There’s something about data that has always fascinated me. Perhaps it’s the information structured into neat columns and rows that appeals to my Virgo nature; or the ability to instantaneously manipulate the abstract ideas our field presents on stages and gallery walls. Either way, I stopped seeing my “geeking out” on data as something to be ashamed of a long time ago.

Working with The San Francisco Foundation in my early career, I became fascinated by the organization’s racial diversity chart that asked applicants to list out the people served by the organization, the people on staff, and the people on the board. Yet, this chart seemed imperfect in that individuals listed must fit into one racial box, or be allocated to “undetermined” or “other ethnic minority” categories … something that didn’t quite capture the complexity of modern racial identity. Charts for completing information about special populations like youth, immigrants, homeless, and LGBTQ people was similarly clunky, forcing applicants to allocate percentages in whole numbers to each category that didn’t allow for intersectional identity, like homeless LGBTQ youth.

On my first week on the job with the Queer Cultural Center (QCC), I helped to complete seven applications to the Horizons Foundation for sister organizations or fiscally sponsored projects. As one of the leading LGBTQ funders, I was thrilled to see that Horizons not only asked racial demographic information, but also information about gender identity and sexual orientation. Yet in these charts I was similarly forced to allocate percentages in whole numbers—needing to decide if a transgender man should be marked “trans” or “male,” and unable to mark both.

It is with this perspective that I initiated my own survey of QCC’s National Queer Arts Festival, 40+ multidisciplinary events celebrating intersectional queer identity happening throughout San Francisco and the Bay Area. As an organization that has always been led by a majority of queer people of color, I knew that the National Queer Arts Festival (NQAF) survey needed to be able to capture the unique intersections of the organization’s artists and audiences. I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to neatly categorize the complexity of queer identity … but I could try.

The underlying principle of the survey and its synthesis needed to be rooted in multiplicity and intersectionality; to allow complex gender and sexual identity to be celebrated rather than stripped down to fit into a single box.

As such, survey participants were allowed to “circle all that apply” for responses to race, sexual orientation, and gender identity; and a large percentage did. Out of 277 participants in the 2012 survey, 84 people (30%) selected multiple responses under sexual orientation (with the majority of those selecting “queer” along with “gay,” “lesbian,” or both). In total, 42.7% of respondents selected “queer” as their sexual orientation—an option not found on many current philanthropic forms, even those that specialize in LGBT grantmaking.

Additionally, although multiracial identity was recorded based on the selection of two or more racial identities (approximately 17% of respondents), some participants chose to write in “multiracial” or “mixed” to ensure that their bi- and/or multi-racial identity was properly represented. This repeated behavior prompted us to add in the language “selecting multiple options will be counted as bi/multiracial.”

We also received feedback that providing a space next to the word “other” only furthered feelings of isolation and invisibility amongst the most historically marginalized audience members, prompting us alter this wording to “write something in”—a tiny change that left audiences feeling empowered rather than forgotten.

Another crucial finding was seeing the geographic impact of the San Francisco-based tech industry on queer audiences. From 2012 to 2016, NQAF audiences residing in San Francisco County declined 14.6% while Alameda County audiences rose by 15.1%. This shift caused QCC to begin offering technical assistance workshops and Festival events in Oakland and Berkeley to better serve queer audiences who could no longer afford the high cost of San Francisco living.

Lastly, one of the most important findings is that in all five years of the survey’s existence, audiences were diverse with respect to age, race, and sexual orientation. As such, audiences were generally dominated by individuals under 35 (around 60%), people of color (around 50%), and self-identified LGBTQ+ individuals (around 85%).

So what makes audiences of this Festival so much different than arts-going audiences nationwide? To that, we can look to another of the survey’s questions: “Did the event’s content influence your attendance?” Although it may seem like a “no brainer,” this question has been crucial to proving that NQAF audiences are attracted to the Festival’s various events because they are looking to see their lives and experiences reflected on stage and on gallery walls. It should come as no surprise that the response to the content question has never dipped below 90%.

There is something radical about seeing yourself reflected in contemporary art—something I strive for in crafting a survey that needs to appeal to the breadth of diversity found within Bay Area queer communities.

And yet, since the survey’s inception, I have conformed to U.S. Census categories for race, thinking that this specific dataset should stay in line with the national standard for comparative purposes … even though U.S. Census information on sex (not gender) is extremely limited and sexual orientation is left off completely. This year, the U.S. Census language of “Hispanic and/or Latino/a” has finally been set aside to reflect the progressive and gender neutral “Latinx.”

As the survey continues into its sixth year with 2017’s 20th Annual National Queer Arts Festival, my challenge as a surveyor is to be porous enough to allow these changes to happen without altering the continuity of this unique dataset. To allow participants to influence the next year’s survey by writing in the options that don’t appear, and allowing complex identities to be centralized in the process rather than relegated to “other.”

For more information on the National Queer Arts Festival, please visit QCC’s website. A copy of 2016’s National Queer Arts Festival Audience Survey is available for download here.

Kevin Seaman is the recipient of Americans for the Arts’ 2017 American Express Emerging Leader Award. Given annually since 2006 and sponsored by American Express since 2011, the award recognizes visionary leadership by a new and/or young arts leader who demonstrates an ability to engage and impact his or her community.