No Small Victories

Census Data Erasures Threaten to Leave LGBTQ Community Invisible

by Terry Ao Minnis and Meghan Maury

For the LGBTQ community, October saw both a small victory in the retention of a sexual orientation question on a federal survey on messaging research and a celebration of National Coming Out Day. Both efforts increase visibility for this growing community. Not only is visibility in part a crucial issue for the LGBTQ community, it has also been long used as a political tactic. Both the victory and celebration are important at a time when previously hard-fought victories for equal rights are being rolled back and the community risks being made invisible again.

We have seen attempts by this administration to erase data collection on the LGBTQ community by removing questions about sexual orientation from surveys by federal agencies:

While the Census Bureau had not previously asked these questions on its surveys, the growing need to collect such data became apparent after requests from more than 75 members of Congress, multiple federal agencies, and LGBTQ advocates. The Census Bureau missed an important opportunity to not only collect more information about this growing community but to also encourage participation from the community to ensure an accurate count in the upcoming decennial census.

These erasures only further exacerbate the potential for the LGBTQ people to be missed in the upcoming decennial census. LGBTQ people are largely within the majority of the groups that the Census has historically undercounted. For instance:

  • Non-white racial and ethnic groups are more likely to identify as LGBTQ, and LGBTQ immigrants are slightly more likely to be undocumented.
  • LGBTQ people, especially women, bisexual people, and transgender people, are more likely to live in poverty.
  • 40% of young people experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ.
  • Young people are much more likely to identify as LGBTQ, and that number has been increasing with every successive generation.

Although LGBTQ people are more concentrated in urban areas, same-sex couples live in every Congressional district in the country. LGBTQ people who live at the intersections of multiple marginalized identities (i.e., lesbian and black, transgender and undocumented), experience exponentially higher rates of poverty, homelessness, and involvement in the criminal justice system. LGBTQ people are also difficult to count because the Census does not ask questions about sexual orientation or gender identity. Additionally, historical misuse by the federal government of sexual orientation and gender identity information, coupled with an increase in anti-LGBTQ hate violence, can lead community members to fear representing themselves on a federal survey.

Further complicating the issue for LGBTQ Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) is the historic undercount of the AAPI community generally and the pervasive stereotype of the “model minority” myth.

As the nation’s fastest growing and most diverse racial groups, AAPIs face a potential undercount for a number of reasons. AAPIs are a highly immigrant population, with 67% of Asian Americans and 21% of Pacific Islanders born outside of the U.S., compared to 4% of the White population. Immigrant communities have been undercounted for a number of reasons, including lack of awareness about the census, language barriers, and fears of engaging with the government. Undocumented immigrants, legal permanent residents, and even citizens who live in households where family members have varying immigration status, are likely to be discouraged from answering the census in this current anti-immigrant climate.

Lack of English proficiency is another major barrier to participation in the census for AAPIs, with 35% of Asian Americans and 14% of Pacific Islanders being limited English proficient, compared to 2% of Whites. Finally, detailed data reveals an array of incomes, poverty rates, and levels of educational attainment for subgroups that can impact an accurate count of the community. For example, while only 6% of Filipino Americans and 5% of Fijians nationwide live below the poverty line, approximately 26% of Hmong Americans and 49% of Marshallese are poor.

Failing to recognize critical differences and priorities between AAPI subgroups has been used to excuse the lack of government resources and philanthropic investments in our communities. Proper data collection is needed to combat this troubling stereotype and to ensure the proper resources in the upcoming census are allocated accurately for everyone.

Misconceptions about AAPI and LGBTQ communities have an even more acute impact on people living at the intersection of both of these identities. In reality, LGBTQ AAPI people are among the most in need of services and supports. For example, in 2015, of the estimated 325,000 LGBTQ AAPI adults in the U.S., approximately 11% are unemployed, compared to a national unemployment rate of 5.5%; LGBTQ AAPI individuals are twice as likely to be uninsured as their straight counterparts (29% versus 13 %).

Without proper data collection, these struggles will remain hidden and the needs of the community will continue to be unmet without proper data collection and reporting.

This is unacceptable from a personal or policy perspective. We must remain ever vigilant and continue to fight for the small victories to ultimately win the war.

Terry Ao Minnis is the Director of Census and Voting Programs at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC and Meghan Maury is the Policy Director of the National LGBTQ Task Force.

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