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Why the Census Needs to Ask People About Their LGBTQ Identity

Experts spoke to how paltry the data we currently have on LGBTQ Americans is, and how that hampers research and public policy.
Illustration by Taylor Beldy

Thanks to the federal government's national data surveys, we know with great accuracy what percentage of American workers carpool (9.4) and what percentage of American homes have more than one fridge (23). Yet we have no precise idea how many Americans identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans, because as they stand, the government's national demographic surveys don't ask about any of that. And experts and activists say that those surveys, including the US Census and the American Community Survey (ACS), need to change—because for reasons both scientific and symbolic, collecting accurate, population-wide data on LGBTQ Americans is an important step toward understanding their present and future place in our society.


Countries like India and Australia already include gender-identity questions in their census, and the UK is considering doing the same in 2021. The reason our own census doesn't may be simple enough—they haven't been asked to by legislators or federal agencies. Last May, US Representative Raul Grijalva introduced the LGBT Data Inclusion Act, which sought to require federal surveys to collect gender and sexuality information; more than a hundred congresspeople signed on in support, but after the bill was sent to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, it wasn't pursued further.

Experts I spoke to emphasized the considerable benefits that collecting such information would bring; chief among them are the vast improvement such data would offer over what currently exists. Researchers today rely on state-level data or surveys with small sample sizes to draw conclusions about LGBTQ populations. But that's an imperfect process, especially when dealing with groups as small as the trans community. (The Williams Institute, a UCLA School of Law think tank that researches public policy related to gender and sexuality, estimated that there were 1.4 million trans Americans in 2016—double that of the previously most reliable estimate, but still based on data from just 19 states.) Some private survey companies, like Gallup, collect sexual-orientation data, but because it's privately held, it's not available to researchers. And no survey exists with the comprehensiveness of the US Census or the ACS. David Grant, a researcher at the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit public policy think tank, said that while LGBTQ population estimates show more consistency across different studies today than they once did, they aren't as solid as they could be, and given the current data, nobody can say anything very precise about the demographics of LGBTQ populations.


But population size is only the beginning—national survey data would allow gender and sexual identity to be linked to other factors, like income, education, and rates of disability. That allows researchers to better understand the health and well-being of LGBTQ communities and recommend appropriate interventions to help. With shockingly high rates of poverty and homelessness among the trans community, smaller studies can help show that such problems exist, but reliable, national statistics are a precondition to addressing those challenges in any effective way. "If you want to make an argument about inequality, you can't make it without data," noted Laurel Westbrook, associate professor of sociology at Grand Valley State University. And Gary Gates, the former Research Director at the Williams Institute, noted that such data is also necessary to do further research. "If you're writing an application to the National Institutes of Health, without rudimentary data, you're just way less likely to get research funding," he said.

Finally, being included in federal data has profound symbolic importance. As Laverne Cox said in support of Grijalva's bill: "LGBT people exist, we are a vital part of the fabric of this country, and we just want to be counted." Gates bluntly noted the political ramifications of such data: "Whether we like it or not, in political terms, you do not count unless the federal government counts you. If sexual orientation and gender identity are not routinely part of federal data-collection process, it allows the federal government to ignore the LGBT community." And parts of the LGBTQ community agree; a study of attitudes toward data collection among trans persons found "strong support" for adding a gender-identity question to the census.


But the idea of having the government collect gender and sexuality data has strong resistance within other corners of the LGBTQ community. Privacy concerns loom large; federal surveys contain sensitive information like one's home address. Some fear that if data identifying where LGBTQ persons live were collected, it could lead to harassment or attacks on those persons. And census data has been used to target individuals for discrimination before, as with Japanese and German Americans during World War II. However, the federal government has developed strong measures to protect data. Even the FBI, armed with a warrant, has been denied access to census data.

There has also been debate among LGBTQ activists and demographers about the best way to ask relevant questions. Gender and sexual orientation occur along a spectrum, and standard categories used to classify it—heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual—can fall short for identities like asexuality and pansexuality. And a surprising number misunderstand terms like homosexual and bisexual, particularly if English is not their first language, leading to the totals being distorted by false positives.

Demographers have carefully considered the issue over the past two decades. In a 2014 report, the Williams Institute detailed recommendations to best collect gender and sexuality data, including a two-step gender-identity question that first asks about gender assigned at birth, then about how one currently identifies. For orientation, Gates said that respondents can be asked if they are "straight—that is, not gay" in order to diminish false positives. Westbrook said that while not everyone agrees with all of the institute's report, it certainly provides a workable blueprint moving forward. And Grant noted that the 35,000-household National Health Interview Survey recently added questions about sexual orientation, providing good examples of how it can be done.

Some may say that given the country's uncertain political climate, progressive demographics are the least of America's worries. But Grant noted that the sheer amount of progress made for LGBTQ equality over the past few decades makes it hard to imagine this issue "being put back in the bottle." Though the Trump administration may slow progress, Grant nevertheless thinks that willingness exists even within today's government to address these issues. Given the potential impact that adding gender and sexuality identifiers to our national surveys could have for the LGBTQ community, one would hope the powers that be in America won't stand in the way of simple progress.

Neil McArthur is the director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at University of Manitoba, where his work focuses on sexual ethics and the philosophy of sexuality. Follow him on Twitter.