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What the 2020 census can — and can't — tell us about LGBTQ+ people


States along the West Coast and in the Northeast have the highest shares of households with same-sex couples, according to the latest 2020 census results released Thursday.

The new numbers from the Census Bureau make up the most comprehensive statistics the federal government has produced to date about married and unmarried same-sex couples living together.

But many other LGBTQ+ people, including those who are not living with a partner or are in different-sex relationships, remain invisible in this key national dataset that's used to determine political representation, enforce civil rights protections, inform research and policymaking, and guide an estimated $1.5 trillion a year in federal money for public services in local communities.


"A lot is tied to Census Bureau data," says Kerith Conron, research director of the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. "Being invisible in those systems or only sort of partially counted is, I think, problematic."

Former President Donald Trump's administration blocked efforts to get questions about sexual orientation and gender identity onto a Census Bureau survey that's considered a testing ground for changes to the forms for the decennial national head count.

Now, the Biden administration has renewed that process as advocates for more official statistics about LGBTQ+ populations continue to grapple with long-standing data gaps that make it difficult to fully understand people's needs amid rising anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment from right-wing groups.

Why are only same-sex couples who live together represented in 2020 census data about LGBTQ+ people?

While forms for the last U.S. census did include a question about a person's sex with options for "male" and "female," they did not ask about sexual orientation or gender identity.

The bureau, however, did provide checkboxes for a question about household relationships that allowed people to identify as a "same-sex" or "opposite-sex" spouse or unmarried partner. Those new response options were introduced to improve the agency's data about same-sex couples, which the bureau first began collecting in 1990 by matching people's responses about their sex and household relationship.

That way of conducting a once-a-decade census produces only "a piece of the puzzle," says Conron of the Williams Institute, which tracks estimates of the country's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender populations.

"At this point, less than 20% of LGBT people live in same-sex couple households," Conron explains, based on the institute's estimates. "That means we don't know a lot about the 80% or more of LGBT people who have different-sex partners or aren't living in a household with a partner. And that's significant."

For Josie Caballero, the lack of an opportunity to identify as a trans woman on the 2020 census was disappointing.

"If we're not asking the question, if you're trans or not, in these surveys, it is impossible for us to actually identify those disparities and make sure that funds and resources go to the communities that are desperately in need," adds Caballero, who is the director of the U.S. Trans Survey and special projects for the National Center for Transgender Equality.

What is the Biden administration doing to get more comprehensive census data about LGBTQ+ people?

Late last year, the Justice Department sent a formal request to the Census Bureau for questions about sexual orientation and gender identity to be added to the bureau's American Community Survey, which goes out to about 1 in 38 households every year, according to a recently released working paper by a bureau official.

"The request included citations of several statutes to justify the collection, including a need for data to properly enforce discrimination laws," wrote Andrew Roberts, the chief of the agency's sex and age statistics branch. Roberts also referenced a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that confirmed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects workers against discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Changes to the census questions are often tested first on experimental versions of the American Community Survey. The bureau — which has been asking about sexual orientation and gender identity on an experimental survey about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting households — is planning more experiments starting this year on how the American Community Survey can ask about these topics in English and Spanish after the administration requested $10 million for this research.

Are there privacy concerns related to using the census to collect more data, especially with more anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment from right-wing groups?

Federal law prohibits the federal government from releasing personally identifiable census records until 72 years after a head count's Census Day, and it is illegal for the government to use census data against a person.

But the rise of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and sentiment among right-wing politicians and other groups has underlined concerns about how census data can be misused and individuals can be reidentified in anonymized statistics, a risk the bureau has been trying to address through a new, controversial privacy protection system.

Protecting the confidentiality of people's information, however, may be harder with AI and other advances in computing becoming more accessible to bad actors who may try to trace publicly available statistics back to an individual by cross-referencing different datasets, says Stephen Parry, a senior statistical consultant at Cornell University who has written about best practices for collecting gender and sex data.

"I do think that the question about privacy is important, but I also wonder whether people weight privacy as not being as important as it was in the past because they are so used to giving up their privacy and showing on social media facets of their lives that previous generations hadn't," Parry adds.

One of the guidelines for collecting data on sexual orientation and gender identity that the Biden administration has released is to allow survey participants to choose whether or not to respond to those kinds of questions and "make an informed decision about whether to provide this information based on its intended uses, potential risks, and their privacy preferences."

"I think that people being given an opportunity to volunteer that information is important," says Rebecca Moon, president of the Shoals Diversity Center, a nonprofit organization based in Florence, Ala., that offers mental health support for the LGBTQ+ community and supports increasing government data collection. "Not everyone is out, especially in the South. There's a lot of LGBTQ hatred."

Caballero of the National Center for Transgender Equality says it's "a very scary time" for many transgender people living in the U.S. and not feeling comfortable reporting your gender identity to the government is "very valid."

But, Caballero adds, those who do choose to be counted as transgender for the census, if given the chance one day, make it "easier for the next trans person to tell their story and say that they are here."

"You can't argue with the fact that hundreds of thousands of trans folks have been able to say in a quantitative, scientific way that we exist and this is what it looks like to live here," Caballero says. "And if we did not have that data, it would be extremely difficult to prove that we deserve human rights."

Edited by Benjamin Swasey

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Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.