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LGBTQ+ people are nearly twice as likely to be displaced after disasters, new research shows

A NOAA satelite captured an image of Hurricane Ian as it hit Florida on September 28, 2022.
NOAA
A NOAA satelite captured an image of Hurricane Ian as it hit Florida on September 28, 2022.

For the first time, the U.S. Census Bureau has collected national data on sexual orientation and gender identity related to disaster displacement.

Originally published by The 19th. At The 19th, we’re committed to publishing journalism that you can trust throughout the critical moments that shape our democracy and our lives. Show your support during our Fall Member Drive, and your donation will be matched. Double your gift today.

A first-of-its-kind analysis found that LGBTQ+ people are more likely than the general population to be displaced after disasters and to experience challenges like food and water insecurity.

Nationwide, an estimated 2.4 percent of LGBTQ+ people said they were displaced by a disaster in the last year, compared with the estimated 1.5 percent of the total U.S. population. Previous research suggests bias in disaster response and the role of faith-based organizations in disaster recovery could be behind the disparity.

The data used in the analysis came from the U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey, which was launched in April 2020 to collect data on how people were experiencing the pandemic, but has since expanded to include other aspects of American life like child care, inflation and living through natural disasters.

“It validates and underscores previous anecdotal evidence that we've heard throughout the country that LGBTQ people are getting disproportionately affected by disaster,” said Michael Méndez, assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine, and co-author of the report. “The data is actually quite worse than we had expected.”

The survey, which is distributed monthly, asks questions like how long someone experienced disaster-related displacement, whether they’ve dealt with food or water insecurity, issues with electricity access, unsanitary conditions, feelings of isolation and fear of crime.

In all categories, LGBTQ+ people were more likely to say they faced these life disruptions after disasters than the cis-heterosexual population. For example, the survey found that 46 percent of LGBTQ+ people said they experienced food insecurity and 44 percent said they experienced unsanitary conditions, compared with 35 percent and 27 percent of cis-hetero people, respectively. The data also showed that, when accounting for race and ethnicity, displacement was even higher for LGBTQ+ individuals of color.

“It validates and underscores previous anecdotal evidence that we've heard throughout the country that LGBTQ people are getting disproportionately affected by disaster. The data is actually quite worse than we had expected.”
Michael Méndez

The findings are important because they make up the first national disaster data set that includes sexual orientation and gender identity, said Leo Goldsmith, a Ph.D. student at Yale University’s School of the Environment and a co-author of the report. “It’s federal data, from the federal government. They can’t just ignore it; it’s their own data.”

Goldsmith and Méndez previously co-authored “Queer and present danger, understanding the disparate impacts of disasters on LGBTQ+ communities” a paper based on qualitative research that found that due to bias in disaster response and the role of faith-based organizations in disaster recovery, LGBTQ+ people receive less support and are more vulnerable after disasters.

“While we don't identify faith-based organizations as being all anti-LGBTQ, there's often a perception among LGBTQ communities that faith-based organizations may be unwelcoming, and in some cases they are outright unwelcoming,” Méndez said.

LGBTQ+ couples for example, have faced barriers to being sheltered together after disasters, and transgender people might be denied access to a shelter that corresponds with their gender identity, according to research.

The latest analysis bolsters the connection between anti-LGBTQ+ policies and higher rates of post-disaster displacement. Of the 10 states with the highest rates of LGBTQ+ displacement, nine have laws that are hostile to LGBTQ+ people.

Some of these states — including Louisiana and Florida — have higher rates of displacement overall due to being hit by natural disasters like hurricanes and flooding more frequently. Others, such as Nebraska, Georgia and South Dakota, also have high rates of LGBTQ+ displacement but do not rank high for total population displacement.

But the analysis is limited in what it can explain. “We're just able to see the state of the world as it is based off of the assessments but we're not able to actually surmise why,” said Jessica Geiger, a Ph.D. student at Claremont Graduate University and a co-author of the report.

The research does point to avenues for further inquiry and shows where resources could be directed on a federal level, for example supporting organizations already working with LGBTQ+ communities.

“There are LGBTQ+ community centers and grassroots groups that are providing a lot of the mutual aid for LGBTQ communities after disasters,” said Goldsmith, who is also on the board for Out for Sustainability, an organization that works on LGBTQ+ climate resilience. “We also tend to hear a lot from disaster survivors who identify as LGBTQ+ that they were able to access food or shelter from their friends or chosen family.”

Another limitation of the survey, Geiger said, is that it doesn’t specify whether people were displaced from the state where they currently live. So if someone was displaced to another state, their responses would be referenced in their current state of residence, not the one they were displaced from.

The gaps point to a larger issue around a lack of data for LGBTQ+ Americans and how that impacts the way resources and funding are directed to the community.

“The more we start thinking about this with a holistic approach, and involve more members of our communities in this conversation, the more effective we'll be at actually solving the problems.”
Justin Knighten

The U.S. Census Bureau began asking about sexual orientation and gender identity in 2021 — making it the first time the government had ever tried capturing national data on LGBTQ+ people.

Slowly, the data being gathered by researchers is reaching federal agencies. Papers like “Queer and Present Danger” were cited in the recently released Fifth National Climate Assessment, which summarizes the latest findings on the impacts of the climate crisis on the country.

Still Méndez said more could be done by federal agencies, especially those like the Federal Emergency Management Agency that respond to disasters.

“The federal government, and FEMA in particular, needs to start gathering more robust data on this and creating guidance and documents around these issues,” Méndez said.

In recent years, FEMA has worked with Méndez and Goldsmith to better understand the needs of the LGBTQ+ community, said Justin Knighten, the director of the agency’s Office of External Affairs. FEMA has co-hosted webinars with Out for Sustainability on topics like disaster resilience and recovery.

Starting in June, FEMA also hosted regional roundtables with the LGBTQ+ community in places like Puerto Rico, New Jersey, Missouri and California.

“It helped us for the first time in some cases, to actually have a conversation between emergency management at all levels of government and the LGBTQ+ community,” Knighten said. During Pride Month, the agency also released a public service announcement directed at the LGBTQ+ community urging people to think about how they might prepare for a disaster, and who in their chosen family they could reach out to in an emergency.

As a member of the community, Knighten said he wants more LGBTQ+ people to be engaged in work around disaster recovery.

“The more we start thinking about this with a holistic approach, and involve more members of our communities in this conversation, the more effective we'll be at actually solving the problems.”

Jessica Kutz is a gender, climate and sustainability reporter at The 19th.

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Jessica Kutz | The 19th
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