The 2020 Census, the country’s 10-year count of all residents, began on March 12. Within its questions, the Census offers just two options related to gender, male or female, making it impossible for individuals who don’t identify with either to answer truthfully.
A more expansive set of gender options, as well as questions about sexual identity, could have been instrumental in understanding and better serving the LGBTQ+ community. Among other uses, the Decennial Census and the smaller but more in-depth American Community Survey (ACS) help to allocate more than $675 billion in federal funding. Federal and local entities use Census data to understand where and how these funds are most needed.
Without this data, “it’s much more difficult for us to meet all the needs of our community because we don’t know as much about the lived agreements of folks in our community,” said Meghan Maury, National LGBTQ Taskforce policy director. The Task Force has spent the past decade lobbying for sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) questions to be included in the Decennial Census and the ACS.
Arizona Congressman Raúl Grijalva has agreed with Maury’s assessment, saying in a June 2019 press release, “Without a clear knowledge of the size and needs of the LGBTQ community, its members remain marginalized and left out of many critical policy making decisions.”
The missing gender options also have a less tangible effect that Maury, as a nonbinary person, relates to on a personal level. There’s a psychological or emotional burden to being forced to choose between two options that are both incorrect.
“I feel like I’m being dishonest when I respond to that question, and I feel like it’s indicative of government not knowing me or seeing me and therefore not asking a question that I can answer honestly,” Maury said.
Why The Questions Are Not There
Why then is the information missing?
Starting in the Obama administration, four federal agencies and 75 members of Congress requested questions about sexual orientation and gender identity to be added to the Decennial Census or American Community Survey.
Among these requests was a key 2016 letter from Arthur Gary, general counsel for the Department of Justice. He explained that the data could be used to enforce more than a dozen pieces of legislation that prevent discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals, and promote education and grants for these communities.
In 2016, based on these requests, the Census Bureau began investigating the need to add SOGI questions to the ACS.
Then, shortly after the inauguration of President Trump in 2017, Gary sent a second letter to the Census Bureau stating that the DOJ was “unable to reaffirm” its request for the addition of sexual orientation and gender identity questions. The Census Bureau stopped its research into the inclusion of this data.
In 2018 and 2019, U.S. Senators Tom Carper, Kamala Harris and Tammy Baldwin, and Representative Raúl Grijalva introduced bills (the Census Equality Act and the LGBTQ Data Inclusion Act) that would require SOGI information on federal surveys. Neither bill has moved forward.
It seems, under the current political administration, we’re at a stalemate for the inclusion of this data; however, there have been small wins over time.
In 1990, individuals were able to report same-sex relationships, and in 2010, they could report same-sex marriages. “We were able to pull out data about same-sex couples in different fields, and it was the first time we could say LGBT couples live in every congressional district in the country. It made members of Congress hear us differently,” Maury said.
For this upcoming Census, the Task Force has also worked with the Census Bureau on better representation of LGBTQ+ folks in Census promotions and on local counting efforts. Maury explains why, even with problematic gender options, it’s still important for everyone — including nonbinary folks — to take part in the Census.
Why Being Counted Matters Anyway
There’s a danger that people who don’t feel the Census is reflective of who they are will opt-out of completing the Census at all. As a result, the LGBTQ+ community will be undercounted and underrepresented.
“LGBTQ undercounting in the Decennial Census and the ACS result in an inadequate distribution of resources and social services including Medicaid, Section 8 housing vouchers, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP),” Senator Kamala Harris explained in a July 2018 press release.
One reason for this unequal distribution of resources and political power is that LGBTQ+ individuals are more likely to face compound social and economic hardships. The community, especially bisexual women, trans, and nonbinary individuals are more likely to live below the poverty level or experience homelessness.
Individuals who are disempowered — including those living with a lower income, who speak a limited amount of English, or who have inconsistent housing — are more likely to be missed in the Census. As a result, they are underrepresented when it comes time to allocate government power, such as redrawing congressional districts and allocating federal funding.
It’s important to keep advocating for the inclusion of SOGI questions in all federal surveys. It’s also important to be counted anyway.
“We are also people of color; we are also low income; we are also folks who need healthcare,” Maury said. “We are full people that have different ways of interacting with systems of oppression, and being counted on the Census is still critical to our building power in the long-term.”
Photo by Zackary Drucker / The Gender Spectrum Collection