Next Monday, March 29, Princeton University will begin distributing Census forms to Frist Center mailboxes for students who live on campus. Students will also find another envelope in their mailbox that week, containing a short letter and a pink sticker with the following words:

Attn: U.S. Census Bureau

It’s Time To Count Everyone!

Are you (check all that apply):

[ ] Lesbian

[ ] Gay

[ ] Bisexual

[ ] Transgender

[ ] A Straight Ally

The stickers are a part of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) “Queer the Census” campaign, which promotes the inclusion of a question on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender identities on the Census. We are working with other students to bring NGLTF’s campaign to Princeton, and are advocating for gender and sexual identity visibility on the Census beyond what the sticker calls for.

Why Queer the Census?

The Census is more than just the government’s way of counting how many people live in the United States. Asking questions on sex, age, household relationships, home ownership, Hispanic origin and race, it helps determine how over $400 billion of federal funding are allocated annually. Furthermore, the Census produces uniquely valuable data because it tries to reach everyone in the United States, unlike sample-based statistical surveys.

The Census has already contributed to LGBT visibility. In 1990, having added “unmarried partner” as a relationship category on the Census form, the Census Bureau accidentally began counting same-sex couples. That year, the Task Force began asking same-sex couples to identify themselves on the Census. Census 2000 data revealed that same-sex “unmarried partners” lived together in at least 99.3% of counties in the United States. More locally, Census 2000 found there were 4,774 same-sex couples living together in Mississippi. State Senator Dean Kirby, the Republican who authored the bill outlawing gay marriage in Mississippi, shares his hometown of Pearl with 55 cohabiting same-sex couples. When the Jackson _Clarion-Ledger_ confronted him with these facts, Kirby replied “Surely you jest. Wow! I have never met any of these people.”

Facts like this can open eyes. As Senator Kirby has illustrated, people are often unaware of the diverse sexualities and gender identities in their communities and hometowns. Census data on LGBT identity can be used to push policymakers to combat hate crimes and promote safe environments for LGBT students and families. The data would be useful in targeting funding for educational programs, such as sensitivity training in workplaces, schools and public health services.

Queering the Census also means queering the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey (ACS). Because it asks more specific questions about quality of life, the ACS has the potential to produce government-recognized data on inequalities in LGBT health, health insurance, income, home ownership and employment. These statistics would be useful tools for legislators, LGBT people and the general public in understanding what it means to be a member of a sexual minority in the United States. They would also be critical in measuring the success of possible future laws such as ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act), currently one of the main targets of LGBT rights advocacy.

The benefits of measuring LGBT inequalities can only result from asking about sexual orientation and gender identity directly, and not from asking about same-sex partnerships. Because the Census counts shared-household same-sex relationships rather than individual LGBT people, it leaves out transgender people altogether and fails to acknowledge the existence of bisexuals. Even for lesbians and gays, these statistics come from a biased sample that excludes singles as well as couples that don’t live together. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual students are uniquely invisible because they are less likely to live with their partners, and those that do may be recipients of a special student Census form that doesn’t include the question on relationships.

While the Census Bureau gives only two options for “sex,” it encourages everyone, including transgender people, to check the box for the sex/gender they feel they are, not the one that may appear on other legal documents or was assigned to them at birth. This is fine for trans people who identify as male or female, but those who don’t are left with no appropriate choice on the Census form. Whether or not they reject the gender binary, all trans people are left without a way to specifically record their transgender identity, even though they are often the victims of the same types of discrimination and inequality that other Census data are used to assess.

One of our friends was concerned that the fluidity and diversity of gender and sexual identity may be lost when trying to fit one’s experience into a checkbox. But queering the Census isn’t about putting one’s true self into words. Rather, it’s about rendering visible classes of people that too often are invisible or marginalized in everyday life. Lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and trans people all stand to gain from Census visibility.

Queering “Queer the Census”

We think it is reasonable and necessary to push for even more inclusive revisions than simply the addition of a question like the one on the sticker (minus “a straight ally” which, as Task Force representatives explain, is only there for straight people to signal their support). Task Force representatives encourage everyone to write-in their own sexual identity for the sticker campaign, but we think a write-in option needs to be included on the Census form itself. Furthermore, “straight or heterosexual” specifically should appear as options, so that heterosexuality is not the assumed default category. “Asexual” should also be a listed choice.

In addition, we believe that transgender identity should not be a part of the same question as sexual orientation. Instead, the “sex” question itself should be amended to accommodate transgender people, recognizing that “male” and “female” are not unproblematic categories. Although trans people face similar types of legal discrimination as lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, gender identity is distinct from—and should not be confused with—sexual orientation.

The race and Hispanic origin questions for the 2010 Census have 20 checkboxes and 4 write-in fields—inclusiveness isn’t unprecedented. The above reforms would also benefit from being paired with a revised way of administering the Census, to guarantee the privacy of all respondents from their own families and housemates. While it is increasingly common to be “out,” bigotry has not disappeared.

Visibility and LGBT Rights

Last Thursday, March 18, ten people were arrested and fined for staging sit-ins at the Washington and San Francisco offices of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Their demand: that a House vote on the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) be held this month. Getting ENDA passed is a priority for the LGBT rights movement, because it is still legal in 29 states to fire someone because of their sexual orientation and in 38 states (including New Jersey) based on gender identity or expression.

Queering the Census has the potential to shape advocacy and policy for years to come and, like ENDA, is critical in the push for equality and the freedom from discrimination that every American is entitled to.

So please put the sticker on your Census envelope—not on the form—to show your support for LGBT visibility. If you are interested in taking further action, please stop by the Queer the Census table at Frist next week for information on how to contact your Congressional representatives directly. We will have form letters and phone numbers ready. If you can’t make it to Frist, or have any further questions, don’t hesitate to contact us at jmuenzel@ or brendaj@.