Many queer and marginalized people have strong feelings about the census, but some are struggling to make informed decisions about how or if to respond. By law, census data cannot be shared with other organizations, law enforcement, governmental agencies, or individuals. Meghan Maury, policy director for the National LGBTQ+ Task Force, said many people have questions and concerns about how the current president can be trusted, but others are comforted by national advocacy groups monitoring the U.S. Census Bureau who are preparing to act as a legal defense team in case one is ever needed.
“People have always worried that their answers could affect their public benefits or housing or be shared with law enforcement and immigration officials,” Maury said.
Gillian F, who is nonbinary and married to a trans man, feared the government would misuse the data. “[I started to think], ‘What if I didn’t do it? Does it really matter?’ I’m a pretty facts-based person, but this political moment has really got all of us on edge. It was way, way too easy to visualize the government locking people up based on census data.”
Others have also expressed concerns and questions regarding how the census treats race and how respondents should answer. The 2020 census is the first time that the racial categories for “Black” and “white” will provide the option for people to “select one or more boxes for the race or races [they] identify with and enter [their] origins in the write-in space” if they so choose. This option was previously already available for other racial categories. While there is more of an opportunity for people to provide more detailed information about their racial background in this census, it can still be a fraught and complicated question for people to answer.
Although responding is required by law, it typically isn’t enforced through fines or jail time, making it more of a personal choice. Maury explained that respondents can also skip questions—even online—but the Census Bureau might follow up to get an answer. If this is unsuccessful, an answer will be imputed—meaning a statistical formula will allocate answers to skipped questions. They note that for some people, this might feel more disempowering than responding with less affirming answers of their choosing. Although the current pandemic has also impacted how the Census Bureau will conduct in-person field work to collect data, a complete failure to respond could result in phone calls, knocks at the door, or proxy responses. This occurs when neighbors make educated guesses about your answers or data is found by sifting through other government records.
Jennifer, who prefers to use a pseudonym, said that demanding people to check off a biological sex on the census felt like a microagression. She said that one of her children is not necessarily cisgender, but providing some data felt better than providing none. She’s also disappointed that there isn’t an accurate way to include her romantic partner since they don’t share housing. This partner shares resources and contributes to just as much parenting as the platonic co-parent Jennifer shares housing with. She explained that there’s no accurate way to reflect these relationships on the form. She’s frustrated that she won’t be counted as a LGBTQ+ American because she doesn’t live with a same-sex partner and notes that those in polyamorous relationships might encounter similar issues with the questions.
Carolyn Chernoff, Ph.D. in sociology, affirms the need to collect accurate data for the benefit of marginalized communities. As a bisexual woman who is married to a man, her identity isn’t represented in the data. She notes that biphobia and bi-erasure are a big problem. “Erasing aspects of identity perpetuates injustice—diverting funds from communities, stigmatizing identity, and literally policiting people,” she explained.
“It’s just not very good social science,” Chernoff said. “If you have a national census that does not reflect the people living in that nation, it gives a false impression to politicians and other people or organizations that look to majority groups as defined by the census as their funding and policy priorities.” Maury further explained that census data has a significant impact on the lives of LGBTQ+ people because it’s used to make decisions within the community—including where to put bus stops and how to enforce civil rights protections. “The census is used to allocate over a trillion dollars in federal funds for programs that LGBTQ+ folks disproportionately need—like Medicaid, SNAP benefits, and public housing. It’s also used to apportion political power, which is particularly important to our community in a time when anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and ballot initiatives are common across the country.”
Chett Prichett identifies as mostly cisgender, isn’t partnered, and doesn’t have children, so completing the census wasn’t stressful. Pritchett doesn’t dissociate with a biological sex and responded accordingly, but still highlights a preference for additional open-ended options that affirm gender nonconformity and trans identities.
This could be partially achieved through the American Community Survey (ACS). The survey is distributed every year to a portion of households, gathering much more data than the basic information collected on the decennial census. Questions about sexual orientation and gender identity were supposed to appear on the ACS for 2020, but the Trump administration shifted those plans.
Maury noted that various federal agencies requested this data to appropriately implement and enforce the laws that prohibit discrimination and create support programs for marginalized LGBTQ+ people. “We also need better data on race and ethnicity. The former administration was moving forward with [an improved] race and ethnicity question…The current administration also put a ‘hold’ on that change,” they said.
A lack of awareness about other opportunities to respond to government surveys also distorts data. The government produces hundreds of additional surveys each year, but it’s impossible to sign up to participate. Maury noted that participation can make a difference in providing data that’s more reflective of the LGBTQ+ community. These surveys must be listed in the Federal Register by law. Those who are interested can search for opportunities and results there or through individual agencies—such as the Bureau of Justice Statistics fields and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Surveys available through states are sometimes even more challenging to find online, but searching websites for local and state governments should produce reports and upcoming opportunities to participate in research on a variety of topics. The deadline to self-respond to the census has been moved to Oct. 31 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Follow-ups for those who don’t respond will begin on Aug. 11, and updates are posted on the census website. The National LGBTQ+ Task Force is available to offer support through virtual office hours, webinars, and Q&As. Resources that have been translated into dozens of languages are available for community leaders and those seeking more information. Maury underlined that they want people to make the choice that’s right for them. “The Task Force is making sure people are empowered with information,” Maury said. We get to decide what to do with it.