How the Williams Institute Drives Progress in LGBTQ Rights

UCLA Law scholars conduct mythbusting research that counters attacks on trans rights and more

July 20, 2021
Crowd gathered outside the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26, 2015, after the court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges.
A crowd gathers outside the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 after the decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which relied on data from the Williams Institute, legalized same-sex marriage.

When a same-sex marriage ban was overturned in California, a federal court cited research from UCLA School of Law's Williams Institute 30 times. President Barack Obama used Williams's research in an executive order prohibiting workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. And after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality, Justice Anthony Kennedy described the institute's research as the deciding factor.

In these and countless other instances over 20 years, research by the Williams Institute at UCLA Law has served as a bellwether of where LGBTQ rights are headed. Using rigorous, empirical research to respond to the critical issues of the day, Williams has been filling in knowledge gaps that were previously filled by assertion and assumption.

With research that has contributed to repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, ending anti-sodomy laws, and changing the U.S. Census to treat LGBTQ spouses as married couples, the obvious question is, what's next?

Responding to Threats Against Trans Rights

"A lot of our research is responsive to issues that are arising in LGBTQ rights and where the courts are focused," says Brad Sears, the founding executive director of the Williams Institute. "Attacks on the rights of trans youth and adults have really heated up, from gender-affirming care to sports access and restroom use. We'll continue our research on those issues and the mental health impacts."

According to the ACLU, this year alone more than 30 states have introduced bills to exclude trans students and youth from sports, and more than 20 states introduced legislation prohibiting health care supporting trans patients, alongside several other anti-trans bills. Some of the bills failed to pass, while some were signed into law and others remain under discussion. Although the U.S. Department of Education announced on June 16 that in federally funded schools Title IX protects transgender students from discrimination based on sex, the broad campaign to enact anti-trans state legislation remains a threat, Sears says.

"Our focus on rights for trans youth and adults will continue," Sears says.

Kerith Conron
Kerith Conron

Some of that research is as basic as counting the number of people affected, says Kerith Conron, the Blachford-Cooper Distinguished Scholar and Research Director at the Williams Institute. The data that Kennedy pointed to in ruling for marriage equality was the institute's research showing that hundreds of thousands of children's parents could not legally marry. Other times, more pointed research is called for to disrupt the myths that fuel anti-LGBTQ laws, Conron says.

"Some of the arguments supporting bills to keep trans people from accessing restrooms said that women and girls would be at risk of harm from transwomen or men pretending to be trans," Conron says. "That assertion isn't grounded in data."

When several places in Massachusetts passed non-discrimination laws related to public accommodations, the trans community could safely access public restrooms.

"Williams did the research to look at the rates of assault," Conron says. "There was no association between these laws and reported assaults."

Conron suspects that when it comes to the larger issue of including trans youth in sports, they'll have similar findings in terms of the impact on girls and women.

"Although the current focus is on opportunity versus safety, it remains an empirical question," Conron says. "We will always publish the results of whatever data we obtain, but often, our hypotheses and data are consistent." 

If You Aren't Counted, You Won't Count

One of the challenges is that even measuring the number of LGBTQ people can be difficult. Williams estimates that about 4.5% of adults are LGBTQ while a Gallup survey says 5.6%. That's why Williams has long pushed for the U.S. Census to include more questions on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The census didn't begin to ask about same-sex partners until 1990 — and it hasn't advanced much since then, Conron says. For instance, there's interest in studying how the LGBTQ population would benefit if the minimum wage increased to $15 per hour, but using census data, Williams can only answer that for cohabitating couples.

"Only about 20% of LGBTQ people are in same-sex couple households," Conron says. "The census tells us about who needs access to things like employment, as well as about immigration, renting versus homeownership, wages and more. If a group is invisible, it's very hard to ensure that they have access to programs and their needs are met."

Conron and others at the institute have built a network of professional relationships to weigh in on census changes, in addition to regularly participating in public comment opportunities. She anticipates that the census's Household Pulse Survey, which is helping measure COVID impacts, will soon include questions about sexual orientation and gender identity.

Coming Out Younger But Still Without Rights

A recent Williams Institute report found that, compared to previous generations, people are beginning to come out two to four years younger but still experience equal or greater amounts of discrimination and psychological distress.

"They can see the encouragement in the culture and the national media, but because that may not be their local culture, they may have a false sense of security," Sears says. And it's not just bullying that's the problem.

"Basic equality is far from settled right now in many parts of the country," he says.

Legislative expansion of religious exemption laws is undermining anti-discrimination laws for everyone, not just LGBTQ people, Sears says. Religious and moral exemptions don't just apply to bakers who don't want to make wedding cakes — they also cater to the doctor who doesn't want to provide prenatal care to an unmarried woman, or the government clerk who doesn't want to help a Jewish and a Catholic person with marriage forms.

"It's an exemption that swallows the rule," Sears says. "Although LGBTQ people are the focus, religious exemptions apply to everything protected by a non-discrimination law. We know 70% of U.S. adults are supportive of LGBTQ rights, but to give a pass to the remaining 20% to 30% of people falls short of providing fully equality."

Replacing the Myths

As Williams continues to pursue new research paths, the goal remains clear: replacing assumptions with facts.

"When the institute first started 20 years ago, there was so little information about LGBTQ people, and in that absence, there was so much myth and prejudice filling the gaps," Conron says.

As terms grow and evolve, it may be time to renew old research, Sears says. Nearly 20 years ago, Williams first estimated the LGBT adult population at 3.5%. Today, surveys add in queer, non-binary and other emerging identities, and the findings encompass about 10%-20% of people under 18, Sears says.

"That's huge increase," Sears says. "The people who were born when we started are 20 now. It's a whole new generation."

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