Why the Trump Administration Won't Ask About LGBT Americans on the 2020 Census

This week, the Census Bureau appeared to move toward adding questions about gender identity and sexual orientation. Then it changed its mind. What happened?

Jonathan Drake / Reuters

The Census Bureau had to give Congress a list of proposed topics for its 2020 survey of America this week. Tucked in at the end of its 77-page report was an item that’s never been included in the census before: sexual orientation and gender identity, marked as “proposed.”

Shortly after the bureau released its report, a new version came out. This time, the line about sexual orientation and gender identity was missing. The bureau didn’t immediately post an update about what had changed to its website or explain what had happened at length. Its “proposal” to include questions about LGBT identity on its upcoming surveys had just disappeared.

LGBT advocates were outraged. The National LGBTQ Taskforce started circulating a graphic, later republished by several media outlets, comparing the two reports: “We’ve been ERASED!” it declared. High-profile political figures like Chelsea Clinton tweeted the link to an article on the website Out, which claimed in its headline, “Trump Administration Omits LGBTQ People from 2020 Census.”

For the record: The Trump administration has no plans exclude lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans from the 2020 census—they will be surveyed just like everyone else in the country. And though it’s true that the administration won’t include specific questions about gender identity and sexual orientation, that’s standard—those topics have never been listed on the census or the American Community Survey, known as the ACS, which is used to collect data in between decennial censuses.

In a statement released on Wednesday, the director of the bureau, John Thompson, clarified that sexual orientation and gender identity were never meant to be included on the proposed list of topics. A recent agency review also “concluded there was no federal data need to change the planned census and ACS subjects,” he wrote. While the bureau says it made a simple clerical error, the LBGT advocacy community has insisted this incident is evidence that the Trump administration is biased against LGBT Americans.

Advocates have been pushing the government to include questions about sexual orientation and gender identity on the census for a long time: Meghan Maury, the criminal and economic-justice project director at the National LGBTQ Task Force, said her organization ran a campaign on this issue back in 2010.

“Decision makers use the data collected in the long-form census ... to allocate resources and ensure that they’re enforcing laws appropriately,” she said—agencies might look at how LGBT people are affected by issues like domestic violence or homelessness. This kind of data has become even more important as new legislation has placed special obligations on the government to pay attention to LGBT issues: The Violence Against Women Act, for example, was updated in 2013 to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

In 2015, the Obama administration put together an interagency task force to get a sense of how the federal government should collect data on LGBT people. Then, last spring, 102 Democrats and one Republican co-sponsored the LGBT Data Inclusion Act, which would have required federal agencies to collect survey data on Americans’ sexual orientation and gender identity.

“To go uncounted in our society is to be unseen by our policymakers,” wrote Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva, the bill’s main sponsor, in an emailed statement. “Enshrining in law the vital right of this demographic to be counted would have prevented future administrations, like this one, from pursuing policies that could harm the LGBTQ community.” Eventually, the bill got shelved.

Even without that legislation, some agencies have already started asking questions about sexual orientation and gender identity in surveys. The Department of Health and Human Services, for example, has included questions about sexual orientation and gender identity in its annual National Health Interview Survey, according to a letter sent to Maury. It has also included a question about sexual orientation in its survey of older Americans since 2014, according to the Associated Press.

But advocates have pressed for more consistent collection. The “gold standard,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the congressional committee that oversees the census, would be the ACS. That survey provides the government with its most comprehensive and widely used data each year, and it’s legally mandatory for subjects to participate. “The decennial survey would be the ultimate goal,” she added, “because it is the universal data-collection activity our nation undertakes.”

“We’re made invisible in a million ways every day of our lives.”

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.”