How can we fix problems that never officially existed?
On May 11, a group of 49 US House members called on the Department of Health & Health Services to “restore questions allowing responders to identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual to a federal survey for elders,” according to the Washington Blade. The move is an important if largely symbolic push for LGBT visibility even as the Trump administration seems less interested than ever in making sure queer problems are acknowledged in the US.
Although a minority of Americans attempted to argue that US president Donald Trump was a supporter of LGBT rights, it’s already abundantly clear this is not the case. As The New York Times’ editorial board recently noted, Trump’s claim that he would be a “champion of gay and transgender people” as president has proven to be a “fallacy.” Adding insult to injury was the announcement by the Census Bureau this spring that it would not be including questions about sexual orientation and gender identity in its 2020 survey.
A draft of the topics under consideration for the 2020 questionnaire—including questions about LGBT identity—was leaked in late March. The Census Bureau, though, claimed that sexual orientation and gender identity were included “inadvertently.”
Whether or not there was ever a plan to add sexual orientation queries is less important than the reality. Advocates tell Quartz that counting the LGBT community in federal surveys is more important now than ever. Crucially, collecting data on marginalized populations helps the government better understand the challenges and myriad forms of discrimination they face. This in turn helps guide public policy and laws fighting systemic injustice and tells agencies where to allocate funding.
It has been an infuriating few months for the LGBT community. In late February, the Trump administration announced that it would be rescinding the federal guidance on transgender students passed by the Obama administration. The White House also rescinded a 2014 executive order in March regarding the oversight of nondiscrimination protections for federal contractors. Although Trump has said that he will keep in place policies that prevent government employees from being explicitly fired on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, removing federal supervision guidelines makes those rules more difficult to enforce.
Lastly, the questions on gender identity and sexual orientation were removed from two surveys on LGBT seniors conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services.
The federal government first began including LGBT seniors in the National Survey of Older Americans Act Participants in 2014. The move allowed agencies to assess the high levels of “economic insecurity, social isolation, and discrimination” faced by this needy population. Research shows that nearly two-thirds of LGBT older adults are concerned about being discriminated against by service providers, nursing homes, or their caregivers.
Removing LGBT older adults from this survey makes it “impossible to assess whether key programs for seniors and people with disabilities are meeting the needs of LGBT Americans,” according to Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank based in Washington D.C.
“This isn’t just about data,” says Laura Durso, the vice president of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at CAP. “It’s about people.”
Durso pointed to recent surveys from groups like UCLA’s The Williams Institute on the issue of LGBT youth homelessness, which have helped highlight the severity of the issue. “As a researcher and advocate,” Durso said, being able to point to specific statistics is “invaluable.” “You can’t ignore that,” she notes. “Without that kind of information, we’re not able to move the needle on any of these types of policies.”
Organizations like Gallup and the Public Religious Research Institute (PRRI) have helped fill in some of the informational gaps in recent years by including questions related to sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2012, Gallup released its first report on the size of America’s LGBT population — which at the time measured 3.4% of the public. The PRRI’s American Values Atlas, a yearly report on the attitudes of US citizens on issues like immigration and abortion, included LGBT people for the first time in 2016. This year’s edition will survey over 100,000 people, the largest representative sample in its history.
“It was our estimation that this was becoming a politically important group of Americans,” said Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor-in-chief, of the group’s decision to include LGBT people. “The LGBT community is more politically active and in the forefront of policy and legislation. It makes sense for us to be able to isolate this population, where it would have not have made as much sense 30 or 40 years ago.”
While Gallup conducts 1,000 interviews every night, Dan Cox of the PRRI said that there’s simply no substitute for Census statistics, which he called the “gold standard” for data collection.
“The government is the largest resource for demographic data in the US,” said Cox, who serves as the organization’s research director. “It’s an essential source for monitoring the welfare and of the American economy and the American public. By doing this type of work, you can provide people a window into the perspectives of people who are very different than their own and maybe gain some appreciation and empathy for people you might disagree with.”
She added that without collecting data on the LGBT community, the White House would “never have to be accountable to any discrimination that this data might uncover.”
The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that over 200 anti-LGBT bills will be considered at the state level this year; Trump has also endorsed the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), a national version of state “religious freedom” bills. That legislation, if passed, would allow businesses and other entities to deny service to LGBT people based on their “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
But not everyone wants their sexual orientation information being tracked. Given the anti-LGBT track record of the current administration, some are concerned that surveying sexual orientation or gender identity could be used to further target the community.
“Imagine a scenario in which the Trump administration called for all Americans to register their sexual preferences with the government,” argues Kyle Sammin, a conservative writer for The Federalist. “The government would know precisely what is going on in your bedroom, and in the bedrooms of your fellow citizens across the nation. That sounds like a lefty fever dream, a dystopian vision of Trumpian persecution.”
Sammin compared it to concerns among progressives over a “Muslim registry” under Trump.
Even so, the potential benefits of tracking orientation outweigh the risks for most LGBT advocates who understand the importance of visibility. Meghan Maury, the senior policy counsel for the National LGBTQ Task Force, says that advocates have been working with the Bureau “for decades” to survey the LGBT community. In 2010, they started Queer the Census, an effort to ensure that sexual orientation and gender identity were counted in the prior survey. That effort wasn’t successful either, but Maury said advocates will keep lobbying Congress.
“It’s always hard to know what someone’s final decision will be, but it seemed as if the Bureau was moving in the direction of including these questions,” Maury notes. “When the decision came out we were definitely very surprised and disappointed, but we’re going to keep plugging away.”
The next opportunity for LGBT inclusion is the American Community Survey (ACS), an annual index run by the Census Bureau that augments decennial collection. Maury said that questions on sexual orientation and gender identity could be included in the ACS as soon as the next couple years. The Census often offers test versions of the survey, in which it invites public comment. She promised that the LGBT people’s “voices will be heard” during that beta testing, claiming that recognition of the community is long overdue from a department that should have made this change a decade ago.
“We are made invisible in a million ways all the time,” she said. “This decision to not include us in the 2020 Census feels like that to a lot of us. It’s like we don’t count.”