Disappearing Data

When Will the Census Count Everyone?


Progress to include LGBTQ people and families in the census has been decades in the making. Now the Trump administration wants to erase them.



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As 2020 census outreach to U.S. households begins this month amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government will try to count every person in the United States and the demographic snapshots that help portray who they are. The decennial survey captures our ages and races; but as of now, what it doesn’t include is sexual orientation and gender identity. For LGBTQ people and families, the census is a work in progress, and that progress is something the Trump administration has not indicated it’ll try to encourage in pandemic conditions that could make an accurate count all the more difficult.

Advocates have been trying to “queer the census” for years, often in coordination with the U.S. Census Bureau. The Obama-era bureau considered adding sexual orientation and gender identity questions to the American Community Survey, a supplemental form that requests more detailed information from 3.5 million households annually. NPR reported that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and three other federal agencies asked for the questions so they could better serve LGBTQ Americans.

A year into Donald Trump’s presidency, the Census Bureau reversed course, concluding “there was no federal data need” to include sexual orientation and gender identity on either the 2020 census or the American Community Survey. The 2020 census will instead debut options for “same-sex husband/wife/spouse” and “same-sex unmarried partner”—a step toward inclusion, but nowhere near it. The census asks only for an individual’s sex, and only then, whether they’re “male” or “female.” That binary ignores the spectrum of sex, which includes intersex people, and the spectrum of gender, which includes non-binary people who may or may not identify as transgender.

LGBTQ people could experience profound consequences from such erasure, according to advocates, policymakers, and researchers who spoke with DAME Magazine. At the same time, they urged queer and trans individuals and families to participate in the census and reap its benefits.

The federal government will use 2020 census data to distribute an estimated $1.5 trillion. In fiscal year 2015 alone, census data guided $675 billion to 132 programs, including Medicare, Medicaid, Section 8 housing assistance, Pell Grants that help make higher education accessible, and SNAP and WIC that help make food accessible, according to one Census Bureau report. Due to employment, housing, and health-care discrimination, LGBTQ people and their families rely on such social safety net programs more than their straight and cisgender counterparts, according to a 2018 Center for American Progress (CAP) report. Queer and trans census respondents can help drive money to those programs, even if their sexual orientations and gender identities are not explicitly counted.

The census is more than money. States use census data to redraw their congressional districts.

Census data informs civil-rights enforcement: “We use this data to figure out where discrimination is happening,” said Beth Lynk, who directs The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights’ Census Counts campaign, in an interview. Census data reveals where resources are missing and helps direct service providers, community-based organizations, and others on the ground in “reaching folx where they are and being responsive to what community needs are.”

Elected officials like Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-MA) turn to census data to craft policies “to ensure that every member across our society can [reach] their own potential, which is what government’s basic responsibility is,” he said in an interview. As chair of the Transgender Equality Task Force within the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, Kennedy is adamant that queer and trans people count, despite “the animus with which [the Trump administration has] approached LGBTQ members of our community from day one.”

National LGBTQ Task Force Policy Director Meghan Maury echoed that reasoning. Pairing personal stories with the data that revealed 40 percent of young folx experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ almost immediately changed the tenor of advocates’ conversations with policymakers who doubted the breadth of the issue, they said in an interview. “Now when we walk into legislators’ offices and we tell our personal experience, we can pair that with the statistic so that they can’t act as if this is a unique or rare experience.”

The 2020 census is as much of a missed opportunity to validate queer and trans lived experiences. “Not being on the form doesn’t mean we don’t exist, but being on the form shows everyone around us that our identities have value and that they deserve to be counted,” they said.

The census isn’t supposed to be another political football in Washington. The Census Bureau uses the decade between nationwide counts to conduct research and testing and convene advisers, including Maury, who was appointed to the Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic, and Other Populations in 2014. But the Trump administration has its own partisan agenda.

“There are definitely a lot of decisions [the administration has] made about data collection on LGBTQ folx that is solely biased-based and not justified in any way,” Maury said.

They pointed to the DOJ’s National Crime Victimization Survey, which traditionally fielded sexual orientation and gender identity questions with respondents who were at least 16 years old. Under Trump, the Justice Department hiked the minimum age to 18 due to “concerns about the potential sensitivity of these questions for adolescents,” without providing any evidence.

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) and other House Judiciary Committee Democrats said the change would hinder their efforts to help queer and trans youth, who experience more criminal victimization than their heterosexual and cis peers. “The agency’s base assertion that these questions are potentially too ‘sensitive’ for youth does not withstand even the most basic of scrutiny,” the Democrats wrote in a 2018 letter.

Under Trump, other federal agencies have tried and sometimes succeeded in scrubbing LGBTQ people from data collection. Kennedy criticized the move. “I think it is an extremely dangerous and cynical view that they have taken to try to erase or to try to remove those classifications from numerous federal surveys,” he said.

That’s largely been the view of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), a nexus of the Trump administration’s anti-transgender bigotry. HHS sought to exclude sexual orientation and gender identity questions from one survey assessing the needs of people with disabilities in centers for independent living, and another assessing the needs of older Americans who rely on social and nutritional support, including what CAP and Services & Advocacy for LGBT Elders described as “home-delivered meals, congregant meals, transportation, caregiver support, and senior centers.” HHS ultimately retained the sexual orientation questions on the older Americans survey after nearly 14,000 people filed federal comments opposing the change, but excluded the gender identity questions.

HHS tried to say that too few older Americans identified as LGBTQ, but “such claims are not warranted,” contended Gilbert Gonzales and Tara McKay for Health Affairs. “Even with small sample sizes, researchers can combine multiple years of data to sufficiently analyze [them],” the researchers wrote for the peer-reviewed journal’s blog.

Several of the Census Bureau’s own researchers disproved assumptions that non-straight people are difficult to survey. “We found that compared to straight respondents, lesbians, gays, and bisexuals had a higher intent to respond to the 2020 Census,” they wrote in a 2019 paper in the peer-reviewed Journal of Official Statistics. “We surmise the current social climate in the United States may be a contributing factor to these findings.”

Census participation is one way that LGBTQ people can resist the “current social climate” that Trump and his regulatory army have fostered through discriminatory policies. They’ve banned trans people from military service and restricted queer and trans families from fostering or adopting children. They’ve excluded sexual orientation and gender identity questions on the census, and refused to combine race and ethnicity questions for Latinx people and add a separate category for Middle Eastern and North African people, both of which Census Bureau researchers found would be “optimal” for accuracy. Black and Latinx people could be severely undercounted under projections from the Urban Institute.

Trump himself tried to actively weaponize the census against Latinx and undocumented people. In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down his attempt to add a citizenship question that was expected to drive down their participation, particularly in blue states. The climate of fear he created still exists as the 2020 census rolls out, despite established safeguards like the Census Bureau’s “72-year-rule” that keep findings confidential.

Maury considers any census question in terms of its costs and benefits.

“When it comes to a citizenship question, there’s a huge cost in increasing fear among people of color about filling out the census and therefore degrading the very data that you’re collecting,” they said. “And there’s not much benefit because we already collect data on citizenship status through a number of other surveys”—including the in-depth American Community Survey— “and the Census Bureau itself has said that data we collect on other surveys is better than the data we would get from putting it on the census.”

To the contrary, they said, sexual orientation and gender identity questions have low costs and high benefits. Their assessment aligns with Census Bureau interviews collected in a 2018 joint report with the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics. “While many respondents categorized the [sexual orientation and gender identity] questions as difficult, the income, disability, and race questions were more frequently identified as difficult,” researchers wrote.

That’s why advocates won’t let sexual orientation and gender identity questions go. The National LGBTQ Task Force runs the Queer the Census campaign and works with corporations and advocacy groups like The Arc, Color of Change, and the Arab-American Institute. In addition to its Census Counts campaign, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights runs a census task force. Co-chaired by Asian Americans Advancing Justice and the Latinx organization NALEO Educational Fund, the task force works “to advance that system change,” Lynk said.

And on Capitol Hill, former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (CA) introduced 2018’s Census Equality Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity questions on the American Community Survey by 2020 and on the decennial census by 2030. Harris doesn’t plan to reintroduce the legislation, according to a spokesperson; instead, she’s co-sponsored 2019’s LGBTQ Data Inclusion Act, which applies to federal population surveys, including the census. The newer legislation comes from Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), the first openly gay person elected to the Senate and one of nine openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual members currently serving in Congress.

DAME requested to speak with Census Bureau officials who have worked on sexual orientation and gender identity within the federal agency. A spokesperson was unable to make them available for interviews.

Filling LGBTQ data gaps would help economists like Michelle Holder do her job. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor studies marginalized communities and the workforce. The data that do exist reveals LGBTQ people experience disproportionate employment discrimination; soon, they could be legally fired nationwide for who they are, pending the outcome of three Supreme Court cases that the Trump administration argued in 2019.

Because the census provides population data—in the best-case scenario, every single person in the United States—Holder and other researchers wouldn’t have to extrapolate sexual orientation and gender identity responses the way they do when working from a sample size.

“My God, the potential for research would become so rich,” Holder said.

What would sexual orientation and gender identity questions look like on the census? Consider how the National Crime Victimization Survey phrases them. The survey asks respondents for the sex they were assigned at birth and their current gender identity.

Maury said the questions work for trans and cis respondents alike, and that’s the point. “There’s so few of us that if enough cis people or enough straight people make a mistake, it completely wrecks the data for LGBTQ folx. So we have to care about how cis and straight folks are reading it,” they said.

For now, the National LGBTQ Task Force’s guide to the 2020 census advises queer and trans people to approach the 2020 census’ lone “sex” question as they would navigate daily forced binaries. “This survey is no different; you can self-identify here in the way that feels most comfortable for you,” the guide says. The Census Bureau doesn’t cross-reference the answers with other records.

Advocates like Lynk and Maury and policymakers like Kennedy keep lifting up LGBTQ participation in an imperfect census. Lynk reminds us that the census affects Congress and the Electoral College, school boards and state legislatures—“all the institutions that have the power to protect or harm us.” Maury says that “if we ever want to build political power to change things, like whether there are sexual orientation and gender identity questions on the census, we’ve got to get counted in the census, which helps us build that base of political power.” And Kennedy encourages people that “if you believe in a country where everybody is supposed to count, where the ultimate freedom is the ability to be your true self and to be who you are, to be your authentic self, to stand up and be free, then this is something that the federal government should be trying to incentivize and protect, not erase.”

Perhaps their collective vision will materialize if the discrimination administration is voted out of office in 2020. Perhaps then, LGBTQ people will be counted for all of who they are.

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