Understanding the circumstances surrounding violent death is critical to its prevention, but for LGBTQ people, large-scale data collection hasn’t existed — until now.

In a historic move, the state of California will be the first to pilot a program that will record sexual orientation and gender identity demographics of victims. Advocates say that the three-year pilot program will fill a critical gap in the state’s understanding of violent crime victimization, as well as allow for policymakers to design legislation that targets the unique needs of LGBTQ Californians.

“This kind of program is an excellent step towards tracking and monitoring violence when it does happen, so that we can better understand risk factors and start to address those factors and ensure safety for LGBTQ+ people,” said Emily Rothman, chair of the Occupational Therapy Department at Boston University. “This is step No. 1 in the public health playbook.”

The legislation, which Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed into law in mid-September, will establish a three-year pilot program among up to six participating counties in the state, including Santa Clara and Los Angeles, two of the largest counties in the country. The State’s Department of Public Health already tracks other data statewide, such as births, deaths and marriages, but sexual orientation and gender identity have previously not been included in that data collection. The legislation calls for the creation of the California Electronic Violent Death Reporting System (CEVDRS), which will record violent deaths, including suicides and homicides.

That database will be crucial, according to advocates. The National Violent Death Reporting System, run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and tasked with gathering the data that the California pilot program will soon marshal, doesn’t currently ask questions that might help policymakers better develop solutions and methods of intervention against such crimes, advocates say.

The Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, has independently tracked the violent deaths of transgender and gender nonconforming people since 2013. According to the HRC, 2021 will likely be the deadliest year on record yet. The impact of this violence on women of color is particularly alarming: Since 2013, 67 percent of all the recorded killings have been Black transgender women, according to HRC numbers.

“We are facing a true epidemic of violence against LGBTQ-plus people, which is horrifying and unacceptable,” Rothman said.

Those in the LGBTQ community have long faced threats of violence, from beatings to killings; the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando was the deadliest incident in the history of violence against LGBTQ people in the United States. Although no federal database currently tracks the violent deaths of LGBTQ individuals, the FBI found that, in 2018, nearly 1 in 5 of all hate crimes in the country were motivated by anti-LGBTQ bias.

According to the University of California at Los Angeles’s Williams Institute, a research center on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy, LGBTQ people are four times as likely to be victims of violence than are straight and cisgender people, and the threat of violence for LGBTQ women is five times higher than the risk of violent victimization for straight and cisgender women.

As LGBTQ individuals gain certain protections in some ways — the Supreme Court last year ruled that gay and transgender workers are protected by civil rights law, for example — anti-LGBTQ bills are still being introduced in conservative states. Such legislation can create a culture of tolerance for anti-LGBTQ violence, experts say.

Jody Herman, a senior scholar of public policy at the Williams Institute, said that the research collected by California’s pilot program would “shine a light on the reality of what’s actually going on on the ground.” For example, Herman said, “we know that study after study has shown a rather high prevalence of suicide attempts among trans people. But then when somebody asks, ‘Okay, well, how many trans people actually died by suicide?’ Well, we just don’t have the answer to that question, because we’ve been lacking in this data.”

In order to counter anti-trans legislation, it’s critical that advocates are able to demonstrate the impact of the culture of transphobia and homophobia, Herman said. One 2018 study found that more than half of transgender male adolescents attempt suicide, and in the few months after the pandemic began last year, crisis calls to Trans Lifeline — a crisis telephone line staffed by transgender people — rose 40 percent.

Advocates argue that better, more accurate data allows legislators to develop targeted policy solutions. “You can look at the prevalence over time to see if it’s increasing or decreasing, and then try to understand what might be driving those increases or decreases,” Rothman said. From that data, Rothman said, you can also understand what demographics of LGBTQ people are most likely to face victimization and violence.

Until this year, federal surveys, like the decennial Census or the National Health Interview Survey, haven’t included documentation on sexual orientation and gender identity, which advocates say effectively erase LGBTQ people from the country’s makeup.

“LGBTQ people have been largely invisible in the systems that are so important to the U.S. population,” Herman said. “The National Violent Death Reporting System is another example of a large-scale national data collection system where LGBTQ people have been invisible.”

Making LGBTQ people visible in death is critical to making them visible in life — and this understanding is starting to take root, Herman said. Because of lobbying from LGBTQ organizations, the Census Bureau is including questions of sexual orientation and gender identity this year in its ongoing household pulse survey. “It’s very exciting,” Herman said.

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