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.