raise your hand

There’s No Perfect Way to Count America’s Queers. The Census Should’ve Done It Anyway

Thomas Pardee is the new gay columnist (or is that “columnist who is gay”?) for RedEye, the Chicago Tribune‘s free, youth-targeted daily. He’s 22 and, as his attack on the push to count America’s gays in the 2010 Census shows, has a lot of growing up to do.

The problem with an attempt to count America’s LGBTs, Pardee argues, is with NGLTF’s Queer the Census campaign, which encourages respondents to send their census form back to the government with one of its pink stickers (sorry, sold out) identifying thesmselves as gay or bi or straight or whatever — all in an effort to point out that despite endless requests, the Census still won’t ask Americans about their sexual orientation. Which means after spending $14 billion asking every person in the country their names, ages, marital statuses, and races, they lost a grand (and wholly inexpensive; just add another checkbox) opportunity to learn about America’s sexual orientation

“It would be an unprecedented new way to stand up and be counted, which many out-and-proud LGBT people are more than ready for,” says Pardee. “There’s just one problem: It’s completely unrealistic. Potentially detrimental, even. Oh, yeah–and it’s impossible. I’m proudly gay, and I relish any chance to self-identify as such, but people like me are not the problem with this proposition. It’s the untold millions of closeted non-heterosexual citizens and their self-denial that make this plan a no-go. Even if this box were to be added to the census, the numbers would never accurately represent how many LGBT people actually live in the United States. In the same way that many closeted politicians support anti-gay policies as another way to cover their glittery tracks, I can imagine millions of quiet queens would leap at the chance to make their self-loathing official with a macho swish of the pen on the ‘straight’ box.”

Except: It wouldn’t really be the “queens” keeping their sexuality at a secret (although some certainly would), but the heads of the household, whom complete the census forms for their families, and might not know or care to share the non-heterosexuality of the other people in their house. (Yes, we are basically saying dad is not going to check “gay” for his gay son, or mark his daughter “trans.”)

“At best,” Pardee continues, “this would yield much smaller numbers than are representative of our community. How exactly is that helpful?”

It’s helpful because, as it stands, the U.S. government has no official count of Ameriqua. And it needs one. Congressman need to know there are gay families in their districts whose rights need protecting. Medicare needs to know where to devote LGBT-specific health services. Even the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board could use the data to better market gay destinations to foreigners. Census data gets analyzed, repackaged, and utilized in millions of ways, and having at least a sample of how many queers there are would be useful. (The video above, from NYC.gov/NYU Journalism, portrays how actual people are affected by this data.)

Moreover, while we agree the Census wouldn’t deliver an absolutely accurate count of LGBTs — because of whatever aversions to identify the gays in the house — it would deliver representative data. That is, while you might expect Alabama to be a less gay-friendly place than Vermont, we’re sure statisticians and demographers will tell you that when collected in aggregate, roughly the same percentage of people from across the country will refuse to answer honestly. Which means the Census may report back that only 5 percent of America is gay, when it’s really 8 percent — but the gays will be under-counted by the same ratio across the country. And that data still remains useful. And powerful.

So what’s Pardee’s alternative? He doesn’t have one, because he doesn’t think America’s sexuality should be tallied up. “It’s not particularly helpful, it has a high margin of error, and the potential for the data to be misconstrued or manipulated against LGBT causes outweighs any obvious benefit.” He is wrong, for the same reason collecting data on America’s racial make-up, while apt to be “misconstrued or manipulated,” is still vital.

EARLIER:
Gays Free to Answer 2010 Census’ Relationship Questions Any Way They Want
Making Sense of the Cenus: What’s On There For You Homogays