Census deletion: An ‘error’ or ‘malicious’ snub?

The U.S. Census Bureau announced Tuesday its plans for the 2020 decennial census, and those plans do not include any efforts to determine the population of LGBT citizens.

Gary Gates, a prominent social scientist in the study of LGBT demographic data, said “The Census Bureau never had plans to add sexual orientation or gender identity to either the 2020 Census” or the annual American Community Survey.

But Out magazine ran a story Tuesday saying that “Expectations that the 2020 census might start including LGBTQ subjects were raised and then quickly dashed….” It said the Census Bureau “admitted that it had ‘inadvertently’ included ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’ in a long-awaited report outlining new categories for the survey.”

That story triggered strong words from some LGBT groups, politicians, and others.

GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis said that “By erasing LGBTQ Americans from the 2020 US. Census, the Trump Administration is adding a disgusting entry to a long list of tactics they’ve adopted to legally deny services and legitimacy to hard-working LGBTQ Americans. The Trump Administration is trying hard to erase the LGBTQ community from the fabric of America, but visibility has always been one of the LGBTQ community’s greatest strengths.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi issued a statement, calling exclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity from the 2020 Census a “malicious move” and “just the latest in a string of the Trump Administration’s vicious attacks on progress” by the LGBT community.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force noted that a Census handbook of the subjects for data collection that was available in early March 2017 did mention “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity” in Appendix-2, identifying it as “Proposed.” But the handbook released Tuesday did not include it.

Gates says the content for the 2020 Census has been “fixed” for more than a year already.

“I should note that I was a member of the Census Scientific Advisory Committee for more than five years, leaving the committee last year.  I sat through many meetings about these issues.

“While the Bureau may have agreed to consider adding sexual orientation or gender identity measurement to the [annual American Community Survey] at some time in the future, it most certainly could not have happened in time for 2020.  On average, the testing and vetting of new questions for the ACS takes more than five years.”

But Gates says there is “certainly evidence that the new administration is trying to undermine or reverse recent gains made in federal LGBT data collection.” The removal of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity from its mention in the appendix suggests that.

“It appears that the Census Bureau had included sexual orientation and gender identity among a list of possible future topics for consideration in the ACS and then removed that from the document. But that’s not the same as saying that a decision to add SOGI measures has been reversed,” said Gates.  “It has not.”

The Census Bureau’s 73-page handbook released Tuesday also omits any mention of same-sex households in its discussion of the importance of gathering data about marital status and the benefit of identifying “community marriage trends.”

The Census Bureau’s website indicates, “All Census Bureau demographic surveys collect information about same sex couples. The level of detail collected varies, as well as the availability of other characteristics of the partners.”

John Thompson, who has been director of the Census Bureau since 2013, issued a statement Wednesday, acknowledging that the Bureau had received “a number of questions” about “the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity” in the appendix of Tuesday’s report. He characterized the initial inclusion of the terms as “an error.”

“Our proposal to Congress was that the planned subjects remain unchanged from the 2010 Census and will cover gender, age, race/ethnicity, relationship and homeownership status. It did not include sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Thompson.

Thompson acknowledged that “more than 75 members of Congress wrote to the Census Bureau” in April 2016 “to request the addition of sexual orientation and gender identity as a subject for the American Community Survey. That survey is conducted every year on a national basis and provides an annual update of information gleaned from the decennial survey. The Census website characterizes it as the “premier source for detailed information about the American people and workforce.”

Thompson said the letter from members of Congress prompted the Bureau to go back to federal agencies “to determine if there was a legislative mandate to collect this data.”

“Our review concluded there was no federal data need to change the planned census and ACS subjects,” said Thompson.

The “subjects” of inquiry for any decennial survey must be submitted to Congress three years in advance; the actual questions must be submitted to Congress two years in advance. And each question is carefully tied to a specific legislative goal and agency that would benefit. For example, in the plan released Tuesday, the Census Bureau ties its questions about marital status and changes in marital status (divorce, death of a spouse, etc.) to four codes specific to the Department of Health and Human Services, three codes tied to the Department of Veterans Affairs, and one code applying to the Social Security Administration.

Data collected by the surveys also has direct implications for how Congressional seats are allotted and for how much the federal and state governments spend on various programs each year.

The Census Bureau falls under the purview of the Department of Commerce, currently headed by Wilbur L. Ross Jr. Ross took office on February 28, just four weeks before the Bureau released its plans for 2020.

Census data is widely used by entities beyond the federal government. Social science researchers have used data about same-sex couple households to determine the number of adopted and foster children living in such households, courts have used them in determining whether class action suits can proceed, and to calculate the economic impact of policies affecting same-sex couple families, among other things.

The Census Bureau has, over the years, repeatedly changed how it processes data concerning same-sex couples. Up until 2000, the Bureau counted as a mistake any same-sex couple who identified themselves as married —and re-counted them as heterosexual married couples. Even though some states began allowing same-sex couples to marry as early as 2004, it was June 2009, just months into President Obama’s first year in office, when the administration indicated it would have the Census provide a separate count of same-sex married couples.

The 2010 Census was the first time in the nation’s history when a same-sex couple could actually hold a marriage license and thus accurately identify themselves as “married” on the decennial survey. It did so even though the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prevented any federal agency from taking notice of any same-sex couples. But the decision to start counting same-sex married couples did not necessitate any change in the 2010 Census form. It simply called for taking a separate notice of couples in which Person 1 identified a same-sex person –Person 2– on his or her Census form as either a “husband or wife” or an “unmarried partner.”

DOMA was struck down in 2013. And the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state bans against marriage for same-sex couples in 2015.

The annual national American Community Survey in 2015, the most recent data available, showed 858,896 as the “total same-sex couples,” identifying them as neither married nor unmarried.

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