A Quick Note on the Census

I am so excited about the 2010 Census, which is going to be hitting the mailbox of every single person in America in the next couple weeks. The Census is critically important: it only happens once every ten years, and it documents what America looks like in that decade. It allocates funding to the communities which need it most, it determines Congressional representation, and it’s a repository of demographic data. It tells us that our country is racially and ethnically and economically diverse. And for many undergraduate and graduate students, and other young adults, it’s our first Census! Those of us who spend most of the year away from our permanent addresses are counted as separate households and must file our Census forms individually—even if we’re considered our parents’ dependents in the eyes of the IRS and other agencies. So get ready!

Another reason to get excited about the 2010 Census is that this is the first Census in which LGBT couples in same-sex relationships will be counted. Box Turtle Bulletin has just posted a very clear and comprehensive FAQ about how members of the LGBT community should confront the Census; the most exciting and salient point is that married same-sex couples can indicate that they are married, regardless of the jurisdiction in which they were married and regardless of whether same-sex marriage is legal in the state in which they reside. If you’re living with but not married to your partner, you can indicate that too, which I think is wonderful. The 2010 Census is based entirely on self-identification, and it’s not going to unmarry you the way that the IRS does. This is very good news indeed, and part of why the Census is so, so important this time around: unlike most other aspects of the federal bureaucracy, the Census will hopefully provide an accurate count of how many LGBT Americans are in same-sex marriages, civil unions/domestic partnerships, or committed relationships, which is obviously very relevant data in the fight for marriage equality and other forms of legal recognition. This is information we really want the government to have if we want to stop being second-class citizens in the eyes of the state.

What’s less good news is that there are still only two boxes on the “sex” line. Box Turtle Bulletin reports that “Transgender respondents should select the sex with which they identify,” I presume regardless of whether that’s the sex on your legal documents—but that still leaves out plenty of people who identify as neither male nor female, which is frustrating and problematic and won’t provide an accurate count of anything. I hope that by the 2020 Census, the bureaucracy will be well-educated enough to allow individuals to self-identify on sex/gender the way that we can on other parts of the form.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is running a campaign called Queer the Census, which is pushing for the recognition of queer people in the Census. The Task Force is distributing stickers for people to put on their Census envelopes with the following text:

Attn: U.S. Census Bureau
It’s Time To Count Everyone!

Are you (check all that apply):
_ Lesbian
_ Gay
_ Bisexual
_ Transgender
_ A Straight Ally

Everyone deserves to be counted. It’s time to QueertheCensus.org

Now, some of my Princeton colleagues are participating in the campaign, and I support their efforts. But I nevertheless have very mixed feelings about this language, and about the idea in general. In the first place, many queer people do not identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, and only including this set of boxes (no fill-in, unlike the Census’s own race question) does not allow people to self-identify. This is not in the spirit of the Census. In the second place, if the aim is to encourage a count of queer Americans, why is there a “straight ally” box? I love straight allies. Some of my best friends are straight allies. And I very strongly believe that queer activists need not alienate their straight allies, who may be some of the most active and influential members of their movement. But the option’s presence on this list is confusing, and makes me wonder what the Task Force is actually trying to do. Are they advocating the accurate collection of data, which is the purpose of the Census? Or are they advocating a more general statement of support for queer Americans? If so, perhaps that statement of support would be more effective somewhere else.

This leads me to my biggest question: is the Census the right place for “we’re here, we’re queer”? It’s a sentiment that has become one of the guiding principles of my life, whether advocating for activist causes or working to write the narratives of queer people’s and queer cultures’ contributions to our common history. But if there’s anything I’m learning in working towards writing those narratives, it’s that identity is fluid and mutable and hard to classify. I think we could come up with a more accurate, fairer, and more inclusive sex/gender question on the Census. But could we ever design language that accurately records what sorts of people a person is sexually attracted to? And would we want to do that? Is it really in accordance with the aims of queer activism to classify and pigeonhole American sexualities? Is whom you sleep with a data point that belongs on a government form? Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe sexual orientation is a demographic more analogous to race—that it’s something we would want to know about our country, that when people self-identify, it can produce accurate data, and that it’s possible to put enough options down on the form that we can gain a close-to-accurate understanding of the demographic composition of this country. But to me, “we’re here, we’re queer” is not about demographics, it’s about political and cultural identity—something that’s hard to sum up in volumes upon volumes of academic literature, much less in a single question on a government form, and something which a significant number of LGBT people don’t even believe exists.

I think that if we are going to record sex in the Census, we need to count trans people accurately. I think that if we are going to record marital status in the Census, we need to count same-sex couples, married or unmarried, accurately. But no one has yet made a good case to me why I should make my sexual identity (which is as political and cultural as it is personal, and which is to me so much more fluid and incomprehensible and unclassifiable than my race and ethnicity, my marital status, or my biological sex) fit easily into a box on a form. No one has made a good case to me why the government needs to know whom I want to sleep with. Yes, I know that they need to know we exist if we expect them to stop discriminating against us, and I certainly invite you all to explain why a sexual orientation question on the Census is a better idea than I think it is. But I can’t help thinking that a question about sexual orientation like the one the Task Force proposes is going to lead to some pretty damn inaccurate data.


6 thoughts on “A Quick Note on the Census

  1. The “are you gay” question is ridiculous. I am a person, like any other, and my homosexuality is “part” of me, and should be a nonissue in the eyes of my government. You’re gay? So what. You’re straight. Woohoo. Good for you. You used to be a man? And? Who the hell cares. Next.

  2. I liked your post! It’s a good outline of the state of Census policy, and all of your concerns are legitimate. That said, I’m one of the people distributing Queer the Census stickers at Princeton and I think there are good reasons to count identifications based on sexual object choice (as well as gender identity) on the Census. First, it would create solid data to use in confronting legislators (and, say, school boards) and educating the public–people are often unaware that there are gay people, trans people, LGBT couples in their own communities and hometowns. We need to push policymakers to combat hate crimes and promote safe environments for LGBT students. Second, the Census (in conjunction with the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey, ACS) could produce great data on LGBT health, income disparities, home ownership, etc. The Census can produce unique data because it’s not a statistical survey–it lets us say things like, as of 2000, there were 55 same-sex couples in Jackson, Mississippi. Queering the Census isn’t as important as ENDA in the short run, but could shape policy in the future.

    I agree that sexual identity can be fluid, incomprehensible, unclassifiable, and can evolve over time, but I think it’s still meaningful to ask “What do you identify as?” at a given moment (and I think “choose all that apply” is a good approach). Since self-identification is exactly what’s being measured, there’s no inevitable danger of inaccurate data. Or at least, not more so than for race.

    This is not a matter of letting the government know who you want to sleep with. The “government” won’t know–the Census Bureau will, and it is illegal for them to pass on personal, non-aggregate information to anyone, including other government agencies or law enforcement. I have the sense that you didn’t mean to imply otherwise, but misconceptions and fears like this are a big reason that people fail to accurately fill out their Census forms.

    You’re totally right in pointing out some of the problems with the sticker. For instance, the lack of a write-in option on the sticker (as well as queer, asexual, genderqueer) is inexplicable to me, as is the lumping together of gender identity and sexual orientation. The “straight ally” choice makes some sense to me–it’s there so that straight people can signal their support for queering the census, although it would be a ridiculous choice to have on the Census form (unlike “straight”). In general, I don’t think its sticker is representative of what an actual Census question should look like. Admittedly, if the QtC people agree with me on that, they have failed to communicate it.

    There are actually quite a few problems with the way this thing is being run, the most egregious being that the QtC campaign seems confused about how to make changes on the Census form happen–some of their workers know that congressional action is needed to add questions to the form (which I think is true?), but the petition on their website is addressed to the Census Bureau. Not to mention that online petitions are useless compared to phone calls (or even letters) to legislators. Top-down activism fail…

    Also, a minor correction: while this is the first Census that will count same-sex marriages, it’s not actually the first to count same-sex relationships. People could identify as “unmarried partners” starting in 1990, and same-sex couples chose to do this in large numbers. The 2000 Census data showed that same-sex couples live in 99.3% of counties in the US, based on this “unmarried partner” designation.

  3. Wow Johannes, thanks so much for that response! I’m still not sanguine, but it does make me feel much more confident that if the QtC folks are running an imperfect campaign, they are at least doing so with good and worthy and worth-supporting intentions.

    Yeah, I was being a little flip when I said I didn’t want the government to know whom I sleep with–I didn’t mean to suggest that Census data is anything other than aggregate, just that it was less clear to me how it’s a helpful data point. But you made that case very well in your first paragraph!

    I wonder if there would be a reliable way to test such a Census question, and how the Census Bureau would determine whether people are self-identifying in a way that’s productive and useful. I guess it’s a similar process to the one they went through in developing a race self-identification question (as opposed to one where Census-takers assigned people’s race to them) but I’d like to know more about how such an operation could work.

    I’d like to underscore–I don’t think I did emphasize this in my post–that I think visibility is the first step to legislative change, and that means visibility in its purest sense. Not “we’re like everyone else,” but just “we are.” And so we need something. I’m not sure that the Task Force has the right idea, but we need something.

  4. You’re spot on about visibility imo. For me, “we are” over “we’re like everyone else” is definitely a reason to want single LGBT people counted on the Census, rather than just same-sex couples.

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