LGBT advocates thought they were making progress. Maury serves on an advisory committee at the Census Bureau, and she said at least three major agencies have submitted letters to the Bureau asking for census data on the LGBT community: the Departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Justice.
Since the Trump administration took office, though, it has pulled back on including these questions. Last week, HHS released the latest version of its survey on older Americans—and the question about sexual orientation and gender identity had been removed. When the Census Bureau appeared to pull its LGBT questions this week, Maury said, it seemed like part of a pattern. “It doesn’t ring true to me that this was just a clerical error,” she said. “Someone added it to the list at some point, and someone removed it.”
Here’s how Thompson described what happened. Over the past several years, the agency has gone through a major review in preparation for the 2020 census. “In April 2016, more than 75 members of Congress wrote to the Census Bureau to request the addition of sexual orientation and gender identity as a subject for the American Community Survey,” he wrote. “We carefully considered this thoughtful request and again worked with federal agencies and the OMB Interagency Working Group on Measuring Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity to determine if there was a legislative mandate to collect this data.” But, he said, they concluded that there “was no federal data need” to ask questions about gender identity and sexual orientation on the census or ACS.
There are other plausible explanations for why the Census Bureau didn’t want to include questions about sexual orientation and gender identity on its 2019 ACS or 2020 decennial census, Lowenthal said. “Traditionally, the Census Bureau likes to have experience collecting data in the field, in a real survey environment, before it includes questions on the census,” she said. “It would not have been able to carry out the level of research and testing for that larger environment in time for the 2020 survey.”
While the Census Bureau has worked with several federal agencies to test questions, that work is still in early stages. Besides, the Bureau doesn’t need to include every question it’s interested in on the census, Lowenthal added—the ACS provides perfectly good data, gathered at much more frequent intervals, that lawmakers can use in policymaking.
But that won’t stop the incident from being politicized. “This isn’t just some accidental oversight or the omission of an unnecessary question,” wrote Grijalva. “This is a systematic effort to ensure members of the LGBTQ community remain invisible to policymakers, and that’s utterly unacceptable.”
For her part, Maury sees this as a fundamental issue of dignity—administrative error or no. “We’re made invisible in a million ways every day of our lives, and when decisions like this happen, which say, ‘We’re not counting you,’ that contributes to this stigma,” she said. “We really shouldn’t need to say in 2017 that LGBT people count.”