Many LGBT Americans are outraged that the 2020 census won’t ask Americans if they’re gay. Of course, it never has – America’s decennial survey is silent on sexual orientation and gender identity. But census officials recently considered and dismissed adding such questions. The controversy is a good opportunity to question why the government should care about identity in the first place. It’s time to literally stop asking Americans to check boxes about themselves.
After a history of invisibility, gay groups were understandably eager for official statistics about our numbers. But counting queers is not simple. For example, how does the government determine gender identity? “Are you transgender or cisgender?” wouldn’t work because few Americans are familiar with such terms. If the census asked instead, “what gender do you identify with?,” virtually everyone (including trans people) would give the same answer they did for sex. Besides, who counts as trans? Certainly more than just people who have had surgery. But what about people who have never disclosed their sense of being trapped in the wrong body? Should the census force them to decide between coming out for the first time, and to a stranger – or lying to the government (a federal offense)?
Sexual orientation is similarly complicated, and really none of anyone’s business. I know a lesbian woman whose long-standing partner now identifies as male. Has she become straight? Certain men sometimes identify as gay, and other times as bisexual, depending on who’s asking and why. Here’s a complicated one: three friends of mine who present themselves as straight men have confided in me that the women who attract them most are transgender. What sexual orientation should they provide the census? If each of them gives a different answer, what use is the data?
The same problem arises with race, and will only get more complex as more Americans fall in love and have children cross-racially. Many advocates in a change to the 2000 census that allowed people to identify as more than one race were specifically interested in higher minority numbers. What good are questions designed with a political outcome in mind?