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Want to Count? Then Queer the Census and Be Tallied

Census

I took the Census for the first time in 2010. I was ready to fill it out when the form came in the mail because several of my friends had taken jobs as Census enumerators (those folks who knock on your door). I knew the Census was connected to voting and public benefits, so I wanted to make sure my partner and I were counted. I also knew I should have taken the Census in 2000, when I was living alone in a studio apartment above the restaurant where I worked. But I didn’t fill it out — in part because I was on probation and fearful of any interaction with the government, but also in because I didn’t understand why it mattered so much.

My experience with the Census is not uncommon. For many LGBTQ people in particular, the Census feels irrelevant — it doesn’t collect data on sexual orientation or gender identity (though it does finally collect data on same-sex couples), so we don’t see ourselves reflected on the form. For others in our community, fear of how the data may be used makes us hesitant to complete the form. These factors have an unfortunate impact, the end result of which is that the people who are impacted the most by the Census are the least likely to complete it. That needs to end.

In 2010, the National LGBTQ Task Force launched the Queer the Census campaign to help our community understand the importance of data collection in general and the Census in particular. I joined the campaign in 2015, and over the last five years, I’ve learned so much and am even more committed to redoubling our efforts for the 2020 Census.

Here’s the why behind your need to complete the census, whether it is online, by phone, or with the form you receive in the mail:

• Census data are used to distributed over one trillion dollars in funding for programs that the LGBTQ community is disproportionately likely to need and use, from food stamps, public housing, Medicaid, and HIV programs to homelessness assistance programs.
• The Census is used to distribute political power — determining everything from how many representatives we have in Congress to who represents us on our local school board.
• State and local governments, businesses, and nonprofits use Census data to make decisions about our everyday lives, like where to place bus routes and new store locations and how many nurses need to be on shift at the walk-in clinic down the street. In fact, our state and local governments are using Census data right now to determine how to respond to the coronavirus.
• Census data are used to defend our civil rights, providing proof of discrimination at a local and regional scale for court cases and providing the basis for civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination in housing, employment, public accommodations, and more.

The Task Force is working with a coalition of groups to ensure that all communities that historically have been undercounted on the Census know just how important our participation is to our communities and our democracy. We’ve joined groups like NALEO, Asian Americans Advancing Justice|AAJC, Color of Change, National Congress of American Indians, the Arab American Institute, and dozens more to make sure that together, our messages are reaching every marginalized community. For more information on that work, check out Census Counts.

Having spent much of the last two years traveling around the country talking to LGBTQ people, people of color, low-income people, and people with other marginalized identities about the importance of participating in the Census, I know that even with all of these powerful reasons to complete the Census, people still have questions. We’ve created dozens of resources to help people get the answers they want and need. You can find those on queerthecensus.org, or you can sign up here to get information delivered directly to your inbox.

In the meantime, I wanted to share some answers to the questions we’ve been hearing most commonly in our conversations with people across the country, here is a link to the most common ones, from what the census is all about, how to fill it out, is it safe and others. So for your sake, for my sake, for the community’s sake, queer the Census. 

Wait, what actually is the Census?
Every 10 years, the government does a count of everyone in the U.S. — whether or not you’re a citizen — using a short survey asking questions about the people in your household.

What types of questions does the Census ask?
The Census asks demographic questions about the people in your household — like age, sex, and race and ethnicity — and the relationships they have with each other. For a full list of the questions, and some considerations for LGBTQ people, check out this resource.

How do I fill out the survey?
You should already have received an invitation in your mailbox to complete the Census. That invitation will have a code for your household to enter when you fill out the survey, which you can do online, by phone, or by mail.

Does the Census ask questions about sexual orientation or gender identity?
No. We’ve been advocating for better data collection on LGBTQ people for decades, but so far the Census still doesn’t include sexual orientation or gender identity questions. In fact, the Census asks a question about “sex” that only has binary response options — making the form particularly activating for people who are nonbinary, intersex, and Two Spirit. This needs to change, and completing the Census will help us build the political power we need to get those changes made. Note that the Census does include a question that captures data about same-sex couples.

Is it safe to fill out the Census? Can the government share my answers with immigration/law enforcement/my landlord/Social Security/anyone?
Census data are protected by some very strong laws the Bureau isn’t permitted to share your information with ANYONE, including other federal agencies, for 72 years. However, those laws don’t give everyone much confidence in the current political climate. That’s why dozens of organizations have signed a pledge to work together from outside the federal government: 1) to monitor for any breach of census data confidentiality, and 2) to use their collective power and influence to prevent, block, and/or bring an end to any breach of the currently-established guarantee and understanding of the Field Code Changed confidentiality of data collected as part of the 2020 Census, and 3) to emphasize publicly the critical importance of continued Census safety and security.

Where can I get more information?
You’ve got options! Feel free to email us at QTC@thetaskforce.org and we’ll get back to you as quickly as possible. If you need a quicker answer, some of our friends have created Census hotlines that can give you info on the spot. Here’s their contact info: • Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law: (888)-COUNT20 or (888)-268-6820 • Arab American Institute: (833) 333-6864; (833)-3DDOUNI ("Count me" in Arabic) • Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC: (844) 2020-API or (844) 202-0274 o The hotline will be available in English, Mandarin (普通話), Cantonese (廣東話), Korean (한국어), Vietnamese (tiếng Việt), Tagalog, Urdu (اردو ,(Hindi (ह िंदी), and Bengali/Bangla (বাাংলা). • NALEO Educational Fund: (877)-EL-CENSO or (877)-352-3676

Meghan Maury is policy director at the National LGBTQ Task Force, which currently runs the Queer the Census Campaign. Meghan’s work spans a broad range of issue areas, but focuses heavily on economic justice, criminal justice, and data collection. Meghan received a law degree from Georgetown University Law School, an associate’s degree from Holyoke Community College, and bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Massachusetts.

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