The 2020 Census won’t ask questions about LGBTQ identity, but a group of advocates is fighting to make sure queer and trans people still participate in the survey.
Shortly after President Donald Trump took office in 2017, his administration made headlines when reports indicated the U.S. Census Bureau removed questions regarding sexual orientation and gender identity from consideration in the 2020 U.S. Census and the American Community Survey (ACS). The latter is a yearly report that polls one in 38 American households.
The Task Force, a national LGBTQ advocacy group, released a screenshot showing those questions had been “proposed” as late as March 2017. In a matter of weeks, the questions were redacted from a subsequent shortlist.
“We’ve been erased!” the Task Force proclaimed.
Two years later, a new project of University of Southern California’s Annenberg Innovation Lab is fighting to ensure the controversy doesn’t dissuade LGBTQ people from filling out their census form when they arrive in their mailboxes in April 2020.
Known as Count the Nation, the Lab's series of digital PSAs urges LGBTQ people to “stand up and be counted.”
Although the survey will not include questions on sexual orientation and gender identity, it will still ask about important demographic questions about race, ethnicity, and gender. And of course, LGBTQ people will still be included in overall population data.
It’s certainly not the ideal, but a two-minute video explains why it’s important for the LGBTQ community to be counted in every way the census currently allows. Actor Chris Salvatore, one of four talking heads in the PSA, says its demographic data collected “informs virtually everything within our communities, from where we build new hospitals, schools, day care, and elderly care centers.”
As musician Sam Tsui explains, the data also helps determine the allotment of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, which are divided up by a state’s population. California, the largest U.S. state, controls 53 of those seats.
“If a state is undercounted or participation is low, that could reduce a state’s seats,” Tsui said, “which means less power in Washington to ensure our voices are heard.”
Yasmin Naboa, a senior adviser with Count the Nation, says the campaign has been in development since February. It’s intended to focus on “hard to count populations,” which include children under the age of five, millennials, renters, and LGBTQ people.
“If you don’t participate, then you're invisible,” Naboa told The Daily Beast. “What that translates to is that for every person who is counted, there is approximately $2,000 [in government dollars] associated with that person each year. Over 10 years, that's $20,000 that the government does not reallocate back to your community.”
To launch the campaign, USC Annenberg partnered with LGBTQ advocacy groups like the Task Force and Equality California, as well as the U.S. Census Bureau itself.
While encouraging LGBTQ people to be counted in a survey that won’t actually ask them about being LGBTQ might seem like a futile, circular mission, advocates say that ensuring federal funding is distributed proportionally across the U.S. is critical for members of the LGBTQ community.
Samuel Garrett-Pate, communications director at Equality California, says queer and trans people are disproportionately likely to rely on programs like Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more widely known as food stamps. According to Garrett-Pate, one of out of every five same-sex households relies on SNAP funding to feed their families.
“The census determines how much funding each state gets for SNAP,” he tells The Daily Beast. “If members of our community aren't filling out the census, then less money is going to support those LGBTQ families. We're doing a disservice to members of our community who are relying on SNAP for food every week.”
But while USC Annenberg says its mission is not geared toward advocating for the inclusion of questions on LGBTQ identity, others hope the campaign shows the Trump administration the importance of data collection.
Although former Census Bureau Director John Thompson claimed the department concluded there was “no federal data need” for surveying LGBTQ identity on the 2020 Census and American Community Survey, “That is a lie,” said Meghan Maury, policy director of the Task Force.
Maury points to a request made under the Obama administration by four federal agencies to ask questions relating to gender identity and sexual orientation in Census surveys. These agencies included the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), where former Secretary Julian Castro called LGBTQ data “essential to HUD fulfilling its mission.”
According to Maury, the previous administration even outlined the questions it would like to have seen on the census. They’re similar to the ones the Task Force would like to see listed on the survey.
The Obama White House proposed a question asking respondents: “Which of the following best represents how you think of yourself?” If the proposal had been adopted, Americans would have had the choice to select “Lesbian or Gay,” “Straight, that is, not lesbian or gay,” “Bisexual,” “Something else,” or “I don’t know the answer.”
The other two questions under consideration were related to gender identity: “On your original birth certificate, was your sex assigned as male or female?” and “Do you currently describe yourself as a man, woman, or transgender person?”
Down the line, Maury says the Task Force would love to see the census add questions on “sexual behavior, sexual attraction, and gender expression.”
“We’re continuing to work with Census Bureau staff who know they need this data,” Maury says. “The Bureau gets it. That's not the problem. The barriers to collecting this data come from elsewhere in the administration.”
When The Daily Beast reached out to the Census Bureau for comment, Michael C. Cook, division chief in the Bureau’s Public Information Office, directed this publication to comments that Thompson made during an April 2017 meeting of the National Advisory Council. Thompson claimed the Census Bureau “does not determine the questions [included] on the American Community Survey.”
“The Census Bureau facilitates the questions that go on the American Community Survey by soliciting information in conjunction with… other federal agencies,” Thompson said at the time.
Cook adds that the Census Bureau is “excited” about Count the Nation and other “initiatives to educate the public about the 2020 Census.”
“With the help of trusted voices across the nation, we're certain that the message of the 2020 Census will reach our hard-to-count communities,” he said. “The public's response to the 2020 Census shapes decisions about how public funds are spent for schools, fire and emergency services, and healthcare for their communities.”
The Task Force has been working on this issue since 1990, when the federal government first allowed first same-sex couples to self-identify in its decennial survey. That survey included a question about the respondent’s “same-sex unmarried partner.”
When the U.S. Census still didn’t include questions about sexual orientation and gender identity 20 years later, the Task Force encouraged LGBTQ people to “queer the census” by slapping a sticker on their 2010 packet when they mailed back the survey. The organization estimated that 100,000 people participated in the campaign.
Despite concerns about LGBTQ people being “erased” from the 2020 Census, advocacy groups stress that the U.S. Census will represent progress in at least one significant way. Next year’s decennial survey will include questions about both “opposite-sex” and “same-sex” couples for the first time, after feedback that the previous question regarding “same-sex unmarried partners” was confusingly worded.
When asked if the census will ever fully recognize the identities of LGBTQ people, Maury exclaimed, “We’re working on it!”