After floating the idea in an initial draft, the US Census Bureau recently announced that the 2020 census would not include the option for LGBTQ persons to self-identify. This decision has rightly been met with outrage, because it denies lawmakers and their respective constituents access to data that would be used to shape policy and allow LGBTQ people access to opportunities and resources they’ve been denied for decades.
Although some data on same-sex couples has been available since the 1990 census, there still lacks a definitive figure assessing the numbers and geographic distribution of LGBTQ-identifying Americans. This is odd, given that numerous minority groups — ranging from ethnic and racial minorities to Americans with disabilities — are able to self-identify on the form, giving lawmakers visibility into their communities.
The 2010 census did not include an opportunity for participants to identify as LGBTQ, which was unsurprising, given the cultural and political stances on gay rights and marriage at that time. Both major-party candidates opposed same-sex marriage during the 2008 election cycle, and a select few states had legalized such marriages at that point. Since 2010, however, LGBTQ persons have cumulatively — despite opposition from religious and “traditional” lawmakers — made great strides in the quest for equality and visibility on a national level. By 2020, with national marriage equality a reality, and a recent ruling deeming that LGBTQ identity is a protected class under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that sense of liberation should empower more LGBTQpersons than ever before to self-identify on the census and provide the most accurate count of LGBTQ Americans to date.
The American government’s current methods of collecting data on LGBTQindividuals are lacking. Although sexologist Alfred Kinsey estimated in 1948 that about 10 percent of the population identified as homosexual or bisexual, today, even reputable polling sources report that only 3.8 percent of surveyed Americans self-identify as LGBTQ. This statistic does not accommodate persons that are ashamed of or questioning their orientation, a problem that would be solved by the census’ anonymity provision. Low population figures are frequently cited by anti-LGBT activists as evidence for their opposition to equality: If we number so few, why should we matter?
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, when discussing the import of the census, states that it exists to measure “hard to countcommunities.” There are few communities more difficult to measure than LGBTQ people, as its members exist across all ethnic, social and geographic divides. Without data identifying affected parties, activists and legislators have no way to gauge, for example, how many North Carolinians were affected by the controversial “bathroom bill,” HB 2. Additional legislation in the vein of HB 2 is under consideration in more than 20 states. This lack of visibility makes the passage of legislation against LGBTQ persons easier, as even a well-prepared opposition would lack data quantifying the impact of such laws on specific constituencies.
Despite the benefits, privacy advocates might balk at the proposal that a disclosure of status to the government would be anonymous. Critics have cited instances in which census data was used by the government to infringe upon citizens’ rights. The US government, historically, has enacted discriminatory legislation targeting LGBTQ persons, primarily “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act. The federal government has tried to restrict the rights of LGBTQ persons, and without concrete statistics, lawmakers cannot be held accountable for their infringement upon LGBTQrights. Without a means to quantify their presence, the LGBTQ community is forced to qualify their existence through social and cultural visibility — rallying, marching, speaking and publishing. Still, data cannot be dismissed with the same ease as a social movement.
LGBTQ Americans have every right to choose if (and when) they reveal their sexual orientation to their colleagues, coworkers and communities. However, I believe that LGBTQ Americans, including myself, have a duty to identify ourselves statistically. When news broke that LGBTQ identification would not be included on the 2020 census, I took to Facebook to understand the public’s opinion, deciding to read comments affixed to a Huffington Post article detailing the breaking news. “These freaks belong in the closet.” “Who cares how many of those deviants exists? I don’t want to know!” Visibility breeds tolerance, and strength arises from solidarity. I demand to be counted, for the sake of federal accountability and future opportunity.