On 1 April 2020, against the backdrop of an international public health emergency, the United States of America conducted its 24th national census — one of the largest data collection exercises in history.
The US census did not ask a question about sexual orientation but it did frame queer identities in a way that endorses a potentially dangerous precedent for future data collection exercises.
The census — which is conducted every ten years — asked only nine questions per respondent, with questions about the identity characteristics of sex, age and race. Data collected by the census is used to determine the allocation of federal funding to states and communities, as well as the distribution of seats per state in Congress.
Although the census did not explicitly ask about sexual orientation, queer identities were not fully absent from the 2020 census. Each respondent was asked how they relate to others in the household, with the question: ‘How is this person related to Person X?’ and presented with options that included ‘Same-sex husband/wife/spouse’ and ‘Same-sex unmarried partner’.
This meant that queer couples, whether married or unmarried, could register their existence in this national data collection exercise. Furthermore, the inclusion of the non-gendered terms ‘spouse’ and ‘partner’ might suggest some acknowledgement of identities and relationships that sit beyond the male/female binary (although this is contradicted by use of the term ‘same-sex’).
In the eyes of the state, who is considered a legitimate subject of being counted?
This falls short of what was initially mooted. Until the election of Donald Trump, the US Census Bureau had planned to add a question to the census on sexual orientation. This proposal was dropped and the Trump administration has subsequently attempted to remove questions about sexual orientation from other federal surveys, including the National Survey of Older Americans Act Participants and research undertaken by the Department for Housing and Urban Development (Loewy, 2017).
Although some might see the inclusion of same-sex partnerships as a small victory, this proxy measure for sexual orientation evokes the ugly question: in the eyes of the state, who is considered a legitimate subject of being counted? The glaze of respectability that might come with ‘same-sex partnerships’ has granted some queer people the privilege of being counted. Yet, a data collection exercise that counts some at the expense of all seems antithetical to a queer political project where ‘respectability’ is a pre-requisite for being counted and queer people play by the arbitrary rules written by a non-queer majority.
Lessons from the US census
The US is not unique in this regard. In their study of large-scale surveys in Europe that captured data on LGBTIQ people, Karin Schönpflug et al found that only the UK’s national Household Survey explicitly asked about respondents’ sexual identity (Schönpflug et al, 2018). All other surveys reviewed either omitted any reference to sexual orientation or, when mentioned at all, appeared via proxy measures about relationship status (for example, legal couple status or cohabitation as a couple).
These critiques are timely as we are now less than a year away from the UK censuses being conducted on 21 March 2021. Unlike the US census, UK censuses will — for the first time — ask explicitly about respondents’ sexual orientation. In Scotland, the census question is likely to be ‘Which of the following best describes your sexual orientation?’
Although the addition of this question to the census did not face much opposition, particular challenges emerged around the list of response options provided and the ‘Other sexual orientation, please write in’ box. In Scotland, for example, a small number of politicians (none of whom, as far is known, identify as queer) criticised proposals from the National Records of Scotland, the organisation responsible for delivery of the census, to offer more than a narrow list of sexual orientations in Scotland’s 2021 census.
Data from the US census will present a skewed account of the country’s queer population. Any attempt at quantification, using the proxy measure of same-sex partnerships, will under-count the number of queer people in the US and present a false account of queer diversity. Just like other identity characteristics, such as race and disability, measuring sexual orientation is complex as it cuts across inter-related ideas of attraction, behaviour and identity. There is also the challenge that even when the same words or terms are used in a question, these can be understood differently by the person answering the question.
The US census, however, presents an important lesson for future data collection exercises: even when working with quantitative data, we must oppose pressure to airbrush the realities of how identities are lived and experienced. This is particularly true when we face opposition from people who only speak from the standpoint of the heteronormative majority yet seek to police what queer identities are worthy of being counted. Even among queer people, who might enjoy the privilege of being counted, we must ensure we do not pull the ladder up behind us and refuse to settle for an approach to data collection that counts some of us at the expense of all of us.