Census Declines to Collect Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Data

Campaigners for an LGBQT-inclusive census, including Laverne Cox, faced disappointment this week, as the agency announced that it won’t ask questions about sexual orientation and gender identity in the 2020 census. This comes as a huge blow to the fight for LGBQT equality, especially because demographic data can be a major tool for social change.

The census is pretty amazing, when you think about it. This national effort aims to count each person in America every ten years, and to collect key demographic data through the American Community Survey. Information from the census can help to determine political districts, fund social programs and understand the makeup of society. Organizations of all kinds rely on census data because it’s highly accurate, detailed and old — the census has been in effect since 1790!

Prior to every census, the Census Bureau must provide Congress with a list of demographic topics, describing the data that the agency intends to collect. An initial list of questions for 2020 included sexual orientation and gender identity, but the agency went back on that decision, saying there was no “statutory or regulatory need” to collect the information.

The move has some crying foul and claiming that the Trump Administration had a hand in the decision — though there’s no evidence to confirm or deny the allegation.

LGBQT activists have pushed the Census Bureau to collect data because they want to be able to answer questions about the demographic makeup of their community with a high degree of accuracy.

And that starts with the most basic: How many LGBQT people are there in America, really? They also want the opportunity to gain a detailed picture of a very diverse community.

How many trans Latinas are there in California? How many black gay men live in Minnesota? How many bisexuals call Texas home? How many trans elders live in the United States? How many Mississippi lesbians live in poverty? These are all questions that individual organizations hope to answer using a variety of demographic tools, but the census could be definitive.

Having a wealth of demographic data on the LGBQT community would be a valuable tool for activists and organizers, but also — theoretically — government agencies. When the Obama administration signaled an interest in tracking and defending the rights of the LGBQT community, for example, this data would have been incredibly helpful. It could also have aided agencies in understanding the needs of the populations they serve with much more accuracy.

It can also be incredibly validating to see your community included in the decennial count of America’s residents. When you see a spot on your census form that recognizes you, it’s empowering. It sends a signal to society as well — an especially important action at a time when LGBQT rights are under threat.

Erasing LGBQT people from demographic data doesn’t make the community disappear, and the push for a more inclusive census will continue. One way to support this initiative is by contacting your legislators and asking them to keep up the pressure.

Regardless of gender, orientation or political beliefs, it’s incredibly valuable to talk about the demographics of the LGBQT population — and statistics collected by a neutral third party with a mandate to count everyone are pretty much the gold standard of data.