Last summer, the United States Census Bureau proposed eliminating a question about sexual orientation from its marketing survey. The marketing surveys’ purpose is to encourage particular populations to participate in the United States 2020 Census. Immediate outcry followed, both from advisors to the Bureau and U.S. advocacy groups.Meghan Maury of the LGBTQ national task force,who also serves on the Census’s National Advisory Committee, pointed out that the survey is necessary in order to demonstrate that members of the LGTBQIA+ community are present in every district, and therefore lawmakers have a duty to represent their interests and legislation that protects them. The marketing survey was conceived in 2008 (for the 2010 census) and was the first time a question about sexual orientation was included.
They couldn’t explain why they chose to get rid of the question, or report who suggested its removal to news outlets such as NPR, who received cagey responses when questioning the Bureau about its lack of need for such data.
(Above:The very scary proposed question that ignited the controversy.)
Some may ask why the census even matters. “The census ensures that each community gets the right number of representatives in government,” says Gordon De Jong, professor of sociology and demography at Penn State’s Population Research Institute. The American Community Survey (ACS), taken annually, randomly selects 3 million households to represent those of the entire country. Individual names and addresses are not released, and it is impossible to pinpoint the location of individuals and houses from the questions they answer on the census. Although the Census Bureau has stated that it is not a prosecuting entity, Under Title 13 of U.S. Code, you can be fined up to $100 for refusing to complete a census form and $500 for answering questions falsely. The Website for the U.S. Census Bureau points out that the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 effectively increased these minimum fines to up to $5,000.
Nonetheless, members of the LGTBQIA+ community are considered members of a “hard to count” population for the Census Bureau – a segment of the population whose response return rate for the “optional” ACS and decennial census falls below the cited 73 percent. This often includes minority racial and ethnic groups, as well as elderly populations. As the far as disclosing such personal information to a government entity goes, Americans are not the most trusting in this regard, and in light of both historical and recent discriminatory legislation regarding the freedom of expression for the community, sexual orientation may not be something individuals feel comfortable revealing on a government form. (To get an idea of where these populations are concentrated geographically, the Center for Urban Research compiled a handy interactive map to aid in visualizing “hard to count” regions in the United States.)
John Thompson, who resigned from his position as head of the Census Bureau last June, stated that there has to be a strong pragmatic need for each Census question, but the charter for a review committee for the American Community Survey highlighted the importance of counting small groups such as the LGTBQIA+ community (although with more and more Americans, millenials in particular, identifying within the community, perhaps they won’t remain in the aforementioned category) in order to make sure they are represented in the American Community Survey and that the Survey provides an accurate portrait of the United States Population.
So why the fight to include the questions at all? At least four government agencies have requested the inclusion of the information in order to protect the implementation of progressive employment and coverage policies. The Department of Housing and Urban Development stated that “Valid, reliable, and nationally representative data on sexual orientation and gender identity are essential to HUD fulfilling its mission,” wrote former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, who argued that LGBT data could help enforcement of the agency’s “Equal Access to Housing” rule and the Fair Housing Act. Additional groups including the Environmental Protection Agency (seeking to preserve its equal employment opportunity policy), and The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have requested the inclusion of questions related to sexual identity in the past.
Advocates worry that seemingly innocuous occurrences such as the census scandal are indicative of a larger sentiment held by the administration as well as state legislatures, as demonstrated by evidence compiled by Amnesty International in 2016. In their annual report on LGTBI* rights, the human rights organization noted the dramatic increase in worryingly anti-LGTBI legislation. This includes H.B. 568 and S.B. 1632, passed in Indiana, which are just 2 of over 200 bills that have been put forth in state legislatures that legitimize discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, since the Supreme Court’s rules on same-sex marriage in June 2015. To date, 21 states have passed RFRA bills. North Carolina’s infamous “Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act”, signed by the Governor in March, which requires transgender individuals to use public restrooms of their biological sex, is another example.
The Census scuffle is not the only proposal of its kind. She and other activists in the LGTBQIA+ community are concerned that mircoagressions against already underrepresented or marginalized communities have to be taken seriously or they evolve into flat out discriminatory law.
The United States is comprised of 323 million people, and counting them is a mammoth assignment, but it is necessary to ensure the democratic ideals that our government claims to uphold as well as the human rights guaranteed to all world wide. Minority communities need to be heard in order to have their rights (including the right self-determination, protection under the law, and the right to live free of discrimination) protected, and the first step to being heard is being counted.