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New questions on LGBTQ identity could be coming to one of the Census Bureau’s main surveys

The Census Bureau wants to learn more about sexual orientation and gender identity. Here’s how it plans to do so

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Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall raises the pride flag on Oct. 9, 2020.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall raises the pride flag with Salt Lake City Council member Chris Wharton and Utah Pride Center Executive Director Rob Moolman at the City-County Building in Salt Lake City on Oct. 9, 2020.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Questions about sexual orientation and gender identity could be coming soon to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which collects detailed information about American life.

Last week, the bureau unveiled its plan for fielding such questions and asked for public comment.

“The Census Bureau proposes to test question wording, response categories, and placement of sexual orientation and gender identity questions on the questionnaire,” the plan explains.

The bureau noted that it developed its proposed questionnaire through extensive research. Surveyors considered the fact that one member of a household fills out the survey for all members and debated how best to deploy sensitive phrases like “sex assigned at birth” and “current gender.”

Participants in in-person or telephone surveys will likely have the opportunity to point to flashcards or say a number corresponding with their sexual orientation or gender identity in cases where they don’t want other household members to overhear their answers, according to the bureau’s plan. The person filling out the survey for their household will only have to answer questions about sexual orientation and “current gender” for members of the household who are 15 or older.

“The ACS has not collected any data on sexual orientation (previously) but has only been able to identify same-sex couples who live in the same household,” according to 19th News.

What is the American Community Survey?

The Census Bureau uses the American Community Survey to gather more in-depth information about Americans. Unlike the decennial census, it’s continually fielded and offers a more up-to-date look at community life.

“While the main function of the U.S. decennial census is to provide counts of people for the purpose of congressional apportionment, the primary purpose of the American Community Survey (ACS) is to measure the changing social and economic characteristics of the U.S. population — our education, housing, jobs, and more,” explains the bureau’s handbook.

The American Community Survey took the place of the long-form survey that was fielded at the same time as the more familiar short-form decennial census until 2000. It asks a range of questions about a household’s residents, rather than simply focusing on basic information like age and race.

If a household is selected to participate in the American Community Survey, that household is required by law to take part, according to a guide to the survey released by the Bureau. Around 3.5 million households are contacted each year.

Conflict over survey questions

Adding to or adjusting questions on the bureau’s surveys has long been a difficult process, since subtle changes can affect participation rates or lead to inaccurate results.

In 2019, a battle over then-President Donald Trump’s plan to add a citizenship question to the decennial census made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the Trump administration had not properly justified the addition of the question and therefore couldn’t field it.

Opponents of the citizenship question had argued that such a query would discourage participation in the decennial census by fueling anxiety about who has access to immigration-related responses.

Similar concerns about how census data is used help explain why the U.S. Census does not include questions about religion, as the Deseret News has previously reported.

Over time, “many lawmakers, faith leaders and civil liberties organizations (have) claimed even a basic question would threaten religious minority groups, citing events like the Holocaust,” the article said.

Power of information

Although religion researchers understand these concerns, they can’t help but imagine what it would be like to have extensive data on the religious practices of American households.

“In a country where religious affiliation is as dynamic as ours is, it’s incredibly important just to get baseline religious identity measure,” said Daniel Cox, now the director of the Survey Center on American Life, to the Deseret News in 2019.

The same can be said about gathering data on LGBTQ identity, according to Orion Rummler, who wrote about the Census Bureau’s proposed questions for the 19th News.

“Having accurate data about LGBTQ+ Americans’ economic situation matters because, as advocates have repeatedly said, without that data, it is harder to push for LGBTQ-inclusive policies and government funding to actually address those inequalities,” Rummler wrote.

Currently, the Census Bureau, through the American Community Survey, can only identify same-sex couples who share a home. That approach paints a skewed picture of the LGBTQ community, since many members of the LGBTQ community, including many young people, are not in a relationship or cohabiting with a partner, according to Brookings, which has called for more research on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Asking incomplete (sexual orientation and gender identity) questions leaves a gap in research that, if left unaddressed, will continue to grow in importance with the increase of the LGBTQ+ population, particularly among younger cohorts,” Brookings scholars wrote earlier this year.