Advocates push for gender, sexual orientation questions on 2020 Census

Questions on race and ethnic identity from the 2010 Census form. Advocates were briefly elated when it appeared the Census Bureau might include questions on sexual orientation and gender identity in the 2020 Census, but the bureau has since said there is no mandate for such a question. (Photo by Spot Us/Creative Commons)

The bulk of the decennial census – charged with counting every person in the country – is done by mail, but the agency still sends surveyors door to door to collect answers. The bureau is already well into planning for the 2020 Census. (Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – David Stacy has heard the stories of older same-sex couples who face discrimination in assisted-living facilities because some “workers are less tolerant” toward them – but he can’t point to data outlining the problem.

“We know these problems exist but don’t know how to gather evidence,” said Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign.

That is why LGBTQ advocates were briefly elated at the prospect that the Census Bureau would ask people for information on their sexual orientation or gender identity on the 2020 Census form – and bitterly disappointed when the bureau announced this spring that it would not collect that data.

The advocates have taken to repeating a phrase often used by groups trying to encourage people to participate in the census: If you’re not counted, you don’t count.

“This limits information and data about the LGBTQ community,” said Glen Spencer, the executive director of Aunt Rita’s Foundation, a Phoenix-based group that provides assistance to people who are HIV-positive.

“The Census can help assess the experience of LGBTQ individuals where they live and work,” said Spencer, but only if the agency collects the data.

The bureau’s decision followed a year deliberation with the Office of Management and Budget and other federal agencies, after a hiccup in an appendix of the American Community Survey last year indicated that the information on lesbian, gay and transgender individuals would be collected.

Bureau Director John H. Thompson – who unexpectedly announced his retirement this week, reportedly over budget concerns – said federal officials looked “to determine if there was a legislative mandate” to collect data on people’s sexual orientation or gender identity – but determined that there was no such directive.

Census Bureau Director John Thompson said the bureau would not include questions on gender identity and sexual orientation in the 2020 Census as some advocates had hoped. (Photo courtesy U.S. Census Bureau)

“The Census Bureau remains committed to reflecting the information needs of our changing society,” Thompson said in a blog post on the controversy, but said that would not include data on gender identity or sexual orientation.

The final decision, announced in March, angered advocates, who blamed the then-new administration of President Donald Trump.

In a letter to the bureau, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, said he was “deeply troubled” by the bureau’s failure to see the relevance of the questions.

“The number of people who identify as LGBT … cannot be counted,” Grijalva’s letter said.

“LGBT Americans continue to face discrimination in facets of everyday life such as in employment, housing, and even in the justice system,” Grijalva said. “Expanded data collection on LGBT people is needed to help policymakers and community stakeholders understand the full extent of these disparities.”

Grijalva said he will re-introduce the LGBT Data Inclusion Act, to include sexual orientation and gender identity on all federal forms, as a result of the Census Bureau’s decision about the 2020 form. The same bill failed to get a vote in the last Congress.

The congressman also stressed that his bill will include protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Advocates believe that the LGBTQ experience is unique when it comes to aspects of health and wellness in this country. Stacy pointed to be senior same-sex couples who are “more likely to face discrimination in assisted living because they’re more vulnerable and don’t have support when they get older.”

“If the problem is identified through surveys, then they’ll have to be objective about finding a solution,” Stacy said of government officials.

By excluding the questions, advocates said, the administration is marginalizing the issues faced by LGBTQ individuals.

“I don’t think it was a smart decision to remove the sexual orientation questions,” Spencer said. “It continues to marginalize the LGBTQ community.

“The question of sexual identity and orientation is relevant for statistics and recognition of things affecting the LGBTQ community,” he said.

That was echoed by Stacy, who said the government needs “to ask the questions to find the solutions. It’s hard to find solutions if we don’t know the problem.”

But advocates said they are not ready to back down.

“When it comes to the census, if you’re not counted – you don’t count,” Stacy said.