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We count: LGBT Americans and the 2010 Census

Posted by admin On June - 22 - 2009

The following Op-Ed was written by Joe Mirabella. Joe Mirabella is a volunteer for Join the Impact as the Washington State Community Organizer.  Mirabella is a full time writer and content developer. He is engaged to marry his partner of 5 1/2 years in their home state of Iowa.

The AP reported on Sunday:

Married same-sex couples will be counted as such in 2010, Census Bureau official said, reversing a decision of the Bush administration.

The US Census is a Constitutional requirement and is vitally important to our Republic. During the 2000 Census there were not any states that allowed same-sex marriage equality. Now there are five, but many of us resigned ourselves to go uncounted in 2010 because Bush instructed the Census to change data if we identified ourselves as married. Hopes that Obama might correct this problem were initially squashed by reports that the Census Bureau was left so miserably underfunded by Bush that it would be a miracle if the Census occurred at all, and if did it was too late to change anything for 2010. To be left out of the census was not only damaging to our community, but it was un-American. An Editorial from the New York Times accurately pointed out:

The census is vital to democracy — and to American citizens. It is used to decide the number of representatives from each state, draw Congressional districts and allocate federal aid. It and other bureau surveys also supply the underlying data for an array of government statistics on education, crime, health and the economy.

Many thought DOMA was going to give Obama an out to amending this injustice, but the White House announced Friday that its interpretation of the act did not prohibit them from gathering the information.

This news came one short week after the controversial Department of Justice brief that defended DOMA and sent gays and lesbians and their allies into a tail spin of anger, and loss of hope that Obama was going to be the “fierce advocate” he promised us he would be. Thousands of flash activists responded with twitter messages @barackobama and @whitehouse. They also expressed their anger and disappointment on Facebook and blogs. Financial contributions to the Democratic National Committee were withdrawn until legislative action on DOMA or DADT was produced.

The response was so pointed that it prompted President Obama to sign a memorandum granting some Federal benefits to some Federal employees. Weakened by DOMA laws, the memorandum lacked same-sex spousal health care and retirement benefits. Furthermore, military personal will not have access to the expanded benefits because Don’t Ask Don’t Tell prevents them from identifying their sexual orientation without facing discharge. Obama’s attempted olive branch back fired and fueled even more criticism from the LGBT community. The gesture was immediately dismissed by myself and others as a weak attempt to placate the LGBT community. We justifiably demanded lasting action through a bill to repeal DOMA and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

With that said, we should not diminish the importance of the change in Census policy. It is yet another indication that Obama is trying to reach out to the LGBT community, and it is an important one. Some writers who I have a lot of respect for dismissed the 2010 Census revision as yet another “crumb.” Michelangelo Signorile wrote:

What we need now is real action. Not these crumbs, whether it be the census inclusion or some benefits for federal employees. We need something big, and until then, the DNC fundraisers should continue to be threatened, and nobody among the gay leadership should be partying with this president.

We should not be so dismissive of this very vital change in public policy. The Census is not a crumb. Without this change, 10 or more years would go by before our marriages would be counted. Invisibility is our biggest enemy. I learned that from Signorile himself when I read his book Outing Yourself as a young man yearning for help with my own coming out process.

To be clear, I do agree with Signorile and others who called for a boycott of the Democratic National Committee fundraisers until either DOMA or Don’t Ask Don’t Tell are repealed. Instead of blanket donations to a party that delivers questionable results to our community, we should focus our funds on candidates with a proven track record on equality. We should use our money as a powerful vote, whether it is an election year or not. We can make that point while still celebrating the change in Census policy.

Before the DOJ brief firestorm Jared Polis of Colorado along with 48 other congressional members sent a letter to Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag asking that the 2010 Census count same-sex married couples. The Advocate reported the contents of the letter, “We are deeply concerned about the implications of this policy for same-sex couples and for the integrity of the Census as a whole and firmly believe the [Census] Bureau’s primary objective should be to collect data and report it, not collect data and alter it.” This letter was sent well before the DOJ briefing was released.

Unfortunately the Census will only collect data about same sex couples that consider themselves married. We still need accurate data on how many people identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered. The Census would be an excellent resource to gather that information. Since the Census is willing to amend the 2010 questionnaire to include same-sex marriages, they should move forward with plant to include questions about sexual orientation. After all, the majority of LGBT citizens live in states that do not recognize our equality, so it will be difficult to count those of us who still can not marry or choose not to.

Unfortunately it is not very likely additional data about the LGBT community will be collected in 2010. According to the National Center for Transger Equality, the questions were solidfied two years ago. The change to count same-sex married couples is far less complicated than adding additional questions. The questions that exist on the Census as it stands will gather the necessary information to count same-sex marriages without adding addtional questions. The change was merely a policy change to recognize the answers provided by same-sex couples as they were reported rather than augment those answers to reflect a certain political ideology that chose to deny reality. Check out this pdf for more info.

While we should remain persistent about our goals for lasting legislative reform through the repeal of DOMA and Don’t ask Don’t Tell, we should also recognize the important change that the new Census policy represents. We must pressure the administration and our representatives to expand the questionnaire for future Censuses so that all of us can be counted. Once we remove the invisibility vail the country should see us for who we are — a powerful and vociferous demographic throughout the country who should not be discounted.

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