myself up so much.
WCT: Love that.
JG: I wish we had decent funding. I wish anybody would've given a shit about LGBTQ women's lives all along. I wish that a lot more than I'm critical of anything that we did because we were working on fumes the whole time. More than one of us had life-threatening illnesses while we were doing it. Our advisory committee was working in communities that were surviving COVID and many of them buried a dozen people or more in the time that we were in the field. People have Long COVID. The study process itself was like an infinity loop of what we were doing with the questions.
WCT: Truly appreciated seeing that note in the study on accessibility in terms of COVID which should serve as a call to action for LGBTQ orgs and events: "LGBTQ+ community spaces and events producers are forcing many LGBTQ+ women with disabilities to choose between health jeopardy and isolation when we do not consider COVID exposure/survivors. Have we made improvements to air circulation in our venues with better HEPA filters? Do any of our events require masking? Are any of our events outside or proximity conscious?"
JG: We could not finish a disability chapter in the time of COVID and not mention COVID. In some ways, our impoverished, difficult structure gave us the room to write something meaningful and to put out questions that we really have to think about if we want to build community, regardless of what's going on around us.
AS: I was devastated by COVID. A whole bunch of people in my family died. I met this study team in 2020 when I was literally sick as a dog and nobody knew why. We start this survey in June 2021 and you have to think about these times…
JG: It was apocalyptic.
AS: We had an "impact of COVID" item that was 50 different things and it was like, "Wow! It's 50 different ways that this thing mattered." And I'm looking at myself like, "Maybe I shouldn't feel so bad about what's going on with me right now." People like me are going through this but it's not a me thing. We all lost access to our usual source of care; we have our people with disabilities dealing with it. We hoped it would create camaraderie instead of division and I hope in the end, through that camaraderie, we can make better decisions on our part.
WCT: Future forward, where is this work taking you?
JG: I think there's two places. One is to fight and one is to build. Fighting against this TERF narrative that lesbians especially hate trans women. Fighting against people not seeing us as a community and seeing our shared precarity, our shared peril, our shared experiences…
WCT: …shared joy, which this survey conveys.
JG: I want to take these findings to ourselves and say, "How are we going to build better with each other?" Because these institutions are going to consistently fail us. The questions themselves show how much we've changed the fucking world and we're recording it. The world is going to hell in a handbasket, but what we have is how we are with each other, how we treat each other, how we build our own communities regardlesswhich is what we've always done.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. The National LGBTQ+ Women's Community Survey can be viewed/downloaded here: lalgbtcenter.org/the-national-lgbtq-womens-community-survey/ . Additional chapters coming out in 2024. Follow the survey on Instagram and Facebook.
Dr. Alyasah Ali Sewell is a paid consultant for the National Center for Civic Innovation, the sponsor of this research study. The terms of this arrangement have been reviewed and approved by Emory University in accordance with Emory University Policy 7.7, Policy for Investigators Holding a Financial Interest in Research.