Annah Bender, Janet Lauritsen

Annah Bender and Janet Lauritsen co-authored a paper titled “Violent Victimization Among Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Populations in the United States: Findings From the National Crime Victimization Survey, 2017–2018” in the February 2021 issue of the American Journal of Public Health. (Photos by August Jennewein)

The notion that members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community are disproportionately the targets of violence is a widely accepted truth in the United States.

It’s been supported by many community-based studies over the years.

But national surveys of crime and victimization, until recently, have ignored sexual orientation and gender identity when examining the prevalence of violence across the country. That’s finally changing.

University of Missouri–St. Louis researchers Annah Bender, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, and Janet Lauritsen, a Curators’ Distinguished Professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, have examined data from the 2017 and 2018 National Crime Victimization Surveys, which for the first time asked respondents to self identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or heterosexual persons. They found that LGB persons are made victims of violence at rates two to nine times higher than their heterosexual peers.

Bender and Lauritsen shared their findings in a new peer-reviewed article published in the February 2021 issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

“For many health equity researchers, community advocates, and policymakers concerned about the health and wellbeing of sexual minority individuals, the findings are both a long-sought stanza and an expected chorus in a recitation of violence,” wrote John R. Blosnich, an assistant professor of at the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work at the University of Southern California, in an editorial that accompanies their paper in the journal’s February issue.

Lauritsen, one of the nation’s leading scholars on violent crime victimization, was eager to be able to fill in that gap in scholarship when she learned the data was being collected.

She was also grateful to have Bender collaborating. The two met when Lauritsen appeared at meeting of the Office of Research Administration to speak to new faculty members about the process of applying for grants. They bonded over their shared research interests.

“I’m interested in in violence, particularly interpersonal violence, intimate partner violence and experiences of trauma in underserved and under-resourced populations,” Bender said. “So that includes LGBT communities.”

Lauritsen and Bender got right to work last March when the results of the NCVS surveys were released and did a thorough analysis of all the findings, using multivariable models to assess the risk for violence associated with LGB status. They submitted their paper for publication in May, and it was accepted after revisions, in October.

The data collection also included gender identity questions, but the sample size for the transgender population was insufficient to produce reliable victimization rates.

But the total victimization rates and rates of victimization of serious violent crimes was significantly higher for both gay and bisexual men and lesbian and bisexual women, even if there was sufficient reporting of particular subcategories of crime – for example, robbery – to draw scientifically valid conclusions.

Bisexual females also experienced the highest rate of both total and serious violent victimization among those surveyed.

“It took a long time for the LGBT community to get recognized as stakeholders whose victimization is worth being measured,” Lauritsen said. “Politically, it took a long time and a lot of research to get these kinds of items on federal surveys. We didn’t know how they would perform – whether people would be willing to admit in a survey what their sexual orientation or gender identity was, and it turned out better than expected. There was fear that it wouldn’t get a sufficient reporting from the widespread population, especially among older people.”

Both Lauritsen and Bender see this as just the beginning of the research that’s needed.

“A lot of the findings raise more questions,” Bender said. “We want additional years of data from the NCVAS that include these questions about sexual orientation and gender identity, so that we can look at the intersections of race and ethnicity with sexual orientation and see what do the risks look like? Does it change at all if you add in those different traits and demographics?

“One of the things too that John Blosnich, who wrote the commentary about our paper, brought up is the fact that Federal Statistical surveys about mortality don’t include sexual orientation or gender identity questions. So that begs the question, is there a difference in those rates if the rates of violence against this population are higher than that for heterosexuals? Are the rates of homicide different, too? There are lots of directions that this could possibly take us in terms of research.”

Lauritsen also hopes to be able to see trends over time, though the NCVS data was already a step forward over previous surveys in that it asked respondents about violent victimization specifically in the previous six months and not over the entirety of their lives.

But this paper reflects an important first step in collective understanding.

“I’m just really happy to see that the claims that have been made in the field are no longer anecdotes,” Lauritsen said. “They’re facts now.”

Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik