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Reorientation of a Nation

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By Robin Keats, Photos by Tierney Gearon

Published Jul 1, 2013 8:00 AM


For an estimated 9 million gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender Americans, the time for full and equal rights is now. As the Supreme Court deliberates on aspects of this historic issue, much of the research being used to determine public policy on sexual orientation and gender identity is being generated by a pioneering institute at the UCLA School of Law.

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When California's Proposition 8 case on gay marriage came before the Supreme Court in March, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that "there some 40,000 children in California…that live with same-sex parents, and they want their parents to have full recognition and full status. The voice of those children is important in this case, don't you think?"

Even more pivotal in the national debate over gay rights is the source of that statistic: The Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Policy at the UCLA School of Law. Directly or indirectly, the institute's trailblazing work influences the national dialogue on this hot-button topic at all levels of government and public policy, including the Court's ongoing deliberations on the subject.

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Founded 12 years ago, the Williams Institute has become the country's premier think tank on sexual orientation and gender-identity law and public policy, a dispassionate dispenser of informed knowledge and precise research on sexual orientation and the law. It produces data and constitutional arguments used by governors, state legislators, budget chiefs, agency directors, congressmen and senators, pundits, judges at the state and federal levels, and other analysts and policymakers across the nation.

That is exactly what the institute's eponymous benefactor had in mind from the beginning. "I founded the institute because I realized that research—objective research done by brilliant people—will make a difference by explaining what's going on in real terms," says retired businessman, philanthropist and professor Charles R. Williams '57, M.B.A. '58. "We're not going to accomplish what we are trying to do by marching in the streets. I'm not knocking that approach but it's not the thing, in the long term, that's going to win the battle."

Satoshi Suga M.S. '13 and Ronnie Rivera '09

Satoshi, 27, and Ronnie, 30, met at a West Hollywood bar and became study buddies. Together for more than two years, Ronnie has just finished his first year at the Geffen School of Medicine and Satoshi, who has a master’s in electrical engineering from UCLA, works at Fox Studios in research and development.

"Ever since I was a 16-year-old boy who was denied the ability to donate blood at a high school blood drive, I have dedicated myself to working wherever I see injustice."—Ronnie

Demographics Don't Lie

The institute's demographic research is so respected that the U.S. Census Bureau relies on it. "The Census gave us funding to do a survey asking samesex couples why they chose either the term 'unmarried partner' or 'spouse' on census forms, and to find out whether or not they were in a legally recognized relationship," says Brad Sears, executive director of the institute and assistant dean of academic programs and centers at UCLA School of Law. "The LGBT community had been confused about how it should answer; the questions just weren't phrased correctly. The results of our survey informed the Bureau how to correctly interpret data from the 2010 census."

There's been little research available regarding LGBT numbers because questions of sexuality and gender identity haven't been on government surveys or large, national, private surveys. That's changing, Sears says, because of the institute's work. "The recent addition of an LGBT question on the daily Gallup Tracking Poll and a growing number of government surveys on health, youth and employee benefits regarding LGBT people are reflective of this. Additionally, the Pew Research Center is going to do a national survey of LGBT people and the Centers for Disease Control is adding a sexual-orientation question to the national health interview survey."

"One of the issues in our political debates and discourses is that, oftentimes, you don't count very much unless you're counted," says demographic expert Gary Gates, who holds the title of Williams Distinguished Scholar. "So being able to put it in numbers—how many LGBT people (an estimated 4 percent of the adult population, or around 9 million); how many same-sex couples (about 650,000); how many kids and adults have an LGBT parent (approximately 6 million)—is important to the debate."

According to the institute's research, there are 114,000 legally sanctioned, same-sex marriages; one in five same-sex couples have children under 18 years of age living at home (equating to 220,000 kids nationwide). "The geographic and economic spread, the differences in education, lots of other factors make LGBTs look like everybody else," says Gates. "But they're treated differently under the law."

These children "are often being raised in places that have some of the least friendly legal environments for them," Gates adds. "Same-sex parents are more likely to have these kids in states that are not coastal—they're much more likely to be in the South, the Midwest and the mountain states."

In addition, many of these couples are racial and ethnic minorities; a majority are female and they tend to be younger than different-sex parents. "They often evidence economic disadvantage," he says. "One of the ways America offers to enhance economic stability is through marriage and the advantages couples are granted on account of marriage."

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