You may know that the federal government plans to count everybody in America in this year, but the once-a-decade Census has changed to more accurately count LGBT families in 2010, and that’s a good thing.
GayPolitics sat down with two people deeply involved in making sure the LGBT community understands what has changed and why it’s important that our community participates as fully as possible.
Che Ruddell-Tabisola is the manager for National LGBT Partnerships and coordinator of Our Families Count, a new effort by the U.S. Census Bureau to engage the LGBT community. Bob Witeck is CEO and co-founder of Witeck-Combs Communications. He is serving as media coordinator for Our Families Count and is working with Che to promote the effort nationwide.
GP: How did you get involved in promoting the Census to the LGBT community?
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. Being counted really matters.
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.
I recall that approaching 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.
Starting Our Families Count in 2009 as a national collaborative, voluntary public education campaign to support the 2010 U.S. Census seemed to be the natural next step for us all.
Bob Witeck: In 2009, by launching “Our Families Count,” it’s fair to say this is the largest such public education initiative (apart from lobbying and electoral campaigns) attempted across the LGBT community. On the web, the campaign is found at www.ourfamiliescount.org.
It is very inspiring to take part in a more strategic relationship with the U.S. Census. Our campaign now includes more than 150 nonprofit, academic and business relationships, and is truly a diverse, national network. Che first became involved while still working at the Human Rights Campaign, and I began by volunteering pro bono communications support. Today we both are working directly with the U.S. Census and its LGBT outreach professionals too.
This is truly a unique private-public partnership and we are 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.
GP: How is the Census different this year from the 2000 Census? And more specifically, how is it different for the LGBT community?
Che Ruddell-Tabisola: 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.
What many households will discover is that this year’s census is simple for all to answer. What is different for the LGBT community, however, is that the Census will count same-sex couples as we define ourselves – whether as unmarried, same-sex adult partners (as in 2000), or as married same-sex husbands or wives. That choice is left to the same-sex couple to make on their form.
This year’s form is very simple and brief, and it 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 to explicitly designate a couple as united by civil union or a public domestic partner registry.
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.
GP: There are obviously still a lot of places where being open about your LGBT status is hard. Can you talk about privacy concerns and the Census?
Che Ruddell-Tabisola: For LGBT people, we have unique 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.
Confidential is the key word, and 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.
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.
Bob Witeck: 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. Common fears or misperceptions may exist about how the data will be used, whether it is shared with others or invades individual privacy. Our responsibility is to remind everyone that their privacy is respected and protected.
GP: Why should our community participate? What’s in it for us?
Che Ruddell-Tabisola: 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.
Bob Witeck: I will just add that Victory Fund allies and openly LGBT elected officials probably understand better than most why it is so important for everyone, including all LGBT people, to fill out their census form and mail it back. And don’t forget that past Census data has already provided us immense benefits and education. Using the 1990 Census data, expert demographers like Dr. Gary Gates at the Williams Institute, 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. Significantly, he also reported 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, through Dr. Gates and others at the Williams Institute, we learned even more 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 observed 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 learned 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 affirm that an estimated 65,000 LGBT people were serving in the military and there were perhaps 1 million LGBT veterans in the United States.
GP: When can we expect Census takers on our front porches?
Che Ruddell-Tabisola: The good news is that you can save a few tax dollars and the demands on many Census workers by simply mailing your Census form back after you fill it out. Starting in mid-March, all American households will receive the form in the mail.
Read it, fill it out completely, and mail it back to the U.S. Census. Ten questions, ten minutes, and it’s that simple. It’s a great way to do your part, and spend your precious time well.
Bob Witeck: In fact, Census takers will arrive in neighborhoods and homes starting only after April 1. If you mail your form back soon after you receive it, they will not knock on your door – since you’ve already completed your obligation. But if they do come to your door, please do ask for their proper U.S. Census identification, and be confident then that they are doing their job and protecting your privacy too.
If anyone else arrives at your door claiming to take Census questions, without proper identification, or if you receive Census questions by email – be confident these intrusions are not lawfully associated with the U.S. Census, and should be ignored or shunned. The official Census form arrives only in the U.S. mail or delivered by a properly identified U.S. Census representative, and if not returned by mail, then you may receive a visit from a census representative to complete the form and respect your privacy in all ways.
GP: How did it come about that the Census changed to accommodate LGBT families?
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 and you can pick up our outstanding LGBT toolkit and download our popular video, “We All Count” from our website at www.ourfamiliescount.org.
Bob Witeck: As part of his doctoral dissertation, our expert coalition ally, Dr. Gary Gates was a member of the first research team to analyze the 1990 Census data on same-sex couples and develop a demographic portrait of this understudied population.
While at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., Dr. Gates also began working closer with Census 2000 data and directly with Census experts to better understand same-sex couple households. In 2004, the Urban Institute first published a respected “mapping” of same-sex couple households in “The Gay & Lesbian Atlas,” co-authored by Gary Gates and Jason Ost. Regrettably the Census (and the Atlas) were not able to 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.
The U.S. 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, and we hope in future Census data collection, to include questions on sexual orientation and transgender identity. We know that it requires Congress to seek such changes, and that can take some time – but we are encouraged by the progress made thus far to encourage full inclusion and visibility of the LGBT population.
For more information on this year’s Census, please visit: