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LGBT Issues

This is why the erasing of LGBT Americans on the 2020 census matters

The Daily Beast

March 29, 2017

Erasure is not an uncommon thing for LGBT people to experience. For millennia—with same-sex behavior and trans identity variously legally proscribed or forbidden, or punishable and stigmatized—it suited societies and religions to make LGBT people as invisible as possible.

And, to escape detection and persecution, many LGBT people chose to collude with this forced invisibility. Even today, making ourselves visible, coming out, is something every LGBT person considers or does.

If you want to understand the anger felt over the news that LGBT people not being counted in the 2020 Census, consider this: if you are straight you have always counted. You have no idea what it is not to be counted, or not to count, or what the implications of not being counted may be.

For you, it just happens.

The LGBT population, on the other hand, has been consistently discriminated against, and consistently made invisible. It has consistently been under legal and physical threat. It has had to fight for visibility.

As Harvey Milk said, coming out is the most potent thing an LGBT person can do. Showing that we are here, that we are present, is the most powerful statement of all. This visibility has never been enumerated. No-one’s ever figured out how to definitively. You might have thought the Census Bureau would be best positioned to. Apparently not.

Our presence, then, has always been configured as a moral issue. For years, the law was either against LGBTs, or implicitly skewered against them. LGBTs have been murdered and attacked for who they are. People have tried to change their sexual orientation with chemicals, electric shocks, and feverish threats. The Nazis killed gays, imprisoned them, and then the Allies rearrested some of those same people after the end of World War Two.

The fight for LGBT presence is historic and continuing. LGBTs were made invisible on film and in TV, and this struggle for equality is far from over.

LGBT people are used to feeling that they do not count—and the census controversy shows what that means all too literally and practically.

Initially, LGBT people were to be part of the 2020 census: as the Washington Blade and other publications reported, sexual orientation and gender identity were included in proposed categories.

However, the Blade reported, the U.S. Census “issued a notice shortly afterward indicating the report was corrected because the initial appendix ‘inadvertently’ included LGBT categories.

“The Subjects Planned for the 2020 Census and American Community Survey report released today inadvertently listed sexual orientation and gender identity as a proposed topic in the appendix,” a statement from the Census read. “The report has been corrected.”

John H. Thompson, director of the Census Bureau, was stung into releasing a statement of his own Wednesday.

Apparently, there was an “error” in the initial appendix—the nature of this error, the identification of it, the rectification of it, remains a mystery.

The Census Bureau reviewed the request to include sexual orientation and gender identity, he wrote. “Our review concluded there was no federal data need to change the planned census and ACS subjects.”

Again, Thompson offered zero explanation on how this process was conducted, what evidence and testimony was presented, and how the decision was reached.

The response of some to this brouhaha seems to be: well, we weren’t included in the past, so what’s changed? Big deal. “Well, you never had it before, so what are you missing now?” is not a strong or convincing argument against the usefulness of maintaining prejudice and bigotry. It amounts to little more than learned passivity. Just because you are being diminished as you expected to be doesn’t lessen the diminishment.

It may well be that this would have been a first time. Neither the U.S. Census, nor the American Community Survey has ever included questions about sexual orientation or transgender status.

Just because LGBT has never been counted before, the fact we remain uncounted in a year when LGBT rights feel imperiled feels darkly significant—especially the mysterious circumstances by which census chiefs decided that LGBT people should not be counted.

This isn’t some abstract intellectual argument, or pass-by news headline. As Nancy Marcus, Law and Policy Project Senior Advisor at Lambda Legal pointed out, “Census information helps determine the allocation of federally funded social services that are critically important to so many members of the LGBTQ community.”

How, if not by counting them, can LGBT people be protected and have their rights, quality of life, and health maintained? By not counting LGBT people, the Government is hurting them. The case for a proper LGBT Census is a moral, as well as practical, one.

Why did census organizers at first plan to include LGBT Americans in the census, and then—suddenly, and so far without explanation—decide not to?

The Census Bureau has estimated the number of same-sex couples before in America, so what is the problem now making LGBT research more concrete?

Numbers have always been a fraught matter for LGBT people. For those that came out in the 1980s, the figure “one in ten” was most usually cited—the figure derived from Kinsey’s research into the prevalence of male homosexuality.

In recent years, Gary Gates, an LGBT demographer at the Williams Institute, found that 11 percent of the American population had experienced same-sex attraction, but only 3.5 percent identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual, with sharp gender divides (2.2 percent of men defined themselves as gay, compared to 1.1 percent of women who said they were lesbian).

Numbers, when it comes to LGBT people, as Gates once told NPR, are controversial: for some they are too high, for others too low. They can be used, indecently, in arguments about policy and legality—why, the prejudiced politician might ask, should we be spending time and money on LGBT equality when such things affect such small groups?

The answer—that everyone deserves equal treatment under the law regardless of their sex, race, or sexual and gender identities; regardless of how many of them they are—can be lost at the pedestal of a stark statistic.

But the necessity of counting LGBT Americans is the same as the many legal and cultural arguments that statistics are quoted in.

This is about equality, and recognizing the needs and presence of particular sub-populations within the main one.

This is about signaling to LGBT people that they count culturally, as well as statistically.

LGBT Americans should be counted as equally as everyone else, and whatever results gleaned be analyzed and utilized sensitively, taking into account such complicating matters as people not self-defining themselves honestly or openly.

Sure, that may happen, some people may lie or not tell the truth—but that does not invalidate the exercise.

The issue of the Census erasure matters because the battle for LGBT equality is at a critical moment, and that struggle at its heart is about visibility, about becoming visible and insisting on a social and cultural presence.

Indeed, absence and presence is one of the defining dynamics of LGBT people in culture.

The activism of the Mattachine Society, the Stonewall demonstrators, and all those brave souls before and since who have taken up the struggle, has been about presence, and voice.

All that has been fought over—marriage equality, and before that against sodomy laws, or lobbying against unfair rules on adoption and surrogacy, the fight to serve equally in the military, or to ensure discrimination against LGBTs is outlawed in workplaces and when it comes to ill and deceased loved ones in hospital rooms—has been done by persons showing up and showing their faces, and not being invisible.

The disquiet over the LGBT Census erasure, the injustice of it, is that in action, meaning and consequence, it very literally makes LGBT people invisible again: this time on a stark white form that should include us.

The message of still not being counted on a Census form sends a wider and more profound message around erasure at a time when LGBT rights themselves are under attack. LGBT people see newly minted, anti-LGBT legislators taking their positions in government, and are frightened with good reason. And now, on a basic population form, the one box just for them got blanked out.

That means not only won’t LGBT people be counted, but all that could be gleaned about LGBT people, and who they are and what might best be done in terms of funding and assisting those who may need it most, will not be counted.

That means less understanding at a time when more is urgently needed.

Sure, it’s one box. Sure, it might not be precise or definitive. But everything about that box’s presence, and now its absence, counts—both practically and symbolically. LGBT people know why. They live why, every day.

To LGBT people, an official erasure by Census organizers and government may be painful, and yet another practical and cultural negative. But remember this: the LGBT population has been long numberless, long unfixed by statisticians. That numerical mystery zone will persist now as official policy, but—just as in so many years before—this sanctioned statistical ignorance will not stop the LGBT population’s very visible and enduring campaign for equality.