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Courtesy of U.S. Census Bureau

American Community Survey questions that collect information on same-sex households.

Does the LGBT community count? Not on the census

by Kavya Sukumar
Jan 30, 2013


Kavya Sukumar/MEDILL

"We have been denied and not recognized. It is about time," says Gloria Allen, a transgender woman.

Have you ever wondered how many people live in two-bedroom houses? Or how many have health insurance? Probably not.

But if you do, you can find answers to questions such as these from the U.S. census data. What the Census Bureau cannot tell you, however, is the number of homosexual or transgender people who live in the country.

The census surveys don’t collect information on sexual orientation or gender identity, thus leaving an entire demography uncharted.

“Asking this question is just common sense, that isn’t common anymore,” said Lake View resident Kevin McManus who identifies himself as bisexual. “I will add this in writing on the form, even if they don’t ask, just to be a douche.”

Not having the information hampers researchers.

“Our ability to research any dimension of the LGBT community is limited because this [data] is not available,” said Gary J. Gates, researcher at Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy in Los Angeles and co-author of “The Gay and Lesbian Atlas.”

The Census Bureau employs various surveys, including American Community Survey, National Decennial Census and Current Population Survey, to collect demographic information.

ACS is an annual survey that samples a portion of the population. According to the Census Bureau, this data determines how $400 billion of federal and state funds are allocated each year.

The Current Population Survey is a monthly survey of about 50,000 households and mainly benefits the Department of Labor.

The decennial census surveys all U.S. residents every 10 years. It determines how seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are apportioned.

“Questions are generally added to our major surveys as information is needed to satisfy legislative requirements, or fill a programmatic need at a federal agency,” said Robert Bernstein, a public information officer at the Census Bureau.

“Currently there are no plans to add questions on sexual orientation to the Census Bureau's main demographic surveys like decennial census, Current Population Survey and American Community Survey,” Bernstein said.

The one bit of data the Census Bureau collects that yields some information about sexual orientation is about household occupancy, although census officials emphasize that is not the purpose of gathering the data. The census asks who lives in the household, their gender and relationship to the survey respondent.. Researchers like Gates have combined data from various studies including the census to estimate the nation’s LGBT population at 3.4 percent.

The Census Bureau also conducts the National Health Interview Survey, which surveys a select number of households. Starting in 2013, this will include questions on sexual orientation.

“There is an analytic need to have sexual orientation on the NHIS survey, as it is known to be correlated with health outcomes,” Bernstein said.

“At this point the Census Bureau does not have any mandate to collect data on the transgender community,” Bernstein said.

Though the addition of a question about sexual orientation on the health survey is a step forward, members of LGBT community are not satisfied.

“If I pay taxes, I should be counted in everything,” said Chicagoan Gloria Allen, a transgender woman.

Demographers agree, but for different reasons.

”If you ask a few thousand people and you get 100 responses, it is not very accurate,” Gates said, stressing the need for collecting LGBT data in surveys like the decennial census, which queries all the residents.

Getting this data, may not be as simple as adding a question to the form.

“There are multiple dimensions to sexual orientation and gender identity,” Gates said. “If your definition of lesbian, gay or bisexual includes everyone who has had a same-sex relation ever, [most polls] don’t answer your question.”

Gates cautioned, “It needs to be clear what we are measuring and how we interpret the data.”