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Our Families Count interview: ‘Why the 2010 Census Matters to LGBT Americans’

An interview provided by Our Families Count with Dr. Gary Gates, Williams Distinguished Scholar at UCLA School of Law, Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law, Los Angeles; and Che Ruddell-Tabisola of the U.S. Census and Our Families Count in Washington, D.C.

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Why did you launch Our Families Count as an education effort for the 2010 Census? Was there a similar coalition organized for the 1990 or 2000 Census?

Che Ruddell-Tabisola: In the past few years, many leaders in the community and academia saw the tremendous potential for the 2010 Census. We saw its overriding value to LGBT visibility and inclusion.

Remember that the population data captured by the Census provides America’s policy makers and business leaders with detailed, objective data about all Americans, including our community. More important, federal laws and federal spending decisions are frequently based on these counts. All Americans benefit by being counted, including us.

In the run-up to Census 2000, through the contributions of academic leaders like Dr. Lee Badgett who now serves at the Williams Institute at UCLA Law School, there was a voluntary LGBT network at the time that helped educate same-sex households about the importance of that year’s Census.

In 2009, however, by launching the voluntary collaboration and network called “Our Families Count,” it’s fair to say this is the largest such public education initiative (apart from lobbying and electoral campaigns) that we have attempted across the LGBT community. On the web, the campaign is found at www.ourfamiliescount.org.

It is very inspiring to witness and to take part in a more strategic relationship with the U.S. Census. Our campaign now includes more than 100 nonprofit, academic and business relationships, and is truly a diverse, national network. Although I first became involved while still working at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, it is a project that crosses all organizations and networks.

I can proudly report that we are truly a private-public partnership and very grateful for the commitment made to all communities by the U.S. Census this year. They are invested in achieving as accurate and complete count this year as never before in our history, including all LGBT households too.

Gary Gates: As part of my work on my doctoral dissertation, I was part of the first research team to analyze the 1990 Census data on same-sex couples and develop a demographic portrait of this understudied population.

As a demographer at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., I began working closer with Census 2000 data and directly with Census experts to better understand same-sex couple households. In 2004, I co-authored the first published “mapping” of same-sex couple households in “The Gay & Lesbian Atlas.” I think it was then a very good start at capturing and analyzing an authentic picture of cohabiting same-sex couples. Regrettably it did not give us any data about the lives or households of single gay men and lesbians, or about bisexuals and transgender individuals.

In Census 2000, same-sex couples who said that they were spouses were counted simply as “unmarried partners”. The Williams Institute played a key role in negotiations with Census that led to the decision to publish separate counts along with demographic characteristics of both same-sex spouses and unmarried partners as part of Census 2010.

Why should LGBT Americans really care about the 2010 Census? Do LGBT couples and families have common fears or misperceptions of how Census data is collected or used?

Gary Gates:   First of all, many Americans may not entirely understand the real point of the Census, and why it matters to everyone and not just LGBT Americans. In fact, under our Constitution, Congress is required to perform an accurate, complete count of our population every ten years.

Common fears or misperceptions may exist about how the data will be used, whether it is shared with others or invades individual privacy. Fortunately, we try to educate everyone that filling out the Census form is as safe as it can be, and is not shared with others or used for any other purpose except for an accurate count of the American people.

Che Ruddell-Tabisola: For LGBT people, we have some special concerns of course. Just being openly LGBT is not yet protected in all of America’s workplaces, and many in the community may risk stigma, harassment or potentially violence at the hands of others. Some are serving in America’s military of course, under the rule of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Being open and visible is a personal decision and when individuals answer the Census; they want to be assured that it is not a public declaration that is shared with neighbors, co-workers, family or others – for many reasons.

For recent immigrants or individuals who are foreign-born, they may have anxiety about their legal status too, and that would be a concern for binational gay and lesbian couples too. The Census does not ask about citizenship and data are not shared with immigration authorities.

The LGBT community, generally speaking, is seeking full equality under the law and recognition as citizens. Taking part in the Census is one aspect of our citizen obligation and our right to be counted accurately.

Including 1990 and 2000, this is the third Census that will record same-sex relationships or living arrangements.  What have data from the first two censuses told us about American LGBT relationships?

Gary Gates: Using the 1990 Census data, we were able to show that more than 1 in 6 men and nearly 1 in 14 women in same-sex couples had served in the US Armed Forces. We also showed that nearly 1 in 4 female same-sex couples were raising children and that men in same-sex couples earned, on average, less than men coupled with women.

In Census 2000, we gleaned even more important insights about the American LGBT community and our relationships. For just a few quick examples:

  • There were same-sex couples living in 99.3% of all counties in the United States, empirically proving for the first time that LGBT people were indeed everywhere;
  • We analyzed data from harder-to-reach LGBT populations, showing that 1 in 6 same-sex couples lived in a rural area and 1 in 4 was non-white. We also showed that non-white same-sex couples had high rates of raising children and experienced significant economic hardship.
  • We learned that more than 1 in 4 same-sex couples were now raising children at home; and
  • We were able to show that an estimated 65,000 LGBT people were serving in the military and there were perhaps 1 million LGBT veterans in the United States.

Our Families Count has joined with many partner organizations that represent ethnic minorities within the LGBT community. Is there a special push among minority advocacy groups to get an accurate count of all LGBT families?

Gary Gates:   One of the most satisfying outcomes of the 2000 Census was our ability to analyze data about the racial and ethnic diversity of the LGBT community.

Breaking down the tired myth, for instance, that gay people are all affluent, white gay urban males is important to understanding our true diversity and ethnic complexity. We really do hold a mirror up to all of America to get a more accurate portrait of our own population. Like other Census educators and field organizers, we are simply working harder to reach some of the most marginalized and over-looked members of our community.

Che Ruddell-Tabisola: We are lucky and proud that many of our community leaders get it, and are enthusiastic to be a partner in outreach to all populations. That is why we launched Our Families Count online at the start in both English and in Spanish, for example.    

What is the role of the Census Bureau and how are they partnering with you on this project?  How does their collaboration compare with their track record in earlier Censuses?

Che Ruddell-Tabisola: For the first time, to my knowledge, with the 2010 Census, the Census Bureau has a dedicated field organization of professionals dedicated to LGBT community education and outreach. I am serving as the national coordinator for that effort, and also as liaison to Our Families Count to support our community leaders and groups.

The Census officials are working with us hand-in-hand to dedicate materials, resources, staff time and energy to LGBT partnerships and participation. It is an historic effort that makes us all very proud.

Gary Gates: On my part, the Census also is working closely with the Williams Institute and other academics and demographers to test and use the best methods to capture accurate data about same-sex relationships and households.

As society has evolved to inclusion and acceptance of our relationships and now, our marriages, it is just as important for Census methods to advance in querying LGBT households and using that data sensitively and accurately to offer a portrait of our lives and families. As a gay social scientist, I am excited about participating in these developments since they are meaningful to me both professionally and personally.

Does today’s patchwork of same-sex marriage laws (and domestic partnership/civil union statutes) complicate the gathering of data?  What should LGBT households keep in mind when responding to the Census form?

Gary Gates: To be honest, the existing variety of state laws and domestic partner registries does not have a direct impact on how the Census is conducted this year.

Remember that the 2010 Census asks just 10 questions. The Census form asks you to list the person who owns or rents the house as “Person 1” and then indicate how everyone in the household is related to “Person 1”. In order to be counted as a same-sex couple, one of the partners must be listed as “Person 1.”

Same-sex couples who have been legally married or consider themselves to be spouses should identify the other person as a “husband or wife”. Those terms fit some – but certainly not all – LGBT households or all same-sex couples.

Other same-sex couples, for example, may be more comfortable using the term “unmarried partner”. In general, this term is designed to capture couples who are in a “close personal relationship” and are not legally married or do not think of themselves as spouses. Census forms do not provide an option yet to explicitly designate a couple as united by civil union or a public domestic partner registry.

To plan for the future, I now am working with experts at the Census Bureau to investigate through focus groups and other surveys among LGBT couples to ask questions about defining and labeling coupled relationships. This foundation is intended to guide future surveys and data collection to obtain the most accurate information possible about our households and our relationships. We certainly want to get this right.

Che Ruddell-Tabisola: We know first-hand that LGBT people may be confused, or instead feel their responses to the Census form may be considered wrong. As Dr. Gates points out, all couples should identify themselves as they do every day to others.

Census data are based on how individuals self identify, and transgender respondents should know they will be counted as the gender with which they identify. The Census form only provides male and female options to check, so choose one of those boxes.

Do you think the LGBT community has a true idea of the importance of gathering accurate Census data?  What would you say to them to help them understand how Census data is used?

Gary Gates: When we consider that the nation’s Census is taken only once every ten years, it is not surprising that more education and reliable information is needed when the Census form shows up in our mailbox or at our doorstep. LGBT Americans are no different from others, I think.

It is important for us all to know that the Census creates an essential portrait of our nation every 10 years. These data are used to determine the distribution of seats in the House of Representatives. They provide key population numbers for Congress and the administration to determine how federal dollars flow to the states and cities. Accordingly, the census has a big impact on our political power and economic security.

Again, since 1990, when the Census added the "unmarried partner" designation on its form, LGBT people in same-sex relationships have provided the first visible record of our partnerships in the history of our nation. These data have been very important in countering distortions and misperceptions about the diverse LGBT community.

Che Ruddell-Tabisola: I will just add that it is so important for everyone, including all LGBT people, to fill out their census form and mail it back. And don’t forget, your answers on the census form are confidential. By law they cannot be shared with anyone. Participating in the census is one of the most valuable and enduring ways that we can be visible and our relationships accurately counted.

Some groups and leaders strongly advocate including questions directly related to an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity onto future Census surveys. Is that a possibility?


Gary Gates:
You are right, and the 2010 Census does not ask questions about anyone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. I completely support efforts to add sexual orientation and gender identity questions to a wide range of government surveys, including the Census.

However, it takes years to successfully advocate for the inclusion of questions on the Census, and the advocacy must be funded by congressional legislation. There are a wide range of other health and economic government surveys where sexual orientation and gender identity questions could be added more easily and perhaps without a legislative initiative. These surveys could yield as much, if not more, important information about the LGBT community than the Census.

It’s important to remember that there are only five basic topics on the 2010 U.S. Census. They cover broad, general questions that give overarching demographic information about individuals in every single household in the U.S. They pertain to:

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Race/Ethnicity
  • Relationship
  • Tenure (length of time you rent/own your home)

While the form does not ask sexual orientation or gender identity, those of us who are living with a spouse or partner can indicate that relationship by checking either the “husband/wife” or “unmarried partner” box.   Our families indeed will count.


Che Ruddell-Tabisola: Our Families Count –
this innovative, education campaign – is dedicated to public service and information and not to advocacy specifically. However, many organizers and LGBT community groups also are leading an independent coalition of strong advocacy partners to count LGBT people and our families in most major federal data collection efforts, apart from the U.S. Census itself.

Dr. Gates and other expert demographers and academicians are considering other survey targets. These include, for example, the longer, annual Census Bureau form, called the American Community Survey, which is mailed to several million homes every year and provides a much more detailed picture of a significant cross-section of the U.S. population; and the National Health Interview Survey, a phone interview that is conducted among nearly 30,000 households annually and provides an essential snapshot of the nation's health profile and challenges.


NOTE:
Census forms will be mailed to American households beginning in March 2010, and when follow-up is needed, individual U.S. Census survey takers will visit residences in April 2010.

For more information on this year’s Census, please visit:

www.census.gov

www.ourfamiliescount.org

www.law.ucla.edu/williamsinstitute

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