LGBT Study is Woefully Incomplete But a Good Start

A good start: The LGBT Equality Index is woefully incomplete, but starts us on the right path.

by Haviv Rettig Gur

The Jewish Organization Equality Index 2012 was released at the GA this week. The report offers a first glimpse – though a woefully incomplete one – “of current efforts across a broad range of Jewish organizations to promote lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inclusion.”

The report, conducted by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and funded by the Schusterman and Morningstar foundations, is one part analysis for every two parts advocacy.

Throughout the 67-page document, the text chides, admonishes and encourages organizations to reach out to LGBT groups in order to learn more. It lists 14 steps organizations can take to be more inclusive, including practical steps such as enumerating a bullying policy or providing equal benefits for same-sex partners and non-biological children. But most of those steps are not about the organization’s internal culture or steps to make a safe and welcoming workplace, but simply call on Jewish organizations to take up the advocacy mantle themselves and publicly campaign for gay equality and inclusion.

Indeed, Step 14 is simply: “Become involved in the movement for LGBT equality through advocacy and local initiatives.”

To be clear, this is a critically important and welcome message, but it makes for a confusing report. With so much of the text consisting of advocacy, it’s hard to reach meaningful conclusions about the actual state of gay inclusion in American Jewish organized life.

One further limitation: The information contained in the report comes from self-reporting of organizations. Of 2,172 groups that were asked to participate, only 204 – fewer than 10% – bothered to participate in the study.

Thus, of the 102 organizations – exactly 50% – that earned the study’s highest rating, it’s hard to know if that surprisingly positive result reflects the reality across American Jewish organized life more broadly, or merely among the self-selecting group that chooses to participate in an LGBT inclusion study.

The report’s authors seem to tackle this question, noting that in the first Corporate Equality Index produced by HRC Foundation in 2002, just 13 groups, or 4% of the 319 surveyed, received such a high score. Even if the comparison is imperfect – it’s not clear if the questions and methodology were similar enough, if the types of organizations studied are comparable, etc. – the remarkable jump clearly reflects a change for the better, the report’s authors believe.

It may be partly explained by “the growing acceptance of LGBT people” over the past decade in American society generally. Even so, they note, the figures suggest “that Jewish organizations as a group have been more progressive in addressing LGBT equality than other sectors of American society.”

With those caveats, the report is still a helpful first step toward developing a broader examination of the state of LGBT inclusion in Jewish organized life.

And the news is mostly positive.

The survey “revealed broad familiarity with LGBT inclusion and a willingness to do more,” the report notes.

Of the 89% of organizations surveyed that offer health insurance to their employees, fully 94% allow same-sex partners to enroll. Almost all – 98% – of membership organizations recognize same-sex couples and families for the purposes of family memberships.

Interestingly, even among the organizations that chose to participate in the study, there was a marked difference in their active efforts to be inclusive toward gay professionals based on their geographic location. “Jewish organizations mirrored common geographic differences within the United States concerning attitudes toward the LGBT community,” the report explains.

“As a group, Jewish organizations in the Northeast scored higher on the JOEI than those in other regions of the country. Assigning the numbers one through four to the JOEI rating categories from inclusive (where inclusive = 1) to least inclusive (where least inclusive = 4), groups in the Northeast scored 1.70, groups in the West scored 1.86, groups in the Midwest scored 1.90 and groups in the South scored 2.35.”

The study marks an important first step in developing metrics for the inclusion of gay professionals in American Jewish life. While any real measure of gay inclusion is hampered by the self-selection problem and the lack of discussion in the report about the usefulness of its methodology – is measuring gay inclusion activism the right way to measure gay inclusion? – the report has one major advantage in its favor: the respondents include some of the largest, wealthiest and most important of Jewish organizations.

The list of organizations that chose to respond and received the report’s highest score includes: JDC, ADL, American Jewish World Service, Hillel, the Union for Reform Judaism, the New Israel Fund, the Jewish Funders Network, the Foundation for Jewish Camp, the Birthright Israel Foundation, the federations of Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, and the federation umbrella JFNA.

The report may be little more than a snapshot of willing respondents, but its authors – and gay professionals in Jewish organized life – should take heart in the names of the top-scoring organizations. Gay inclusion is as mainstream as mainstream gets in American Jewish organized life.

Now that we know there is willingness, it’s time for a real survey, a rigorous examination of a true cross-section of American Jewish life, that can tell us what is still missing and how to bridge those gaps. We could start with a survey that does not name the organizations outright, thus lowering one potential bar for participation.

To be fair, the report’s authors agree that more work needs to be done, not that the report was woefully incomplete. The HRC Foundation sent eJewish Philanthropy a statement:

“The Jewish Organization Equality Index (JOEI) is the very first step toward what we hope will be a sea change in the way that LGBT employees, volunteers, clients and members are included within Jewish communal organizations. As a benchmark index, we realize the JOEI cannot answer all of the questions and address every policy and practice within the Jewish world. It was designed to provide an initial snapshot of LGBT inclusion within a broad range of Jewish organizations and stimulate meaningful dialogue that sets the stage for more in-depth quantitative and qualitative research on the critical issues of inclusion and equality.

“We know from our years of experience working with organizations in the corporate and healthcare sectors that change begins with codifying policies, as well as showcasing high performers and best practices. We believe JOEI can be a model for other faith communities.”