Counted Out: The Willful Ignorance of Excluding LGBT Americans from the US Census

Originally published to Chosen Magazine on April 19, 2018.

By Evan Brechtel

The adage is trite, but there really is strength in numbers. Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay official elected to public office, knew this in 1978 when he implored queer people of the nation to come out and, in turn, “break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake.” Milk knew that once the straight majority saw LGBT people as their siblings and their friends and their co-workers and others, the “sin” of queerness would no longer be a shrouded, insidious menace, but a quality shared by scores of admirable people.

While LGBTQ people have, to varying degrees, achieved increased visibility and more readily available information in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, the decennial census will continue to fail us. While the census has included an “unmarried partner” option for couples regardless of gender since 1990, and will include “unmarried same-sex partner” and “married same-sex partner” options beginning in 2020, this is not so much progress in itself as it is a result of same-sex unions now being federally recognized. Despite requests from the Obama-era Justice Department, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services pleading for census questions covering sexuality and gender in order to better do their jobs, the current administration has deemed that no more information is needed. The 2020 census will not count single lesbians, gays, or bisexuals, nor will it begin to account for trans and gender nonconforming Americans of any relationship status. The United States government is keeping us in the closet by maintaining ignorance to better shirk the responsibility of creating a safer America for its queer inhabitants.

Other than the misallocation of funds and resources that this continued exclusion allows, it severely hinders our influence in a legislative arena. Historically, mapping our numbers and collecting data has led to increased mobilization and greater hope for a future over the rainbow, however these studies have nearly all operated under limited resources and less-than-ideal sample sizes. The most famous of these was undoubtedly the Kinsey study.

Primarily a zoologist, Alfred Kinsey noticed that the moral vigilance of post-WWII America had delayed the advancement of reproductive research and denied many Americans knowledge of their own sexuality. Through thousands of anonymous interviews with people of all ages, Kinsey charted American sexuality with a frankness and scientific sterility that would eventually legitimize sexology as a study. When the first volume of findings, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, was released, Americans began to realize that their darkest desires and basest fetishes were actually not so out of the ordinary. This was especially true for gay people. Among Kinsey’s most incendiary findings was the report that thirty-seven percent of American males had had at least one homosexual experience leading to orgasm. For twenty-five percent of those men, the experiences were “more than incidental” over a period of three years. The common (and debatable) figure of “around ten percent” of Americans having same-sex attractions comes from averaging the seven percent of women and thirteen percent of men who were found by Kinsey to be “predominantly homosexual.”

While in-depth research is more accessible to scientists and scholars today, the Kinsey reports told gays and lesbians that there were swathes of others like them. For the first time in centuries, society began to question if same-sex attraction was indeed as abnormal as they’d been taught. Kinsey’s studies were the early rumblings of what would form the sexual revolution and the Gay Liberation Front of the 1960’s nearly a decade later. “Homosexuality was thought to be a very rare phenomenon. There was nothing in the literature that concerned well-functioning gay males,” said Dr. Evelyn Hooker. “Kinsey gave great hope. They were not a tiny minority but actually a very sizable proportion of the population.”

Hooker would go on to do groundbreaking research of her own. The psychologist began attending meetings of early gay rights organization The Mattachine Society at the urging of her friends who were members. Because the society was constantly under scrutiny by the House Un-American Activities Committee (with undercover FBI agents infiltrating several Mattachine chapters), members were highly selective with their trust. Yet at members’ invitations, Dr. Hooker began attending more meetings and collecting data from her friends in Mattachine. In an effort to advance her studies, she applied for a grant with the National Institute of Mental Health to study the mental states of gay men. With McCarthyism in full swing and thousands of outed gay and lesbian federal employees losing their jobs, Hooker was amazed to find that the Institute accepted her grant.

What resulted was a revelatory study of the psyches of gay men. Using thirty self-identified homosexuals and thirty heterosexual men, Dr. Hooker and her team performed psychological tests and presented them to other psychologists to see if they could discern from the tests alone who was gay and who was straight. They couldn’t. Though the men in her field leapt to discredit her when the findings were published, Hooker paved the way in proving that homosexuality is not a mental disorder. The United States government was actively contributing to the persecution of queer people, but the Institute of Health’s grant nonetheless endowed the study with greater credibility and more expansive resources.

This is why the government counting us is an imperative step in the forming of comprehensive policies and safer conditions for queer Americans. By failing to account for the vast majority of LGBTQ people, the ruling body maintains a level of plausible deniability, allowing lawmakers to dismiss identities like nonbinary genders as absurd—sentiments their constituents often parrot. In the case of the Kinsey Report, gay men and lesbians could begin visualizing just how vast the homosexual population in America was. A census that is comprehensive in regards to gender could, like Kinsey’s findings, reveal a greater ubiquity of identities that don’t subscribe to binary or anatomical constraints, potentially creating a situation in which the current administration would have to contradict its own data in order to “reasonably” maintain this ongoing subjugation.

Queer people are constantly made to defend the validity of our own existences, and we’re damn good at it. Since the 2010 census alone, we’ve seen the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, we’ve seen the first openly transgender woman (Amanda Simpson) appointed to a government post by a U.S. president, the first national monument dedicated to LGBTQ people (Stonewall), a transgender woman (Laverne Cox) on the cover of Time magazine, and, of course, nationwide marriage equality. The advancements forged by LGBTQ people in the last decade have completely transformed the political and societal approach to sexuality and gender. An administration that refuses to recalibrate to these developments with such fundamental means as the self-identification of its own citizens is choosing the comfort of ineptitude over the health and safety of its people. That is an abomination.

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