The Case Against Counting LGBT People In The 2020 Census

Can sexuality and gender be defined on a form? Do we want them to be?

One of the big stories last week was the news that the Trump administration was erasing the LGBT community from the 2020 Census.

There was an understandable hue and cry—representation means attention and resources. It means funding for things like LGBT health initiatives, anti-bullying campaigns, and shelters for queer homeless youth.

But the situation isn’t so black and white.

Questions about gender identity have never been included in a U.S. Census, and only same-sex couples sharing a household were tabulated in the 2000 and 2010 Censuses. And even that data is problematic.

In 2011, the Census Bureau admitted it had to revise its estimates of same-sex households downward—the numbers had been inflated by straight couples not understanding the language of the survey. (If you’re wondering, the numbers were adjusted from 349,377 married same-sex households and 552,620 unmarried same-sex households to 131,729 married couples and 514,735 unmarried couples.)

What made news last week was a draft report that surfaced proposing individuals be asked about their sexual orientation and gender identity directly—a proposal that was deleted from the next draft.

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What questions would have been added? It’s hard to say. It’s even hard to imagine what options respondents would have been given for answers. Are you heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual? Pansexual? Queer? Are you transgender, genderfluid, or agender? Facebook has 56 different gender options alone. Would the 2020 Census offer that many—and allow participants to choose more than one?

Even if we did agree on classification, would it provide an accurate representation? Many, if not most, LGBT people are still in the closet. Whatever figure comes out of the 2020 Census would be a underrepresentation of our community, and fodder for Republicans to justify marginalization and oppression.

There’s another, more troubling issue, too: As the political tides in this country shift, identifying as anything but heterosexual and cisgender could be increasingly risky. You don’t have to mention Nazi Germany to illustrate the dangers of putting your identity down in the official record: Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the FBI used census records to keep tabs on citizens and foreign nationals it perceived as threats. Once the U.S. got into WWII, the legal confidentiality of the census was repealed, and census data was used to facilitate the internment of Japanese-Americans.

We’re not at that point, and hopefully won’t be in 2020, but once you stand up and are counted, there’s no going back.

Personally, I want the LGBT community represented on the next census. Bigger is better in this country, and money talks. The more of us there are, the bigger piece of the pie we can demand. But the risks involved shouldn’t be ignored.

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.
@ItsDanAvery