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The Importance of Being Counted


"Surely you jest. Wow! I have never met any of these people." -- Republican state senator Dean Kirby upon learning that 55 same-sex couples were counted in his hometown of Jackson, Miss.

Senator Kirby is not unlike many people who are completely unaware of their LGBT neighbors. Many Americans like him should be reminded that we are not invisible. We are, in fact, everywhere. The sad irony is that we remain challenged for the same rights as our fellow Americans.

I am reminded that unbridled hatred of LGBT people exists when I read the news reports of Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado or Lawrence King or Lateisha Green, all brutally murdered at the hands of homophobic killers. I hear stories of couples who were literally left standing at the altar, denied matrimony as Prop. 8 was passed down. Just imagining the cruel twist of fate Martin Gill's foster boys may face -- if the Florida state law that prohibits adoption by gays tears their family apart -- galvanizes me into action.

Hate crimes, marriage equality, and adoption rights are just some of the issues making headlines as part of a broader U.S. political debate affecting the LGBT movement.

The Census is a federally authorized course of action that may influence how these issues are debated and laws aew created or amended.

The U.S. Census Bureau wants Americans to return their forms by April 1, designated Census Day. It takes 10 minutes to fill the form out and change the course of our lives for the next decade.

After the forms are returned, and households that did not fill out forms visited by Census takers, the data collected from the Census is analyzed. If we are all counted, the outcome may increase public awareness of our issues, including research and provisions for health care services for people with HIV/AIDS, and public policy on everything from gays and lesbians in the military to raising foster kids and adoption.

"All public policy flows from the U.S. Census," LGBT activist Paula Ettelbrick explained in 2000 (the year of the last U.S. Census). "If we are not counted, we lose out on federal funding for research, funding for community services and passage and implementation of laws that benefit our community. We also sacrifice important opportunities for more equitable political representation of our community."

U.S. Census polling does not actually count LGBT individuals or directly ask people their sexual orientation. The polling tallies same-sex partner households. After asking the gender of the applicant, the form asks the individual his or her relationship to the other members of the household and their gender.

Last year, due to exclusionary policies stemming from the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage exclusively as a union between a man and a woman, many LGBT allies like New York City public advocate Bill de Blasio pushed the federal government to review and reform census polling. "All Americans count, regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation," wrote De Blasio. The resolution was effective in making the upcoming Census the first in U.S. history to count same-sex married couples.

Since the last Census five U.S. states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage. LGBT couples from those states who are legally married may now check "husband" or "wife" for each other on the Census Form. Prior to the upcoming 2010 Census, if a gay male checked the "husband" option as his domestic partner's status, for example, the Census Bureau considered it an error, automatically altering the answer to consider the partner a female.

Gay and lesbian couples living together who are not legally married may check the "unmarried partner" option on the form to be counted as a same-sex unmarried partner.

Additionally, the Census does not ask questions regarding gender identity. Transgender people may classify themselves by the gender they choose, defining their identity as male or female as they see fit.

The Census is not a panacea for all LGBT causes, but it definitely provides us the opportunity to be counted. As we make our presence felt, the pressure on our government officials and the public at large for tolerance and equality creates a palpable effect.

It will be another 10 years before the next Census -- let's make this one count.

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