BOSTON — The Fenway Institute last week issued a “call to action” to state health departments urging them to ask questions about sexual orientation on their Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System surveys.
A policy brief released focuses on why states should do this on the 500,000 surveys answered by Americans in all 50 states annually. Fenway employees say having information on both sexual orientation identity and behavior dramatically increases knowledge about health disparities affecting LGB people.
The brief, written by Fenway researchers Leigh Evans, Kelsey Lawler, and Sammy Sass, examines efforts by 27 states to gather sexual orientation data in at least one year of survey data collection from 1995 through 2012. These included southern states like North Carolina, Georgia and Florida, as well as Texas and several Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states. However, in any given year only a small number of states ask the sexual orientation questions. For example, in 2009, only 13 states and the District of Columbia included a sexual orientation question.
States that have asked about sexual orientation have documented disparities and used the data to inform public health programming to address them. For example:
Arizona’s public health department found that 31 percent of Arizona lesbians smoked, about twice the rate of the state’s general female population. As a result, Tobacco Free Arizona targets lesbians and other members of the LGBT community with prevention and cessation interventions.
New Mexico, Washington state and Massachusetts also documented tobacco use disparities affecting LGB people through, and also target the LGBT community with tobacco prevention and cessation efforts.
Survey data from several states have shown that lesbians are less likely to get mammograms than other women, and have found higher rates of suicide among LGB veterans, findings that have important public health implications.