Queering The Census: What's At Stake for LGBTQ+ Communities As The Clock Winds Down?

When she learned her grandchild Lance (center) was transgender, Maria Quezada (right) found support at her local PFLAG chapter at El Centro de Ayuda in Boyle Heights. Funding for these programs is part of what's at stake in the 2020 Census. (Courtesy of Maria Quezada)

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Maria Quezada had always known her grandchild Lance to be a girl. But then one day, Lance told her, "Grandma, I'm a boy."

Quezada had a hard time understanding this. While she was familiar with what it meant to be lesbian or gay, she didn't know anyone else who was transgender.

"[He said], I'm a boy from my soul, my spirit, from the inside," Quezada says. "And that was it for me. It wasn't my job to try to understand any longer. My job right there and then was to accept."

It was a journey for Quezada to get from a place of learning to acceptance. A big part of what helped was joining her local Spanish-language chapter of PFLAG, which supports parents, families, and allies of people who identify as LGBTQ+. The group gathers at El Centro de Ayuda in Boyle Heights, which provides human services to low income families residing in Northeast Los Angeles.

She said that she knew many fellow Latinos who weren't very accepting of LGBTQ+ people, but this group was different.

"It was so wonderful to walk into this group in my neighborhood," she said. "We're all Latinos and everybody is coming together to embrace. And that is where I found comfort and my safe space."

Services like Quezada's support group are part of what's at stake in this year's census for LGBTQ+ communities. U.S. Census data determines federal funding for schools, hospitals, and a wide range of social programs.

Nonprofits like El Centro and PFlag also rely on census data to petition for funding, to expand their services to vulnerable populations, and to educate policymakers about the populations they serve.

Earlier this year the pandemic upended outreach efforts, especially in-person outreach, with community organizations having to cancel events.

Now, with a month left to go in the decennial count after the Trump administration moved up the census deadline to Sept. 30, LGBTQ+ community members are still working hard to get out the word about participation, and what's at stake.

Advocates say that the census is a way to have a voice in how federal dollars are spent locally and in government representation. Chris Records (left) and Marisa London with Equality California speak with students and young people at the Models of Pride event in 2019. (Courtesy of Equality California)

WHAT'S AT STAKE

Those who are LGBTQ+ experience huge disparities in income, health, housing, and more. According to one UCLA study, 22% of LGBTQ+ people are living in poverty, compared with 16% of cisgender straight people, and 9% of LGBTQ+ people above the age of 16 are unemployed. A striking 20% to 45% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ+.

LGBTQ+ people are also more likely to be uninsured and experience discrimination in health care, housing, and employment. In fact, one out of five LGBTQ+ people are enrolled in a social safety net program: According to the same data from UCLA, 27% of those who are gay, lesbian and bisexual use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), colloquially known as food stamps, compared with 20% of non-LGBQT+ respondents.

"It's estimated that 1.17 million LGBTQ-plus people between the ages of 18 and 64 are using Medicaid as their primary form of insurance," said Amira Hasenbush, an attorney who works with LGBT families on legal issues like name changes, surrogacy and adoption. "And for trans folks, there are 18 states and the District of Columbia that include gender affirming care and Medicaid."

These statistics are a big part of why LGBTQ+ advocates are concerned about participation in the 2020 Census. The data gathered determines political representation and funding for key social services for the next 10 years, among other things.

"The census is a way to be heard. It is having a voice in how federal money is spent on programs that are important to your community," said Beatriz Valenzuela, press secretary of Equality California, a statewide LGBTQ+ civil rights organization. "It is also having a voice in government representation, especially right now when so many marginalized communities, especially the LGBTQ+ community, seem to be under constant attack."

According to L.A. County officials, each person not counted in the decennial census represents an estimated loss of $2,000 per person each year. That's a $20,000 loss per person for schools, community programs, infrastructure, and hospitals over a decade.

With California home to the largest LGBTQ+ population in the country, the local stakes are particularly high.

"This isn't something that we can do next year," Valenzuela of Equality California said. "No, this will shape how money is spent and how our voices are heard in government for the next 10 years. We will not be able to do anything about it until 2030."

THE CENSUS QUESTIONS THAT WEREN'T

In spite of efforts to add one, this year's census still lacks questions directly asking about sexual orientation and gender identity. The 2020 Census, like most censuses of decades past, has just two boxes to check for "sex" on the census: male and female.

LGBTQ+ advocates have pushed for years to include sexual orientation and gender identity on the U.S. Census. Towards the end of the Obama administration, there was a moment it seemed like there would be a change. Seventy-eight members of Congress and four federal agencies petitioned the Census Bureau to include questions about sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Census Bureau was getting ready to begin a process of testing questions when, in 2017, the Trump administration effectively put an end to the process. Under Jeff Sessions' new leadership, the Department of Justice rescinded its review request, and the Census Bureau let it go.

One thing has changed though: This year's census includes an option for same-sex couples to identify either as spouses or unmarried partners. The 2010 Census included a question to identify a partner as husband/wife or unmarried partner. For 2020, the census has expanded this to allow people to identify partners as a "same-sex" or "opposite sex" husband/wife/spouse or unmarried partner.

According to UCLA's Williams Institute, however, only about 20% of LGBTQ+ people are living in cohabiting households, leaving the majority out of the count.

Some people who would not be visible in the data collected are people who are single, trans, bisexual and in a different sex relationship, or living in multigenerational or non-traditional households. For example, a same-sex couple might decide to live with one of their parents while they raise their kids. If the grandparent is the head of household who is filling out the census, she will indicate that she is living with her child and child-in-law, and not be able to mark the couple as same sex partners.

But it's at least something, advocates say. Now the trick is getting people to respond, no easy feat amid the pandemic and shortened time frame.

Even though the 2020 Census doesn't have ways for people to identify as LGBTQ+, advocates say it's important for people to be counted as part of their respective communities to get needed funding for services. Photo from march in defense of DACA in November 2019. (Courtesy of Equality California)

WHY THE NEED TO FILL IT OUT?

For those who do identify as same-sex spouses or unmarried partners, being counted is a big deal for services for those raising families. According to UCLA's Williams institute, 114,000 LGBTQ+ people are raising children under 18.

Amira Hasenbush, a lawyer who works with LGBTQ+ families around adoption, surrogacy and other alternative methods, says these parents are more likely to be raising children under challenging conditions.

"LGBT couples raising children are two times more likely to have a household income near the poverty threshold than different sex couples raising children," she says.

Many same-sex couples raising kids are also adoptive or foster parents. Same sex couples are far more likely to adopt than different sex couples. In fact, nearly a quarter of them are raising foster or adopted children.

Here is how census data matters to these families: Some $5.4 billion in federal spending goes into the foster care system every year. That money helps LGBTQ+ children in foster care, who are disproportionately represented in the system.

And $2.9 billion in federal funding a year goes to adoption programs, mainly to fund adoptions of children with special needs.

Even for people not living with a partner, being counted as part of one's respective community still makes a huge difference.

"You don't have to prove your queerness to get money. You can just be a low-income person or low-income parents and that is enough to get a lot of different benefits that you need," said Hasenbush.

She said that since most funding is not directly linked to sexual orientation or gender identity, being counted matters for funding any program that one might use: "And so while [tracking sexual orientation and gender identity] would certainly be able to explain a lot more about the lived experiences of LGBT people, for the time being, filling out the census still means you're counted."

The Source LGBT+Center doing outreach in person earlier this year, in February 2020. Noah Deeds (right) says that if not for the pandemic, they would have used in-person tactics to reach historically undercounted populations. (Courtesy of The Source LGBT+ Center)

OKAY, SO HOW DO I FILL OUT MY CENSUS FORM?

For the first time this year, people can fill out the census online. It includes nine questions about the head of household and seven questions about each additional household member.

The head of household will see a question about sex that has just two possible responses, "male" or "female." If you don't fill out all questions, your census form will still count, census officials have said. Advocates say that you can opt to skip this question. You should know however, that the U.S. Census Bureau may cross-check databases to fill in the blanks for you.

It's also worth noting that for this and all other data on the census, it is against the law for the U.S. Census Bureau to share identifying information with any other agency.

For same-sex couples who are living together, when describing other members of your household, you will be able to indicate their relationship to you. You are able to mark your partner as a same-sex husband/wife/spouse or unmarried partner. If you have or are caring for any children, you can also indicate them as biological, adopted, or foster children.

With limited in-person options available, advocates have had to get creative with outreach. Latino Equality Alliance hosted an online townhall about the census in April 2020. (Courtesy of Latino Equality Alliance)

A RACE AGAINST TIME, WITH PANDEMIC AS BACKDROP

As the clock ticks down to the recently revised census end date on Sept. 30, advocates are working hard to get out the word about participation.

The pandemic took away the most effective ways that these groups have used to reach traditionally undercounted communities: in-person events and outreach. Community organizations that serve LGBTQ+ people have had to get creative.

Since April, The Source LGBT+ Center in Visalia has been organizing virtual census "happy hours" that have featured local organizations, artists, and community leaders. API Equality-LA, which serves LGBTQ+ Asian American and Pacific Islanders, transitioned early to text and phone banking and created PSAs and infographics for Instagram and other online platforms.

Latino Equality Alliance hosted an online townhall geared toward Southeast Los Angeles residents, including poetry and a drag performance, and the group has participated in caravans and mobile concerts in collaboration with the City of Huntington Park. In this last stretch, they are looking for volunteers for door-to-door outreach in high density areas.

Advocates say they expect response rates to be low, given the limited ability to reach people in person. But they say they will continue to push for participation until the end date, because the census is critically important — especially during a pandemic.

"Right now we're seeing full scale the importance of these services that we often take for granted. A lot of people are relying on public services right now for help," said Noah Deeds of The Source LGBT+ Center in Visalia.

"[Participating in the census] is not going to prevent anything like this happening," he said, "but it could make sure that our communities are a little bit better guarded for something like this in the future."