An online space for queer, questioning, lesbian, bi, trans and everything else in between women at Yale

Monday, April 5, 2010

Why NOT to Queer the Census

Today is Census Day at Yale!

You've probably noticed the flyers put up by the small army of Census volunteers, but the added PSAs from Fierce Advocates telling you to 'Queer the Census' may leave you wondering what to do today. Fierce Advocates, in partnership with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, is asking students to paste stickers asking the Census to add a question about sexual orientation to the next iteration of the form.


The Queer the Census campaign is misguided. Although, as a social science nerd, and 538 afficionado, I am always sympathetic to the lust for more statistical data, but the Census is not the right way to collect this information. And, even if the question were added, it is unlikely to result in a PR coup for the gay rights movement.

The Census is the Wrong Instrument
You won't notice many personal questions on the Census (aside from race, which was included from the first census, when it was important to know whether a subject was black or white, since blacks counted as 3/5 for redistricting). We don't rely on the Census to take a complete snapshot of the nation every ten years. The Census is necessarily short, since every additional question increases the odds that it won't be returned. The Census an essentially simple purpose: tallying the number of residents to guide redistricting and disbursement of per capita funds. A queer tally is not relevant to these goals.

This cycle, the government eliminated the long form of the census, preferring to rely on the work done by the American Community Survey, which surveys samples of the country every year. If we want to ask questions about queers, this is the place to do it. In fact, the ACS already tallies the number of gay committed partnerships nationwide.

The Census would Undercount
Even if the census asked about sexual orientation, it would be likely to produce a massive, but official looking, undercount of American queers. Although the Census counts every individual, it is filled out by household, and I have a tough time believing that most high schoolers or other young people living at home are likely to see the Census questionnaire as the appropriate segue into coming out.

In addition, the question as proposed would be likely to undercount younger people who would identify as queer or questioning and might hesitate to commit to a stigmatized category like gay.

The Count Doesn't Count for Much
Mere evidence that gay people are everywhere will not result in the rolling back of discriminatory laws. The American Community Survey has already shown that gay couples exist in 99% of counties nationwide. It is wrong to claim, as a Daily Princetonian op-ed did, that demonstrating that single gays are equally ubiquitous will force bigoted legislators to clean up their act. Progress for the LGBT movement has come not through numbers but through stories. The entire point of "We're Here, We're Queer" was to turn the frightening spectre of 'a gay' into the familiar face of a friend or neighbor.

We Can Do Better
Instead of trying to up the numbers of queers who might be eligible for hypothetical government programs, let's do more to expand those programs. Today, take the time you would have spent on stickers doing something for Lambda Legal (still my fav LGBT activist group).

If you really want to do good work to reform the Census, join the movement to count prisoners in the districts they're from, rather than using them to boost the numbers of the richer neighborhoods where they're imprisoned.


Amalia said...

Hi Leah,

Except for your first point, the arguments you make here don't strike me as reasons not to Queer the Census. A little information:

(1) As the FAQ page on queerthecensus.org explains, QTC's policy goal is to add a question about sexual orientation and gender identity to the American Community Survey and the National Health Interview Survey. I agree with you and with the Task Force that the decennial census form is not the appropriate place for this question.

(2) In the status quo, it is near-impossible for LGBT organizations to win federal grants, because they can't point to federal data on the size of the population they serve. Data which LGBT groups themselves gather is not, for obvious reasons, sufficient to persuade grantmaking agencies.
Even if the proposed NHIS and ACS questions under-counted LGBT people - which is a legitimate concern - having a low count would place these organizations in a better financial and strategic position than they now have. In the absence of data, grantmaking agencies must effectively assume that the count of LGBT individuals is zero.

Fierce Advocates definitely shares the concerns which you express in the latter three points. But we think that these are reasons that QTC is imperfect - not reasons not to participate in it.

Adam Stempel said...

I obviously agree that more data on the queer community is necessary. The American Community Survey is indeed a better place to have the questions. I read the QTC website last night, and again this just now, and they just barely mention the ACS, and at no point (that I found, maybe I missed it) does the campaign state that they don't actually want a sexuality question on the census.
My problem isn't with the fundamental goals of QTC, it's with the methods. Posting signs and chalking things around campus like "If the Census doesn't count you, you don't count" and so on creates unnecessary resentment against the census because it misrepresents the goals of the census. The 10 question (or in our case, 7 question) form is not meant to get lots of demographic data. It's just not. Expressing great indignation that the census doesn't count you is misguided anger. The census DOES count everybody who fills it out. Period. I'm an atheist. Does the census not count me? I'm rich. Does the census not count me? There used to be questions about disabilities, and some forms would have questions about income. They got rid of those because they complicated the process and because the census is a bad place to collect that kind of data.
At this point, I hope the QTC campaign has some impact. It really would be good to collect more sexuality data somewhere (although, as the QTC website points out, there already are some questions on the ACS). But I wish the campaign could have made its statement without misleading everyone into thinking that the census discriminates against queer people. I think some of the campaign signs are really counter-productive. The census is a good thing. Really.

Fernando said...

Amalia, I think the fundamental issue is that you completely misunderstand how to get things done at the federal level.

Getting the homosexuality question on the ACS isn't going to depend on people putting 'QTC' stickers on their returns, far from it. Similar to how the Census is encouraging individuals to fill out their survey as 'married' even if they are a queer couple in a state that can't marry, it took basically a lot of federal lobbying targeting specific institutions and people.

That's my problem with most gay activism on campus and how it fails miserably in its goals, rather than seeing the things it can do. If Fierce Advocates wants to do something impressive, organizing support and fundraising for a gay youth crisis center is a lot better use of resources and time.

I understand the need for self-consoling events like 'being an ally', well, actually, I really don't, but I can imagine the potentiality of it being useful. But between an obsessive naval-gazing combined with spending a lot of time on campaigns that fundamentally misunderstand federal governance, it strikes me that gay activism and action on this campus is rather ineffective.

Alexandra said...

Hey Fernando,

As someone who spends a fair amount of time on "gay activism and action on this campus," I was kind of saddened by your comment.

First, a factual detail: Fierce Advocates didn't run the "how to be an ally" workshop, Queer Peers and the LGBTQ Peer Liaisons did. And about that workshop, if you don't want to go, that's totally fine, but some other people found it helpful. For those who are interested, there's another one on April 23rd at 4 p.m. in the Women's Center. It covers things like queer terminology, how to productively intervene when a friend says something homophobic, and how to be an ally to a queer person of faith and a queer person of color.

As to things like Queer The Census - this might be an ideological difference, but I don't think it's fair to say that only lobbyists can effect systemic change, and all the rest of us should ever hope to do is fundraise for charities. I think fundraising for charities is great, as is service work with queer youth (which, by the way, Fierce Advocates engages in through our GSA mentoring project; all our welcome), but I'm also very hopeful about the power we have as organized communities to change unfair laws and government practices. Whether or not you agree with the QTC campaign specifically, there are a lot of things congress has to do to bring equal rights to LGBTQ folks, and as constituents it is really important for us to make our voices heard. That's why activists on campus have also worked on things like ENDA and DADT, as well as getting gender identity nondiscrimination laws passed in Connecticut specifically. I'd really encourage anyone who was interested in getting involved to come to an FA meeting, Wednesdays at 9 p.m. in the Trumbull Seminar room, or emailing fierceadvocates@gmail.com for more information.

And if you don't like what activists on this campus are doing - please, do something about it! Come to our meetings and propose your ideas, or start running some fundraisers, or whatever else. The more people doing good work the better. And everyone who wants to work for LGBTQ equality is really welcome/needed at the table.