Meghan Maury was forced to misgender themselves when they filled out their census form earlier this year. The 12-question form asks respondents to identify themselves as either “male” or “female,” which doesn’t leave space for people who identify as neither.
Maury, who works as the policy director for the National LGBTQ Task Force, said it’s an uncomfortably familiar feeling. As a nonbinary person who uses gender neutral pronouns, they have been forced to choose between “M” or “F” on every piece of paperwork nearly their “whole life,” whether it’s filling out intake paperwork at a doctor’s office or signing up for a gym membership. Even tax return forms “asked about gender for many, many years,” Maury said.
“Every time it causes another little nick in your psyche to be forced to respond with a gender that isn’t yours,” they told VICE. “There's definitely a harm to my person in having to fill out a form with binary response options.”
Nonbinary people are just one of the populations that are yet again virtually invisible on this year’s census questionnaire, which was sent out to households in March. Although the survey asks respondents whether they are part of a same-sex couple, it does not inquire about the person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Gallup estimated in 2016 that 4.5 percent of Americans identify as LGBTQ, but even in 85 years, the decennial census has never been set up to survey the community.
Gallup polls are helpful but they are based on a relatively small sampling: just 49,000 were surveyed for its last LGBTQ demographic report. Without a more comprehensive study, we simply do not know how many people in the United States identify as queer or transgender.
The decision to not ask about LGBTQ identity in the census’ current iteration was met with widespread criticism from advocacy groups after a draft of the form was leaked in 2017 which indicated such a question was under consideration. The Census Bureau, however, quickly clarified that the question’s insertion was a “mistake” and said the agency did not plan to survey queer and trans demographic data in 2020.
But despite the omission of questions regarding sexual orientation and gender identity, LGBTQ groups remain resolute in their quest to be counted in every way possible. Although the ultimate goal is to ensure that LGBTQ identities are surveyed the next time that census forms are sent out in the 2030, advocates argued that it is imperative for queer and trans people to fill out this year’s surveys, even despite the limited information requested about their lives.
While the chief purpose of the census is to get an accurate count of the U.S. population, Equality California Executive Director Rick Zbur said the survey’s impacts are more far-reaching. Census data, for instance, determines federal funding apportioned to individual states, and undercounting a state’s population could impact programs LGBTQ rely on, everything from HIV care or transportation.
“For every person that is undercounted, a state will lose over $2,000 in funding each year for the next 10 years,” Zbur told VICE. “When you're talking about a state as populous as ours, it's really important that we get every single person out and counted.”
Countless dollars in funding for LGBTQ communities could be impacted if queer and trans people are undercounted in the census. According to internal reporting from the U.S. Census Bureau, $689 billion was distributed to states in 2015 because of data provided by the census. This included $175 million in funding for the Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS program, $312 billion for Medicaid, and $71 billion for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps.
Although all communities would be impacted if their state did not receive appropriate resources for these critical programs, LGBTQ people are typically among the most affected. Queer and trans people are disproportionately likely to rely on these programs, according to the Center for American Progress. LGBTQ people are twice as likely as the average person to be enrolled in SNAP due to high rates of poverty and food insecurity.
But Zbur said these overwhelming disparities are also what makes the LGBTQ community a “hard to count” population, even in normal times. While COVID-19 has made it impossible in many areas of the country to knock on doors and make sure people are filling out their forms, queer and trans people were 14 times more likely before the pandemic than members of the general population to be experiencing homelessness, especially LGBTQ immigrants and people of color. Lack of stable housing can make these groups extremely difficult for census workers and advocates to reach.
“If we’re going to count everyone, we need to have a special focus on educating LGBTQ people about why this is important, and we’re doing everything we can to do that,” Zbur said. “When we're left out of the data, we’re left out of the programs.”
With many cities and states still under lockdown orders to stop the spread of COVID-19, LGBTQ groups are turning to the internet to encourage members of the community to fill out their census forms. Equality California is investing $1 million in a first outreach campaign that includes digital advertising on Facebook and Grindr and peer-to-peer text messaging. At a virtual town hall on April 30, the advocacy group tapped comedian Margaret Cho to discuss the importance of LGBTQ participation in the census.
LGBTQ groups remain hopeful their efforts will pay off, and Zbur reported more than 6,000 people tuned into the digital gala. The silver lining, he said, is that live-streamed events are more accessible and “have greater reach than doing a town hall, where you might get a hundred people.”
What may be even more difficult to contend with than an unprecedented pandemic, though, is lingering stigma surrounding the census itself. LGBTQ groups have petitioned the U.S. Census Bureau to ask better questions regarding sexual orientation and gender identity for 30 years, and in 2010, the Queer the Census initiative encouraged LGBTQ people to slap a hot pink sticker on their census forms to make themselves visible.
Ames Simmons, policy director for Equality North Carolina, still has a photo of himself sticking his census survey in the mailbox 10 years ago. “It was a way of trying to give the LGBTQ community a way of telling the government: ‘We see that you're not counting us, but we're counting us,’” he told VICE.
While including questions about married and cohabitating same-sex couples is undoubtedly a step forward, progress hasn’t been entirely linear. The U.S. Census Bureau has long encouraged trans people to fill out their forms in accordance with the gender that most closely matches their lived identity, but instructions on the federal government’s website for 2020 instead directs all respondents to list their “biological sex” on questionnaires.
Simmons said language like this is merely “one of a thousand paper cuts that the Trump administration has been inflicting on our community.”
“This one slight isn't necessarily any worse than knowing that the Trump administration is on the verge of saying it's OK to discriminate in healthcare against trans people in the middle of a pandemic or that they’re not going to collect data about sexual orientation or gender identity in foster care,” he said. “They seem to be systematically trying to find every place that the Obama administration made advances for the LGBTQ community and undo those. Data collection is at the forefront of that.”
But Maury, who sits on the Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee, clarified the language is just a “holdover” that was written several years ago, and that individuals
“should be responding in the way that aligns with their gender.”
The fact remains that many trans people don’t have a best option to indicate their gender on the form, but Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund Program Director AC Dumlao views the census as a form of “harm reduction.” Dumlao, who is nonbinary, said that individuals have the ability to “make a difference” by filling out the form the best they can, even though they are not “completely represented in the few questions that are in the census.”
“Each person needs to make their own decision about how they're going to fill out the questions or if they want to skip a question,” Dumlao told VICE. “But I would really challenge folks to read what the census is for and not to write it off.”
In addition to dispersing federal funding as the nation recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, Dumlao stressed that it’s important for LGBTQ people to fill out their census in 2020 because that data will ultimately be used to determine Congressional representation. If a state is undercounted, it could lead to that state being apportioned fewer seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. In contrast, conservative and white-majority areas are historically overcounted in the census survey.
“At the end of the day, it would be in the best interest of my enemies—people who do not support trans people and the LGBTQ community—for us to not answer the census and to have fewer resources given to marginalized people,” Dumlao said.